Our pick of the best Shakespeare film adaptations of all time, from The Lion King to West Side Story

Leonardo DiCapro is Romeo and Claire Danes is Juliet in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (20th Century Fox)
Leonardo DiCapro is Romeo and Claire Danes is Juliet in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (20th Century Fox)

It’s a testament to the quality of Shakespeare’s stories that more than 400 years after they were written, they’re still being adapted for film.

Hollywood has returned to the Bard for inspiration time and again, from the earliest days of movie making through to today’s contemporary offerings. There have been loyal adaptations that have stuck rigidly to Shakespeare’s prose, films that have transported his words to new times and places, and movies that have been subtly inspired by Shakespeare’s works.

To mark Shakespeare’s 460th birthday tomorrow, here is our pick of the best Shakespeare film adaptations of all time.

Macbeth (2015)

This stylish and visually arresting film from director Justin Kurzel became one of the most high-profile Shakespeare adaptations of recent years. While critics weren’t entirely convinced by the movie, it certainly didn’t disappoint in terms of spectacle. Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender are a dream pairing and both give intense performances. The concluding combat scene, which plays out to Jed Kurzel’s captivating score, is one for the books.

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Baz Luhrmann brought his signature cinematic flair to this fresh adaptation of Shakespeare’s most famous play. Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio star as the doomed lovers in the story, which is relocated to modern day ‘Verona Beach’ (in real life, Mexico City). Rather than talk down to its audience and try to massively update the tragedy’s script, the film had the confidence to stick with Shakespeare’s original words (with a few tweaks). The contrast between the modern settings and the 1597 play’s dialogue makes for a real treat.

Hamlet (1996)

With a hefty running time of 4 hours and 20 minutes, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet might not be not the most accessible adaptation, but it’s one of the most faithful film versions of a Shakespeare play. Branagh leads an incredible cast, with Kate Winslet, Judi Dench, Robin Williams, Jack Lemmon, Timothy Spall and Derek Jacobi also starring.

The Lion King (1994)

While not specifically an adaptation of one of the Bard's works, Disney classic The Lion King draws heavily on the story of Hamlet. After his father dies in suspicious circumstances, young prince Simba must take back the throne from his conniving uncle – sound familiar? It’s a kids’ classic, and Mufasa’s death scene remains one of the most heart-wrenching moments Disney has ever put on screen.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

When this cherished romcom came out in 1999 few may have realised that the film was inspired by Shakespeare’s comedy The Taming of the Shrew. Heath Ledger gives one of the standout performances of his tragically short career alongside Julia Stiles; together they offer one of the most memorable on-screen romances of the Nineties.

West Side Story (1961)

The excellent Romeo and Juliet adaptation West Side Story moved the tragic romance to Fifties New York, shining a light on attitudes to immigration in the US. The Montagues and Capulets became rival gangs the Jets and the Sharks, while the lovers were caught up in the escalating tensions between the white and Puerto Rican communities living in the city. Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s soundtrack is timeless too, featuring numbers like Somewhere, America and Maria.

Hamlet (1948)

Master thespian Laurence Olivier delivers a stellar performance in this 1948 classic, which remains one of the most revered Shakespeare film adaptations of all time. Olivier, who also directed the film, is on top form throughout, and his performance became a reference point for many of the actors who subsequently played the leading role.

The Tempest (2010)

Helen Mirren stars alongside Felicity Jones, Ben Whishaw and Russell Brand in this 2010 film, which sees the gender of Mirren’s lead role Prospero switched and renamed Prospera. The acclaimed play, one of the last ever written by Shakespeare, is brought to life by director Julie Taymore, who also directed the hugely successful stage musical The Lion King. The film divided critics on release but is worth seeking out for its strong performances and remarkable visuals.