Shakespeare on film: He that plays the king... and director

Directing Shakespeare has proved irresistible for actors seeking a vehicle for their talents. Ralph Fiennes is just the latest
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The actor Ralph Fiennes makes his film-directing debut this month, with an adaptation of Shakespeare's Coriolanus. And he takes the title role, too. A brave move, you might think, but Fiennes is in august company. Since the birth of cinema, Shakespeare has proved an irresistible draw for actors. Whether it's a desire to immortalise their on-stage creations or to bring Shakespeare to "the people", to offer a grand new cinematic vision for a classic play or just the ultimate ego trip, it seems actors can't wait to tackle the Bard, in front of and behind the camera. Here, we look at the plays of Shakespeare that the world's greatest – and occasionally ill-advised – thespians have committed to celluloid.

Ralph Fiennes

Coriolanus (2012)

The latest addition – and another actor making their film-directing debut by adapting Shakespeare. Fiennes has boldly modernised Coriolanus, in which he also plays the war hero of the title. But at least there are no ghosts of egos past to contend with – it's the first major adaptation of the play, which Fiennes has called "an obsession" of his since he starred in it a decade ago. It's set in a contemporary war zone. His fellow actor Gerard Butler has neatly described it as "Shakespeare's Hurt Locker".

Herbert Beerbohm Tree

King John (1899)

The first ever Shakespeare committed to film was actually a brief advertisement for a stage play of King John, in which the great Victorian actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree was starring. Less a celebration of the Bard's potential on screen, more a promotional tool for the actor, the snippet was distributed under the modest title Beerbohm Tree: The Great English Actor. The only surviving fragment is a silent but histrionic death scene.

Laurence Olivier

Henry V (1944)

It was his directorial debut on film, but Olivier's Henry V – in which he also starred – became the first film adaptation of Shakespeare to achieve popular and critical success. The movie was also a salvo for the Brit spirit towards the end of the Second World War.

Orson Welles

Chimes at Midnight (1965)

Welles cherry-picked lines from Richard II, Henry IV (i) and (ii), Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor, to form a new story centred on Falstaff. Welles played the fat knight, but his artful rearranging also cast Falstaff as a tragic hero. "The more I studied the part," he said, "the less funny it seemed." Alas, due to legal wrangling, a high point in both Welles's oeuvre and filmed Shakespeare remains rarely seen.

Charlton Heston

Antony and Cleopatra (1972)

It was a long-held ambition of Heston's to film his favourite Shakespeare play – till he ended up editing, directing and starring in it. Filming was beset with calamity: a studio roof caved in; a gale hit during shooting; a ship sank. And casting Cleopatra was a "nightmare".

John Gielgud

Prospero's Books (1991)

After playing Prospero in The Tempest on stage several times, Gielgud harangued various directors to film it. Finally, Peter Greenaway agreed, writing the script specifically for him, with Gielgud voicing every character. Stuffed with naked bodies, it's either an evocative experiment in film art or an overripe, pretentious folly.

Ian McKellen

Richard III (1995)

Starring on stage in Richard Eyre's version, McKellen became determined to transfer it to film. He adapted the play, slashing much of the original but developing Eyre's inventive setting – an imaginary 1930s Fascist Britain. Starring again as the king, he declared his intent to "make a Shakespeare film that could be accessible to as wide an audience as possible."

Al Pacino

Looking for Richard (1996)

Another thespian demystifying Richard III, Al Pacino combines documentary footage exploring the play with low-budget stagings. With a hunchback-sized chip on his shoulder about being an American trying to "do Shakespeare", he mocks the featured British academics, while getting all Method and emotional with his fellow Americans.

Brian Blessed

King Lear (1999)

Blessed put his considerable weight behind this 190-minute film: he stars as Lear, as well as being a co-director with Tony Rotherham. Unlikely trivia: the DVD became a bestseller in Poundland last summer, shifting more than 12,000 copies in July.

Kenneth Branagh

Love's Labour's Lost (2000)

After hits with films of Hamlet and Henry V, Branagh erred with a re-imagining of Love's Labour's Lost as a 1939 Hollywood musical. Verse speaking, film acting, singing, and dancing were too much for the cast. He also tacked on a happy ending.