Which Robin Hood Adaptations Are Considered The Very Best?

Robin Hood, like Doctor Who, has been regenerated and resurrected many times, but which adaptations stayed truest to the character, and which were the best?

Robin Hood is a character from English folklore, he is a legendary outlaw and a highly skilled archer who fights against injustice with his men by robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.

The tales of Robin Hood and his band of merry men are stories that never seem to get old, rooting for the underdog and seeing the bullies/villains get their comeuppance is always satisfying. Perhaps this is why the story has been told so many times, but which Robin Hood adaptations are the best?

1. Robin Hood: Men in Tights – 1993

From the mind of Mel Brookes, Robin Hood: Men in Tights is a parody of the traditional Robin Hood origin story. It plays on the use of over-used tropes, breaks the fourth wall, and uses physical comedy whenever it gets the chance.

After managing to escape a prison he was being held in, Robin (Cary Elwes) manages to make his way back to England, meeting Ahchoo−bless you−along the way (played by Dave Chappelle). When he finally returns to his estate he discovers that, due to unpaid taxes, it is being repossessed by the Sheriff of Rottingham (Roger Rees)−literally the castle is being towed away!  

On his way to see Prince John (Richard Lewis) to settle the matter Robin meets Little John (Eric Allan Kramer) and the rest of those who will become the merry men-or rather the men in tights. They make their way to the Prince’s castle, crash his feast, and boldly announce their intention to start a revolution against him, cue training montages, outfits switches, and lots of merriment.

robin hood men in tights challenges gisbourne to a duel

The second half of the film goes pretty much as other tellings of Robin Hood do, the Sheriff tries to trap Robin with an archery competition and just as it seems hopeless Marian (Amy Yasbeck) steps forward to save him, bargaining away her own freedom for Robin’s.

Luckily she doesn’t have to though, as Robin’s men come just in the nick of time and after lots of fighting, a suitable amount of embarrassment from the Sherrif, and a surprise cameo of Sir Patrick Stuart, they all live happily ever after.

 I always find Mel Brookes’ creations to be a bit hit and miss, and ultimately Men in Tights is not as good as it had the potential to be, Cary Elwes is great as Robin and could easily have played him in a serious adaptation, Roger Rees and Richard Lewis are perfectly annoying and unlikeable, and the film is funny−just not all the time.  

The film is gag after gag after gag, with a flimsy story to go with it, and I would say only about 1/5 of the jokes actually land, but the ones that do will have you chuckling. It’s worth a watch just don’t go expecting too much.

2. The Adventures of Robin Hood – 1938

Probably the most well known and most beloved of the many Robin Hood adaptations is the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn, and deservedly so. The film follows Sir Robin of Loxley who, after defending a man for killing a deer and mocking Prince John (Claude Rains) in front of all his knights, becomes an outlaw and moves to Sherwood forest.  

He quickly recruits men to join him, and they set to work robbing the corrupt to help those in need and raise the money to pay the ransom for King Richard (Ian Hunter), who is being held prisoner in Austria. Then, after the humiliation of Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) and the winning over of Lady Marian (Olivia De Havilland) comes the staple event in Robin Hood narratives, the archery competition.  

adventures of robin hood 1938 errol flynn

Once he has been caught by Prince John and saved by Lady Marian’s plan, King Richard returns and joins Robin, just in time to foil Prince John’s plan to become King. Richard returns, pardons the merry men, returns Robin’s land, makes him an Earl, and finally gives Marian and Robin his blessing. The End.  

This is the quintessential Robin Hood film, and I have to say it lives up to the hype. It is excellently cast; I can’t think of one actor who didn’t suit their role. It was entertaining and funny, with pretty good fight scenes for the time considering (in my experience) older fight choreography can look completely unrealistic with actors seeming to throw punches at 2mph (I feel like that’s an achievement in itself).  

All in all a great adaptation of the Robin Hood tales, don’t avoid it just because it was made in 1938, or because others have hyped it up so much (get over yourselves and enjoy it!)

3. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – 1991

If you like big action sequences this may be the Robin Hood adaptation for you, the fight choreography is interesting and inventive too. The set pieces are also very cool, with a whole village being built in Sherwood over the course of the film, rather than the usual tents and campfires you may be used to.  

The props the men of Sherwood use to camouflage themselves to hide or ambush people are also cool and work really well, they don’t just look like guys covered in twigs, they become the bush−and sometimes even melt into the forest floor.  

