The first film of King Lear was a five-minute German version made around 1905, which has not survived. The oldest extant version is a ten-minute studio-based version from 1909 by Vitagraph, which made (in Luke McKernan's words) the "ill-advised" decision to attempt to cram in as much of the plot as possible. Two silent versions, both titled Re Lear, were made in Italy in 1910. Of these, the version by director Gerolamo Lo Savio was filmed on location, and it dropped the Edgar sub-plot and used frequent intertitling to make the plot easier to follow than its Vitagraph predecessor. A contemporary setting was used for Louis Feuillade's 1911 French adaptation Le Roi Lear Au Village, and in 1914 in America, Ernest Warde expanded the story to an hour, including spectacles such as a final battle scene.
The only two significant big-screen performances of Shakespeare's text date from the early 1970s: Grigori Kozintsev was working on his Korol Lir at the same time as Peter Brook was filming his King Lear. Brook's film starkly divided the critics: Pauline Kael said "I didn't just dislike this production, I hated it!" and suggested the alternative title "Night of the Living Dead". Yet Robert Hatch in The Nation thought it as "excellent a filming of the play as one can expect" and Vincent Canby in The New York Times called it "an exalting Lear, full of exquisite terror". The film drew heavily on the ideas of Jan Kott, in particular his observation that King Lear was the precursor of absurdist theatre: in particular, the film has parallels with Beckett's Endgame. Critics who dislike the film particularly draw attention to its bleak nature from its opening: complaining that the world of the play does not deteriorate with Lear's suffering, but commences dark, colourless and wintry, leaving (in Douglas Brode's words) "Lear, the land, and us with nowhere to go". Cruelty pervades the film, which does not distinguish between the violence of ostensibly good and evil characters, presenting both savagely. Paul Scofield, as Lear, eschews sentimentality: this demanding old man with a coterie of unruly knights provokes audience sympathy for the daughters in the early scenes, and his presentation explicitly rejects the tradition (as Daniel Rosenthal describes it) of playing Lear as "poor old white-haired patriarch".
By contrast, Korol Lir has been praised, for example by critic Alexander Anikst for the "serious, deeply thoughtful" even "philosophical approach" of director Grigori Kozintsev and writer Boris Pasternak. Making a thinly veiled criticism of Brook in the process, Anikst praised the fact that there were "no attempts at sensationalism, no efforts to 'modernise' Shakespeare by introducing Freudian themes, Existentialist ideas, eroticism, or sexual perversion. [Kozintsev]... has simply made a film of Shakespeare's tragedy." Dmitri Shostakovich provided an epic score, its motifs including an (increasingly ironic) trumpet fanfare for Lear, and a five-bar "Call to Death" marking each character's demise. Kozintzev described his vision of the film as an ensemble piece: with Lear, played by a dynamic Jüri Järvet, as first among equals in a cast of fully developed characters. The film highlights Lear's role as king by including his people throughout the film on a scale no stage production could emulate, charting the central character's decline from their god to their helpless equal; his final descent into madness marked by his realisation that he has negelected the 'poor naked wretches'. As the film progresses, ruthless characters – Goneril, Regan, Edmund – increasingly appear isolated in shots, in contrast to the director's focus, throughout the film, on masses of human beings.
Jonathan Miller twice directed Michael Hordern in the title role for English television, the first for the BBC's Play of the Month in 1975 and the second for the BBC Television Shakespeare in 1982. Horden received mixed reviews, and was considered a bold choice due to his history of taking much lighter roles. Also for English television, Laurence Olivier took the role in a 1983 TV production for Granada Television. It was his last screen appearance in a Shakespearean role, its pathos deriving in part from the physical frailty of Olivier the actor.
In 1985 a major screen adaptation of the play appeared: Ran, directed by Akira Kurosawa. At the time the most expensive Japanese film ever made, it tells the story of Hidetora, a fictional 16th-century Japanese warlord, whose attempt to divide his kingdom among his three sons leads to an estrangement with the youngest, and ultimately most loyal, of them, and eventually to civil war. In contrast to the cold drab greys of Brook and Kozintsev, Kurosawa's film is full of vibrant colour: external scenes in yellows, blues and greens, interiors in browns and ambers, and Emi Wada's Oscar-winning colour-coded costumes for each family member's soldiers. Hidetora has a back-story: a violent and ruthless rise to power, and the film portrays contrasting victims: the virtuous characters Sue and Tsurumaru who are able to forgive, and the vengeful Kaede (Mieko Harada), Hidetora's daughter-in-law and the film's Lady Macbeth-like villain.
The play's plot, or major elements from it, have frequently been used by film makers. Joseph Mankiewicz' 1949 House of Strangers is often considered a Lear adaptation, but the parallels are more striking in its 1954 Western remake Broken Lance in which a cattle baron played by Spencer Tracy tyrannises over his three sons, of whom only the youngest, Joe, played by Robert Wagner, remains loyal. A scene in which a character is threatened with blinding in the manner of Gloucester forms the climax of the 1973 parody horror Theatre of Blood. Comic use is made of Sir's inability to physically carry any actress cast as Cordelia opposite his Lear in the 1983 film of the stage play The Dresser. John Boorman's 1990 Where the Heart Is features a father who disinherits his three spoilt children. Francis Ford Coppola deliberately incorporated elements of Lear in his 1990 sequel The Godfather Part III, including Michael Corleone's attempt to retire from crime throwing his domain into anarchy, and most obviously the death of his daughter in his arms. Parallels have also been drawn between Andy García's character Vincent and both Edgar and Edmund, and between Talia Shire's character Connie and Kaede in Ran.
In 1997, Jocelyn Moorhouse directed A Thousand Acres, based on Jane Smiley's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, set in 1990s Iowa. The film is described, by scholar Tony Howard, as the first adaptation to confront the play's disturbing sexual dimensions. The story is told from the viewpoint of the elder two daughters, Ginny played by Jessica Lange and Rose played by Michelle Pfeiffer, who were sexually abused by their father as teenagers. Their younger sister Caroline, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh had escaped this fate and is ultimately the only one to remain loyal.
The play was again adapted to the world of gangsters in Don Boyd's 2001 My Kingdom, a version which differs from all others in commencing with the Lear character, Sandeman, played by Richard Harris, in a loving relationship with his wife. But her violent death marks the start of an increasingly bleak and violent chain of events (influenced by co-writer Nick Davies' documentary book Dark Heart) which in spite of the director's denial that the film had "serious parallels" to Shakespeare's play, actually mirror aspects of its plot closely. Unlike Shakespeare's Lear, but like Hidetora and Sandeman, the central character of Uli Edel's 2002 American TV adaptation King of Texas, John Lear played by Patrick Stewart, has a back-story centred on his violent rise to power as the richest landowner (metaphorically a "king") in General Sam Houston's independent Texas in the early 1840s. Daniel Rosenthal comments that the film was able, by reason of having been commissioned by the cable channel TNT, to include a bleaker and more violent ending than would have been possible on the national networks. 2003's Channel 4-commissioned two-parter Second Generation set the story in the world of Asian manufacturing and music in England.