Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, and the Dilemma of Adapting Shakespeare

Shakespeare is the most screen-adapted writer of all time. And as far as cinematic adaptations go, 1948 was the best year.

Macbeth 1948 shakespeare movies
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William Shakespeare is, far and away, the most adapted author in all of cinema. Whether you’re a strict purist or if you think fuzzier fare like My Own Private Idaho should count, the Bard, quite simply, can’t be beat.

There are, quite literally, hundreds of cinematic Shakespeare adaptations to choose from. And yet there are two movies that tend to rise to the top: Laurence Olivier‘s Hamlet and Orson WellesMacbeth. Both movies premiered in 1948. Together, they epitomize one of the key dilemmas in adapting the Bard for the big screen. Namely: Do you use cinematic language to emulate the text as closely as possible, as Olivier does in Hamlet? Or do you capitalize on cinema’s difference from the stage to do something radically different, as with Welles’ Macbeth?

While Olivier’s Hamlet uses cinematic techniques to supplement the lyrical poetry of Shakespeare’s text, Welles’ film trades purity for freedom. Drawing from German Expressionism and working within a B-movie studio, Welles created something new while respecting the spirit (if not the text) of the story. As the video essay below explains, neither approach is necessarily better than the other. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating that Olivier’s introspection and Welles’ expressionism set the stage for how cinema handles Shakespeare to this day.

Watch “1948: Hamlet and Macbeth – How to adapt Shakespeare”:

Who made this?

This video is by One Hundred Years of Cinema, a video essay channel producing thoughtful deep dives on just that: a century of cinema. Each video in the series examines a different film from a different year, from the early experiments of the silent era to the tentpole franchises of today. You can subscribe to their YouTube channel here.

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