There are standout performances from Alan Rickman, Morgan Freeman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and I would give commendation to Michael McShane as well, who play the Sheriff of Nottingham, Azeem, Lady Marian, and Friar Tuck respectively. The film shows a different version of Robin Hood than you may be used to, he doesn’t have the devil-may-care, cheeky-chappy attitude that previous iterations do. 

alan rickman sheriff of nottingham

Instead, Kevin Costner’s Robin is more focused on the revolution side of things, with bigger plans than simply stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. The one glaring problem, though, is that Kevin Costner cannot do an English accent (at least not in this film, sorry Kevin) and for me at least it’s incredibly jarring and makes Robin Hood into just another American Action Hero.  

This isn’t helped by the fact that the script is a bit all over the place, with side plots that are cliché by this point and not that interesting, and a tonal issue that is never really resolved. The film has some great comedic moments but there’s also darker events that just seem to get looked over?  Of course, dark comedy exists but it isn't really present here. It’s just a bit strange, really.  

I also don’t think it needed to be 2 ½ hours long, as it lagged in places. Overall it’s an enjoyable watch if you don’t think about it too much and just admire the fighting, settings, and Alan Rickman’s acting.

4. Robin Hood – 2010

Directed by Ridley Scott, this adaptation of Robin Hood completely reimagines the character, portrayed in a much darker, grittier fashion than the happy-go-lucky Errol Flynn story. The film begins in France with King Richard (Danny Huston) leading English troupes in a siege on a French castle.  

We are able to witness Robin’s (Russel Crowe’s) archery skills, as well as his dedication to keeping his comrades out of harms way and his emerging potential to become a leader. However, this is not Robin of Loxley, Robin of Loxley doesn’t exist, instead we have Sir Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge), loyal supporter and right-hand man of the king.  

Russel Crowe’s Robin comes from the family Longstride, he is not a Knight, and he certainly isn’t a supporter of King Richard’s cause, giving the King his honest opinion and getting he and his friends put in the stocks for it. It is clear that Longstride still maintains the mischievous nature of Robin Hood though, gambling with the men and getting into brawls.  

Perhaps unexpectedly for those who know the traditional Robin Hood story, King Richard dies during the siege which means that Prince John (Oscar Isaac) legitimately inherits the throne, and the country is left in a state of uncertainty. On his way back home Robin and his men come across the remains of an ambush on the men who were delivering the King’s crown back to London, the only survivor being Sir Robert, but he is on the verge of his last breath.  

Robin agrees to take Sir Robert’s sword back to his father Sir Walter Loxley (Max Von Sydow) in Nottingham as his dying wish. When he gets there, Sir Walter asks him to pretend to be his son, who no one has seen in ten years, so that when he dies, Lady Marian (Cate Blanchett) won’t be forced to give up his land. And Robin agrees.  

robin hood 2010 russel crowe

From here things get more complicated as the French are attempting to invade with the help of Prince John’s close friend Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong), who has betrayed the Prince, believing him to be too weak to rule England. Needing help, the new King turns to the only people who can help him, the Barons and landowners he had previously been persecuting, charging impossible taxes from.  

Robin negotiates a deal with him that will allow landowners more freedom and control over their property, King John accepts, and they confront the French invasion. However, afterwards, feeling threatened by Robin, he goes back on his word, making Robin and all who aid him outlaws, seemingly setting up the traditional narrative once again.  

The film is much better than I remember, the conflict scenes are great and everything seems to have a weight to it, you get the sense that the armour and chainmail are really heavy, that the swords are delivering strong weighty blows, it feels more realistic than the action sequences in other Robin Hood films, the film as a whole is more grounded in realism.  

Cate Blanchett is amazing as Lady Marian, portraying her with an immense dignity and desire to help her people, not able to stand by she gets a lovely ‘Eowyn from Lord of the Rings’ moment as she rides into battle and leads her own group of men.  

There is one glaring issue though, the film focuses on Robin’s growth, going from a simple archer to a leader of men and armies−a knight in everything accept name−this is fine, but because of this he barely shoots any arrows!  

He uses a bow at the beginning and end of the film, but the rest of the running time he fights with a sword, which is fine, but not exactly what Robin Hood is known for!  Aside from this issue, the film portrays a great heroic tale.

