The 10 Best Movies Based on Shakespeare's Hamlet, Ranked by IMDb Rating
"To adapt, or not to adapt... that is the question."
As one of Shakespeare's most famous plays, Hamlet stands alongside plays such as Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet. It's an epic, violent tragedy that takes many hours to unfold, thanks to a cast of riveting characters all involved in a story of family conflict, betrayal, and death (hence, so much death).
Its popularity also means that it has more film adaptations than most Shakespeare plays. Here are 10 of the most notable films that either adapted Hamlet or had plots inspired by the iconic theatrical narrative. They have a lower average rating than them on IMDb, and together demonstrate the applicability of Hamlet's story to a variety of genres, historical periods, and cultures.
'Hamlet' (2000) - 5.9/10
Ironically, this adaptation of Hamlet was intended to update the story to a modern-day New York City setting, yet because it is so explicitly set at the turn of the millennium, it ends up being a bigger hit than most Centuries of adaptation works more "aged" ago. In the movie's defense, the people behind it probably don't know how quickly technology advances, and how quickly Blockbuster becomes obsolete (in the movie, it's Hamlet has his "To be or not to be" monologue there).
In hindsight, it was an accidental period piece, but at least as far as the adaptation goes it stands out. For anyone who likes the late 90s/early 2000s aesthetic and/or Ethan Hawke, this might be an iconic drama worth watching.
'The Banquet' (2006) - 6.4/10
The Banquet is a Chinese film that loosely adapts Hamlet to a historical setting, also with a touch of fantasy. The story here, set over 1,000 years ago, kicks off with the actions of a murderous uncle, but eventually develops into an extensive (and violent) feast where characters clash.
The plot may be familiar to those familiar with Hamlet, but the fact that The Banquet incorporates martial arts into it makes it unique, as it cannot be fully done on stage. Overall, this is a solid addition to the ever-growing list of Hamlet films, and it manages to add something new to the mix.
'Hamlet' (1990) - 6.7/10
Hamlet (1990) is best known for featuring Mel Gibson as the Danish prince, but can also be singled out for the protagonist's terrible haircut. Otherwise, it sorts Blend in with the crowd when it comes to adaptations of Hamlet, see it play out directly when adapting the original text, and forego adding any genre other than basic "drama".
This is a far cry from director Franco Zeffirelli's first Shakespeare adaptation, as he directed The Taming of the Shrew in 1967 and Romeo and Juliet in 1968. Shakespeare's play, even if Zeffirelli's Hamlet is still considered decent, it's no match for 1968's Romeo and Juliet.
'The Northman' (2022) - 7.1/10
If there's one thing Northerners does particularly well, it's that it highlights the cyclical nature of retaliation, and how violence can continue to fuel more violence until there's no one left to do so. Speaking of violence: this movie has a lot of it.
Interestingly, The Northerner may not be an exact adaptation of Hamlet, as it is based on the Scandinavian saga of Amlaith, which itself inspired Hamlet. However, given that "Hamlet" ultimately overshadowed its predecessor, "Northern" ends up feeling like another take on that familiar tale, one that luckily contains a few surprises For those who think they know the original well (plus a lot more action than most Hamlet movies).
'Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead' (1990) - 7.3/10
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reconstructed Hamlet, focusing on two secondary characters who tend to be omitted in most film adaptations. Those two characters are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and they spend most of the film engaging in philosophical conversations about their existence and lack of purpose in life in a very meta way.
This is a strange movie, and its sense of humor is not for everyone. Also, despite the clever premise, the whole thing is one-note and repetitive considering the nearly two-hour run time. At least it's unique, and certainly entertaining in some ways, and benefits greatly from the titular roles of Tim Roth and Gary Oldman.
'Hamlet' (1948) - 7.6/10
1948's Hamlet is the only direct Shakespeare adaptation to win Best Picture. Sure, West Side Story (1961) also won the top Academy Award, but that was based on a musical that thoroughly modernized Romeo and Juliet. While Shakespeare in Love (loosely) from 1998 is about the man himself, it is not an adaptation of one of his works drama.
Essentially, this rendition of Hamlet is direct, simple, and very effective. It whittles down the script to a still pretty epic 2.5 hours, and shows Laurence Olivier at his peak as an actor and director. It may not stand out 75 years later, but it was certainly an impressive film at the time.
'Hamlet' (1996) - 7.8/10
Kenneth Branagh's 1996 adaptation of Hamlet is easily the longest at just over four hours. Given that this release is known for adapting entire shows for the big screen, it's difficult to extend the adaptation without adding material.
This resulted in the film being perhaps too long and exhausting for some viewers, but the epic scale achieved by such an ambitious adaptation of the show is undeniable. For the Shakespearean purists out there, this is quite possibly one of the best films based on one of his works, because it leaves nothing on the cutting room floor.
'The Bad Sleep Well' (1960) - 8.0/10
The Bad Sleep Well is one of many underrated Kurosawa films, buried under more popular films such as Seven Samurai, Ran and Yojimbo. As far as adaptations go, it's pretty loose and doesn't have as much in common with the source material as Akira Kurosawa's 1957 adaptation of Macbeth (Throne of Blood).
It takes things to mid-20th-century Japan and tells the story of a young man who seeks revenge on a powerful industrialist he believes is responsible for his father's death. Both Hamlet and Sleep Well explore murder, madness, and human corruption, and the film does a good job of capturing the spirit of the source material, even if many aspects of the plot itself are vastly different.
'Haider' (2014) - 8.0/10
Haider is an Indian film based on the story of Hamlet, set in Kashmir in the 1990s. At 160 minutes, it's one of the longest Hamlet adaptations out there, and it's also one of the most explosive, unwilling to shy away from the violent consequences of seeking revenge after the protagonist's father dies under mysterious circumstances.
Despite being one of the most recent adaptations of Hamlet, it already ranks among the highest rated, with an 8.0/10 on IMDb and an equally impressive 88% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes . Like the protagonist himself, nothing seems to stop Hamlet's ongoing rampage in popular culture.
'The Lion King' (1994) - 8.5/10
While the idea of making Hamlet a family-friendly Disney film might sound ridiculous on paper, it has gone on to become one of the most critically acclaimed animated films of all time. Yes, while The Lion King is far from a direct adaptation, it does tell about the protagonist's father being murdered by a treacherous uncle, and the protagonist then sets out to avenge the killing and right the injustice committed.
Thankfully, the protagonist Simba's ending is much better than the usual ending for characters based on Hamlet. Even if that means The Lion King isn't as dark as most versions of Hamlet, at the same time most Disney animated films aren't quite as dark as The Lion King.