In 1899, the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company produced the world’s first stage-to-screen adaptation: King John by William Shakespeare. You have to wonder whether they knew the trend they were setting… Since the end of the 19th century, thousands of plays have been adapted for cinema—bringing the incredible art of theatre to a medium that was not only widely popular, but accessible. Even today, the best way to experience a lot of the best plays in the world is to view or stream them online. Cinema is more convenient and cheaper than theatre for the average audience member; however, this isn’t to say that theatrical adaptations on screen are inferior iterations, or works of art in their own right…
This article contains a list of the best film adaptations of stage plays. It explores some of the better known film adaptations, as well as more obscure choices that are often missing on other best-of lists. Whether you are an actor, or simply have a passion for great art/storytelling, these are films you simply have to see. A few of the titles might be known to you already—perhaps even favourites!—but we’re certain there will be others you might discover here for the very first time.
Before we get into things, allow us to ask for a little sympathy and understanding as we present the usual disclaimer: there are hundreds of incredible stage-to-screen adaptations out there … in fact, our original shortlist for this article was twice as long as the selection included below. What we have included are, as always, our personal choices here at StageMilk. If you disagree, or want to suggest a glaring omission, have at it in the comments section! It’s your internet-given right to do so and we applaud you for it.
#1 Hamlet (1948)
Sir Laurence Olivier’s adaptation of Hamlet (which he also directed) is so synonymous with filmed Shakespeare it almost feels like self parody—the Danish prince lounging about, fondling his dagger, while the waves crash below. Don’t write it off, though: it’s a sleek, bold adaptation that cuts the text almost in half, and it focuses on the tense psychological drama that has us returning to the titular sook year-in-year-out in theatres around the world.
As for Larry? His performance is incredible, in a way that lifts the text into a heightened realm without ever feeling too theatrical or overdone. Hamlet was the first sound film adaptation of the play in English, and the first British film to win an Academy Award. It is still very much worth your time to this day.
#2 A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Directed by Elia Kazan and starring Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire was an early example of the way Hollywood was going to evolve for the better in the post-war decades: influenced by theatre forms and practitioners, and destined to tell the stories of the common person struggling against the American dream. Both Brando and Kazan were early method acting acolytes, and brought this new focus on truth in drama to the silver screen in a way that still renders the film engaging and truthful. Impressive for a movie a better part of a century old.
This isn’t the first time we’ll encounter Tennessee Williams on this list—his brand of claustrophobic, character-focused psychodrama plays well within the intimacy of cinema. And yet, somehow, Streetcar manages to transcend the sometimes-problem of theatre adaptations feeling ‘stagey’. Williams’ characters feel epic, operatic, larger than life. And yet there’s never a hint of anything less than real.
#3 12 Angry Men (1957)
You can keep your car chases, special effects and big budgets. The 1954 adaptation of 12 Angry Men stands as one of the finest examples of how engaging work can be made from nothing more than a good script and a room of
old white men talking. 12 Angry Men removes the ‘courtroom’ from the courtroom drama and instead focuses on the thoughts, beliefs and prejudices of the twelve jurors determining the outcome of a murder trial. At the start of the play, just one juror believes the defendant’s innocence. As he calmly makes his case based on reason over passion, the brilliant drama of the film unfolds from there…
Here’s a fun fact for you: 12 Angry Men actually began its life as a made-for-television play, broadcast live by CBS in 1954. The original version is still available online and is worth a viewing, as are many other live drama titles from an era when great theatre was piped into your home like so many terrible Netflix Christmas movies.
#4 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
Another Tennessee Williams classic, this adaptation is widely regarded for its incredible cast and fairly faithful adaptation of the original smash-hit Broadway show (the film would be the third-highest grossing release for its studio in 1958.) While the film is a triumphant piece of cinema, it’s nonetheless tainted by changes made to Williams’ original script—namely its exploration of homosexuality and homophobia. Of course, the themes remain. Ironically, their muted presentation lends the film a brilliant subtlety that is otherwise absent in a play of Big Characters in a Big House chasing Big Money from Big Daddy.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is undeniably a masterpiece: a provocative work for a big studio to produce. American films of this kind would largely diminish in the decade that followed, not seen again until the sixties boiled over and Hollywood knew it would have to address the real world (we’re looking at you, Paint Your Wagon!) It may feel slightly dated to a contemporary audience, but understand this movie for its context and enjoy it for the subversive work of art that it is.
