The basic story of King Lear goes back to ancient English myths. The general idea of three daughters, two wicked and one good, with arbitrary love tests, goes back at least to a second century AD novel by Apuleius called The Golden Ass. A play was written for the English stage around the mythical King Lear just before Shakespeare wrote his. However, Shakespeare changed the original story in at least one crucial respect—King Lear and his good daughter do not triumph in the end. Rather, they die along with all the miscreants of the play. This ending, and its implication for the general tone of the play, has been preserved in various modern film adaptations. While one involves sons rather than daughters, the general pattern of paternal weakness, sibling rivalry, a division of some kind of kingdom, and sequent disaster can be found in all but The Dresser.
1983 The Dresser, Albert Finney, Peter Yates, director
While not strictly speaking a Lear adaptation, this moving portrait of an aging but demanding actor playing Lear in regional theater in England provides a psychological profile of how the old king himself may have felt when oppressed by senility and its concomitant impotence. Albert Finney plays the fading stage star and Tom Courtenay plays his long time dresser. The two have an intimate but unequal relationship whose degree of mutual dependency seems unknown to both. The middle third of the movie takes place almost exclusively inside the actor’s dressing room as he prepares for what will be his last act. He wobbles on stage, forces some improvisations, but the sound of bombs (it is the beginning of WWII) outside stiffens him, and he gives the Lear of his life. He dies in his dressing room shortly after. Inconsolable (for various reasons), the dresser sprawls across the dead star’s body in imitation of Lear and Cordelia ending Shakespeare’s play. However, the closer parallel may be Lear and Gloucester, two old, aging friends of unequal rank who, when rank is stripped away, reveal how important each is to the other in a way we might call love.
1985 Ran, Akira Kurosawa, director
No doubt the most famous adaptation of King Lear, Kurosawa’s Ran takes place in 14th century Japan. His Lear—Lord Hidetora—divides his kingdom among his three sons. Conspiracies ensue, with Hidetora banishing the son who ironically tells the truth. The remaining sons migrate to a series of spectacular and bloody civil wars, with an evil wife intent upon vengeance for her father’s loss of land and status manipulating the entire story. Hidetora we learn had confiscated his land and brought about his death. This film comes closer than any to realizing the grand spectacle of King Lear and simultaneously a finely-tuned picture of Lear’s mind. The film’s miracle (to non-Japanese ears) comprises the degree to which this realization takes place in the visual plane. (Even if it were not an adaptation of King Lear, this film would be in the class of world’s greatest films.)
1987 King Lear: Fear and Loathing by Jean Luc-Godard
Jean Luc-Godard uses here the idea of King Lear and an odd assortment of famous people—Peter Sellers, Norman Mailer, Woody Allen, and himself—to meditate upon art, language, and film making. As often happens with him, one is not quite sure what to say about what he says about these subjects, if one can say what he says, but the film has quite a few arresting moments.
1997 A Thousand Acres, Jason Robards, Jocelyn Moorhouse director
This film, adapted from the novel of the same name by Jane Smiley, replays the Lear story in rural Iowa as a farmer, Larry Cook, decides to divide his thousand acre farm among this three daughters, Ginny (Goneril), Rose (Regan), and Caroline (Cordelia). The youngest has her doubts, and receives nothing. Cook becomes gradually deranged, the eldest daughters each have an affair with Jess Clark (the Edmund counterpart), the farm becomes entangled in various legal snares abetted by Caroline’s interventions, and then the IRS, and Cook collapses of a heart attack in a grocery store. It is then revealed that he had sexually abused the two eldest daughters after their mother died, giving the story a psychological impetus so awkwardly missing in Shakespeare.
2001 My Kingdom, Richard Harris and Lynn Redgrave, Don Boyd director
Richard Harris plays Sandeman, a Liverpool crime lord who, in grief over his wife’s death (and perhaps murder), divides his empire among his three daughters. However, his youngest, an ex-drug addict and prostitute, refuses. His remaining daughters struggle with each other, but unite to some degree in revenge against their father as they seek control of the Liverpool drug trade. The film’s disasters develop from rivalries over a large but secret drug shipment from Holland that comes in cows. It is as much a gangster movie as anything, but Harris manages to play Sandeman with some sympathy.
2002 King of Texas, Patrick Stewart as John Lear, Uli Edel director
Stewart plays an aging John Lear, a 19th century Texas cattle baron whose only son is killed in a war, leaving him with three daughters. He decides to divide his sprawling ranch among them, with the best part going to the daughter who loves him most. His youngest, Claudia, declines to flatter him, and is banished. From here the story follows Shakespeare with reasonable fidelity. It ends perhaps with a stronger sense of retribution than Shakespeare; the film’s final act is not Lear mourning Cordelia but the execution of his other two daughters, an execution mirroring the film’s opening scene of two men hanging from a dead tree in the desert. The sets and action have the feeling of John Ford and Monument Valley—one scene in particular owes much to The Searchers. Filmed in Mexico and made for television, it deserves to be seen on a big screen. Of note is that Stewart is coupled with Ian McKellen in the modern play most often connected with the sense of King Lear, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
2007 Baby Cakes Sees a Play, Brad Neely
This cartoon version of Baby Cakes and King Lear was originally published at superdelux.com. Due to the recent acquisition of Superdelux by Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim program, this version is currently unavailable.