Our guide to the best Shakespeare film adaptations of all time, from Hamlet to Macbeth

Akiya Henry, Danny Sapani and Faith Omole in King Lear (Marc Brenner)
Akiya Henry, Danny Sapani and Faith Omole in King Lear (Marc Brenner)

William Shakespeare continues to inspire more than 400 years after his death.

His plays have endured, and remain a source of inspiration for Hollywood: a loose adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, Anyone But You, (starring Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell) was released in December, while Al Pacino is set to star in a King Lear adaptation, Lear Rex, opposite Jessica Chastain.

Here is our pick of some of the other fantastic reimaginations of his work, ahead of Shakespeare Week, which begins on March 18.

Hamlet (1948)

Master thespian Laurence Olivier delivers a predictably superb performance in the classic 1948 film Hamlet, which remains one of the most revered Shakespeare film adaptations of all time. Olivier is in imperious form throughout the movie, and his version informed every subsequent performance of the prodigious role.

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, with the star-crossed lovers at the centre of the film escalating tensions between the white and Puerto Rican groups. Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s soundtrack is timeless too, featuring numbers like Somewhere, America and Maria.

The Lion King (1994)

The 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? A kids' classic, with an exquisite score from Hans Zimmer, we still haven’t really ever moved past Mufasa’s death.

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Baz Luhrmann brings his signature cinematic flair to this fresh adaptation of arguably 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 or compromise on the integrity of the original play, the film had the confidence to stick to Shakespeare’s dialogue, celebrating the wonder of the text.

Hamlet (1996)

With a hefty running time of 4 hours and 20 minutes, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet might not be the most accessible film adaptation, but it’s one of the most faithful film versions of a Shakespeare play in recent times. Branagh leads an incredible cast, with Kate Winslet, Judi Dench, Robin Williams, Jack Lemmon, Timothy Spall and Derek Jacobi among the players. Ken Dodd, who sadly passed away at the age of 90 in 2018, appears as Yorick.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

Few may have realised when this cherished romcom came out in 1999, but 10 Things I Hate About You is 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, offering one of the most memorable on-screen romances of the decade.

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.

Macbeth (2015)

This stylish and visually arresting film from director Justin Kurzel became one of the most high-profile Shakespeare adaptations of recent times when it was released in 2016. 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 throughout this formidable adaptation.