#5 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
It is perhaps no surprise that one of the finest plays of the 20th century become one of its finest films. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf has just four characters and a handful of locations—remaining faithful to the scale of the original stage work. And yet, it takes its audience on an incredible journey into the lives of the two couples that comprise its world, anchored by monumental performances (among them Liz Taylor, who gained a second Best Actor statue for her work).
Who’s Afraid… is one of only two films to have been nominated in every eligible category of the Academy Awards; every member of its cast was nominated for their acting. But its main enduring impact on cinema was that it paved the way for Hollywood to update (and eventually dismantle) the censorship of the Production Code. Forget Easy Rider: the rebellion of sixties and seventies cinema began right here.
#6 Rhinoceros (1974)
Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist comedy takes place in a world where people spontaneously turn into rhinoceroses. No other way to put it, really. As the numbers of rhinoceroses grow, the central characters begin to feel the pressure to confirm, change and leave humanism behind. It has long been seen as a statement against fascism and totalitarianism (especially in Ionesco’s native homeland of France, where the play was originally produced in 1959.)
Between 1973 and 1975, the American Film Theatre produced thirteen incredible films of stage adaptations: summaries of which could be an entire article in itself. In picking just one, it’s hard to go past Rhinoceros for its brilliant casting of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, whose comic sensibilities help heighten the absurdity of the story without losing any pathos. Wilder’s final monologue (above, spoilers) is as heartbreaking as any performance captured on film in the history of cinema.
#7 Woyzeck (1979)
Georg Büchner’s tale of a soldier driven to madness and murder is a famously postmodern, absurd and problematic text. The play was left unfinished—it actually contains a collection of scenes at the end that directors are instructed to either add, reorder or omit entirely. And despite the reprehensible gender politics of the plot, Woyzeck is a fairly popular work to reimagine and interrogate on stage even today.
The great Werner Herzog is behind this particular screen adaptation; it stars his deranged muse Klaus Kinski who barely seems to be acting. While the film feels quite conventional in watching (compared to other iterations of the text), it stands as an example of how groundbreaking Büchner’s writing was: its short, fractured scenes are the perfect match for the medium of cinema.
#8 Amadeus (1984)
It’s easy to forget that Amadeus is an adaptation of a stage play—the story, the characters, the setting and themes all feel so, well, epic. Cinematic. But like all good epics films, the action is anchored by strong characters: the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Antonio Salieri, the man whose jealousy of the young prodigy drove him to despicable acts of sabotage and cruelty.
For their work as Salieri and Mozart, F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce were both nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor. While Abraham got the final gong, his performance is inarguably improved by the calculated clowning of Hulce for him to play against. This is film is a masterclass for actors and storytellers alike.
#9 Henry V (1989)
Kenneth Branagh has helmed several excellent Shakespeare adaptations, but none shine quite so brightly as his take on a young King finding his way as a ruler and a man. Henry V, for all its granduer in scale and story, is a simple, intimate journey of Henry discovering who he is and how his calling as monarch may change him for better (or worse). Henry V is not just a great Shakespeare adaptation, but a great film: Branagh knows when to depart from a well-proven text to create some truly iconic cinematic moments. He knows when to rely on the language, and when to strike out on his own as director so that he might tell the story with images rather than words.
Take the above excerpt as an example of this: after Henry learns that he has won the battle against France, Branagh allows the audience to survey the devastation of the Battle of Agincourt—offering up visual vignettes that tell snippets of the larger story. For a large portion of the scene, Henry wanders in and out of the crowd: just one of his people, living and mourning with the rest of the weary army. Also, that’s a young Christian Bale he’s carrying in the scene.
#10 The Mahabharata (1989)
Peter Brook’s 1985 stage production The Mahabharata, a nine-hour adaptation of the ancient Indian Sanskrit poem, is one of the most celebrated theatre events in theatre history. Brook assembled an international team of theatre-makers and actors and developed the work for years until it was ready to be seen. After touring the world in various theatre festivals, he set about adapting and filming the play—cut down to a manageable five hours (plus change).
The play itself can be difficult to track down, although rumour has it a bootleg is available online somewhere… Certain aspects of the piece have aged better than others (the international casting remains as contentious an issue as it was when the work first premiered), but the artistry of all involved is undeniable. To quote the story’s ‘author’ Vyasa: “If you listen closely, at the end you’ll be someone else.” Too true for theatre this good.
