From Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth to Orson Welles & Joss Whedon: Directors Love the Bard
Finally ready to meet U.S. audiences is Justin Kurzel’s brutal Macbeth, a modern perspective on the Scottish play starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in two of their most visceral and intense roles to date. It opens today, December 4, and as we've written, it's one of the most impressive Shakespeare adaptations in ages. (You can also read our interview with the film's producer, Iain Canning, here.) Though Macbeth is only Kurzel’s second film after his merciless The Snowtown Murders, themes of human corruption, PTSD and dark aesthetic sensibilities run throughout both films, marking Kurzel as Australia's newest budding auteur.
And while Shakespeare initially meant his work for the stage, adapting his work for film has become a rich tradition in its own right. To prepare yourself for the Kurzel’s audacious re-telling of one of the Bard’s greatest, and darkest, works, here are six other startling adaptations from some of cinema’s most beloved iconic directors, including some auteurs that no doubt inspired the filmmaker.
Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight
For qualifying as one of Welles’ favorite projects, Chimes at Midnight is curiously one of his most underseen. A loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s history plays condensing elements from Henry IV, Henry V and Richard III, Chimes at Midnight is sharp and affecting, seamlessly transitioning from storied history to brutal tragedy. Ringing in as some of Welles’ finest work, the film has historically been difficult to see, but its recent restoration will hopefully allow new audiences to glimpse Welles’ finest Shakespeare tribute.
Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well
Though Kurosawa eventually became well-known for his creative Shakespeare riffs with films like Ran and Throne of Blood, his first Shakespeare adaptation was an understated re-telling of Hamlet. Not only introducing Kurosawa as an incredibly versatile director, The Bad Sleep Well was one of the first fractured Bard tales, tweaking characters and plot points while retaining the meat of the play. Placing the familiar Hamlet framework in a bleak and caustic look at corporate corruption in post-war Japan, Kurosawa’s often hilarious but ultimately soul-sucking portrayal of office life proved the delicate auteur was unafraid to delve into the darkness of human greed.
Roman Polanski’s Macbeth
Made in the shadow of Sharon Tate’s murder three years before, Polanski’s follow-up to his vicious Rosemary’s Baby was an equally pulpy adaptation of the already violent play, recalling not just his wife’s brutal killing but his experiences as a child in the midst of WWII. An effective and surprisingly brutal adaptation in the vein of Kurzel’s newest, Polanski’s oft-overlooked adaptation is a worthwhile rendition on a haunting old tune.
Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear
It’s fitting that a film hastily committed to contract on a table napkin would be one of Godard’s most bonkers films, but his ridiculous King Lear has gone largely unseen in the years since its release. While the late-career adaptation can’t quite be considered a best, Godard’s film is largely notable for its sheer strangeness. Starring Woody Allen, Leos Carax, Julie Delpy and Godard himself, this strangely wrought adaptation sees Peter Sellers appearing as one of the Bard’s descendants (William Shakespeare Jr. the 5th), and though Godard never reads beyond the third page of the original play, his film is an effectually absurd and an interesting rumination on art and classic literature, serving up strange cameos and nihilistic musings aplenty.
Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet
Standing unmistakably as the best early example of Luhrmann’s now-characteristically gilded and ambitious aesthetic is Romeo + Juliet, a charged up youth-driven retelling of the play, preserving the original text but trading swords for guns and rival families for rival gangs. Owing much to West Side Story, Luhrmann creates a luscious, metropolitan Verona that looks like a modern day Rio, pitting one beautifully styled street gang against another. A relatively sexed-up adaptation considering the young age of both of the stars, Luhrmann’s appropriately stylish and convincing rendition on a classic stands as a shining example of what can happen when Luhrmann’s vision is given room to breathe.
Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing
Though it’s potentially a stretch to call this Marvel inductee an “auteur,” it’s hard to argue with Whedon’s indelible witty mark on American television and film in the last 20 years. First re-writing Pixar’s Toy Story before moving to TV with Buffy, Firefly and Angel, Whedon has continued to craft his iconic quippy humor in both mediums. Committed to producing smaller personal projects even in the midst of Marvel demands, Whedon adapted the beloved Much Ado About Nothing in 12-days at his Santa Monica home during The Avengers shoot. Working from abridged but otherwise intact original dialogue, Whedon’s intimate black and white retelling features some of his closest collaborators including Alexis Denisof and Nathan Fillion. Speaking to Whedon’s strength as a writer/director, the faithful film crackles with unmistakable Whedon wit, even when his own words are absent.