#11 Noises Off (1992)
Stage comedy, especially farce, can be a difficult thing to pull off on camera. Perhaps it’s something to do with the timing, or the way that cinema requires continued focus when the stage can offer the spectacle. Maybe it’s the ‘live’ aspect of theatre that comedy to feel truly alive and spontaneous Whatever it is, this adaptation of Noises Off captures it perfectly. it’s a hilarious and faithful filming of the original play, helmed by an all-star cast (including a surprisingly funny Michael Caine as the harried director).
It’s one of those films that simply shouldn’t work; as a piece of farce (that will particularly tickle actors and theatregoers) it’s certainly not for everybody. But if you’ve ever been to an amateur/independent production of Noises Off and find yourself keeping well away because of that, take a chance on this film and treat yourself to comedy done damn well.
#12 Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
“Coffee’s for closers.” “Always Be Closing.” “Fuck you, that’s my name.” “This watch cost more than your car.” David Mamet‘s infinitely quotable swear-a-thon packs a helluva dramatic punch, as it follows a group of
old white men contending with the pointy end of capitalism. The writing is razor-sharp and the performances—by a cast of heavyweights—are expectedly tight. Funnily enough, most of the film’s famous quotes come from the same scene (also included above.) It was actually an addition to the film script by Mamet, who wished to cast Alec Baldwin despite having no parts left for him.
Mamet is known primarily as a writer; however, his directorial efforts do wonders for his material’s heightened dramatic style and idiosyncratic use of language: Mamet-speak, as it’s sometimes called. There are several Mamet stage-to-screen adaptations; most of them are worth your time, if only to soak in the master’s words. But this one is unmissable.
#13 A Few Good Men (1992)
Good year for filmed theatre, 1992… Aaron Sorkin adapted his hit play about a hazing ritual gone wrong at Guantanamo Bay into a tight, courtroom drama that never feels anything less than cinematic. The film was directed to perfection by Rob Reiner, who brought in a cast of comic and dramatic actors to give the swathes of text light and fire. Jack Nicholson’s famous rant (above) is perhaps its greatest claim to fame, but the film belongs to Tom Cruise: it’s a stunning performance he has seldom, if ever, topped in his storied career.
Aaron Sorkin’s career was launched in the world of theatre, although his work in television with the likes of The West Wing and cinema with The Social Network is perhaps better known to the general public. However, his great talent for situational drama, dialogue-driven stories and compelling characters can all be traced back to his stage-centric roots. Sorkin is a must-know for any actor keen to improve their craft, as he is the perfect illustration of what happens when stage and screen techniques mesh to create lasting, brilliant stories.
#14 Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)
Of all the films on this list, Vanya on 42nd Street is perhaps the most unconventional. Director Andre Gregory had been conducting theatre workshops with several of his esteemed New York stage colleagues to better understand the work of Anton Chekhov. Eventually, director Louis Malle documented their findings in a film that looks more like the documentary of a rehearsal than its own work of art. No costumes, no sets, just actors in a dilapidated theatre creating magic.
It was the second collaboration between Malle, Gregory and actor/writer Wallace Shawn, who had come together before in 1981 to produce the delightful My Dinner With Andre. As Andre strictly a film, we were unable to include it on this list. However, it is perhaps one of the greatest filmed plays ever made, even if the film did come first…
#15 Play (2001)
Three characters—two couples between them—and the subject of infidelity that unites them. Except it’s Samuel Beckett, who insists that the character speak at break-neck speed fused into urns in a bleak, apocalyptic setting. You’d think this would detract from the drama, but Play is a perfect piece of theatre (now film) that speaks to relationships, jealousy and infidelity. Watch the entire thing (linked above). It’s 16 minutes, and there’s nothing out there quite like it.
This is one of nineteen productions made as part of the Beckett on Film project. While adapting the entire body of a writer’s work to film is an undertaking in itself, the strict nature of Beckett’s writing and rules around performance/adaptation posed particular problems for directors. What resulted are a collection of strange pieces of cinema that inhabit a half-life between screen and stage. Do yourself a favour and track down the lot of them. Get lost and paddle around in the abyss.
#16 Incendies (2003)
Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Wajdi Mouawad’s play is another example of a theatre work perfectly suited to cinema. Canadian twins Jeanne and Simon meet with a notary following their mother Nawal’s death, who tasks them with delivering two letters to her (unnamed) home country in the Middle East. One letter is for their father, who they believed to be dead. The other is for their long-lost brother of whom their mother would not speak. The film spans the decades and longtitude lines, and culminates in a shocking finale we’ll let you discover for yourself.
Incendies was the film that brought Villeneuve international attention; it was regarded highly by critics at release, and rightly so. However, it is worth noting that Mouawad’s script itself was not used (Villeneuve collaborated with writer Valérie Beaugrand-Champagne). And as Villeneuve has no connection to Arab culture, we do wonder if a future adaptation by a director with a personal connection to their heritage could elevate this incredible material even further.
#17 Closer (2004)
Closer follows four characters entangled through knots of sex, relationships, jealousy and heartbreak. The action of the play is contained—almost claustrophobic—as they seek and break connections that bring them all closer together. In fact, the action of the play is so tightly coiled that the interactions can feel melodramatic. But the tone of the work, and the humanity of these four central figures, ensures that Closer never becomes ridiculous. Sometimes it’s absurd, but c’est l’amour…
Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts and Clive Owen play the four leads to perfection in this adaptation, directed by Mike Nicholls. At the time, the risqué (read: frank) nature of the piece caused some controversy, especially in a film populated by so many Hollywood stars that audiences weren’t used to seeing pole-dance or use such graphic language. If that sounds silly, that’s because it was. The performances are excellent, and remain high points in the careers of all involved.
#18 Doubt (2008)
Even in the relative distant past of the late 2000’s, Doubt felt like a Hollywood film from another age. It’s a big-budget adaptation of a popular play, with a cast you can count on your fingers and themes that are sure to have audiences putting their popcorn down in shock and unease. It shouldn’t work, it shouldn’t exist! But it does, and thank God it was made. Performances from its four heavyweight leads are sensational, and it (thankfully) retains the ambiguity of its Pulitzer- and Tony-Award-winning counterpart as to the actual guilt of accused Father Flynn.
Of particular note is the performance of Viola Davis, who appears in one small scene of the film as the mother of the Catholic school’s first black student. Davis’ acting is hugely resonant in a film full of commanding characters, and is often overshadowed by her co-stars with greater screen-time. Ultimately, it is the restraint of director John Patrick Shanley (also the writer) in not expanding his world for the silver screen. Doubt triumphs in its careful sense of focus.
Speaking of Viola Davis…
#19 Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is one of the finest stage-to-screen adaptations of the past ten years, not to mention a brilliant film in its own right. Set in Chicago in 1927, the film documents a troubled recording session for the artist Ma Rainey and her band, whose tensions bubble up and over as they struggle to contend with ego, insecurity and the exploitation of black artists by the white-controlled music industry. Davis leads an exceptional cast, including Chadwick Boseman in his final on-screen performance.
Like many of the films on this list, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom simmers away within the claustrophobic confines of a single major location—the inevitable result of many stage adaptations unfolding on a set stage. But helmed by veteran stage director George Costello Wolfe, this only serves to focus the drama even further and add weight to the rising tensions. Mix in one of the best casts assembled on screen in the past ten years, and there’s no doubt that this film will be regarded as a classic for years to come.
And of course … #20 Angels In America (2003)
When talking about stage-to-screen adaptations, it’s hard to go past the HBO miniseries based on Tony Kushner’s masterpiece, which threw down the gauntlet as the best American work of contemporary theatre in the early nineties. Yes yes yes it’s television and not a film … but the brilliance of this rendition is undeniable. The cast, the design, the singular vision of director Mike Nichols. It synthesizes everything Kushner poured into his script and not only makes it work on film, but sing.
However, much like the epic of Amadeus, Angels in America is anchored by the power and intimacy of its characters. They help the audience navigate the scenes, the magic realism, dream sequences and multitudes of characters—who are actually doubled up by the cast, as per theatrical tradition. Show this to a friend for the first time and be sure to watch their face when you tell them the Rabbi at the funeral is actually Meryl Streep.
We can’t not talk about this one. Not until everybody’s seen it and knows it as the magnum opus it is.
- Inherit the Wind (1960) directed by Stanley Kramer, based on the play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee.
- A Raisin in the Sun (1961) directed by Daniel Petrie, based on the play by Lorraine Hansberry.
- Butley (1974) directed by Harold Pinter, based on the play by Simon Gray.
- Richard iii (1995) directed by Richard Loncraine, based on the play by William Shakespeare.
- The Crucible (1996) directed by Nicholas Hynter, based on the play by Arthur Miller.
- Titus (1999) directed by Julie Taymor, based on Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare.
- The Shape of Things (2003) written and directed by Neil LaBute, based on his play of the same name.
- Fences (2016) directed by Denzel Washington, based on the play by August Wilson.