5. BBC’s Robin Hood – 2006-2009

I have a soft spot in my heart for BBC’s Robin Hood series, I grew up with it and still revisit it occasionally when the mood strikes me. The series avoids some cliches such as Robin and Little John’s bridge fight and embraces others with Robin saving Allan A Dale from a harsh sentence for poaching one of the King’s deer (you’d think they’d learn by now; the Sheriff is very precious about the King’s deer!) and coming home to find others have taken over his land in his absence.  

What are refreshing though are the characters; Keith Allen (Lily Allen’s dad) brings the Sheriff to life with the perfect kind of creepy charisma the Sheriff needs, being slimy one moment then explosive the next. 

Lady Marian−played by Lucy Griffiths−is strong and strives for independence, constantly voicing her opinions and manipulating both the sheriff and Sir Guy of Gisborne when she can, as well as taking a much more active role in helping the people. Speaking of, Richard Armitage is excellent as Sir Guy, able to make him sympathetic as he tries in vain to win over Marian and have his unrequited love returned, but also make you resent him.

Sam Troughton’s Much serves as the consistent comic relief and though he can be annoying occasionally is loveable none-the-less; there are many more I could mention, the BBC casting was a big success in this series. Obviously, the one I have to mention is Robin Hood himself brought to life by Jonas Armstrong who does a great job with the new version of Robin the writers have created.  

main cast of bbc robin hood

This is a Robin who is more serious than others you may know, who is no longer able to kill and is always willing to sacrifice himself for someone else, giving you the sense that he doesn’t value his life at all−which irritates those around him.

Having said that, he still has a mischievous side and likes to have fun when he can, though sometimes his humour can come across a bit spiteful (not sure if it’s the direction or Armstrong’s acting choices).  

A major plus is that Robin uses his archery skills a lot compared to some adaptations where he only uses his skills once or twice (you wouldn’t think you’d have to tell Robin Hood to use his bow more but that is exactly what I’d like to say to some versions!)

The writing could be better sometimes, there is an attempt to find a middle ground between modern speech and medieval language so some dialogue can occasionally be a little awkward. The sets are very good (not necessarily historically accurate, but what Robin Hood adaptation is, really?) considering the time it was made (the BBC obviously believed in it) and the musical score is excellent.

 Overall, it’s humourous and dramatic (sometimes too dramatic in my opinion) and all of the main cast go through their own story arcs, attempting to have them progress in some way. BBC’s Robin Hood knows what it is and doesn’t take itself more seriously than is necessary, which is great.

6. Robin and Marian – 1976

Like Ridley Scott’s 2010 adaptation, Robin and Marian attempts to do something other than the traditional Robin Hood tale, expanding upon it. The film is set 20 years after Robin’s original antics and battles with the Sheriff of Nottingham, since then he has been following King Richard on his crusades, serving as his right-hand man and close friend. However, all these years later, Robin (Sean Connery) is starting to have doubts about his King’s state of mind.  

The film opens with Robin half-heartedly laying siege to a rundown castle with only Little John (Nicol Williamson) and a few men accompanying him. When King Richard (Richard Harris) arrives he insists they continue, despite Robin explaining there is no gold to be seized, Richard refuses to listen to reason, seemingly paranoid and mad with greed.  

After refusing to take part, Robin and John are relieved from his majesty’s service and return home to Sherwood, where Robin is informed that Lady Marian (Audrey Hepburn) has become a nun in his absence and is now the Abbess of a nunnery. From here the film shows Robin trying to recapture his glory days (somewhat in vain).  

Robin and marian 1976

The film showcases Robin’s own descent into a kind of madness as he refuses to let go of the man he once was and even drags Marian down with him. After being badly injured in his duel with the Sheriff, (who has become apathetic to most things by this point) Marian takes Robin back to the nunnery to nurse him, but unable to bear to see him in such a state, she poisons him and herself instead.  

Rather than a heroic tale of good vs evil Robin and Marian is a tragedy, detailing a former hero's demise as he commits self-sabotage. At first, I was not satisfied with Marian’s last actions, I thought she was so strong of character that she would resolve to live on even after Robin had gone, as she had done before; however, I now wonder if the ending was appropriate as Marian chose to go out on her own terms. You will have to make your own minds up.

7. The Adventures of Robin Hood series – 1955-1960

I was not prepared for how good this serialised adaptation of Robin Hood’s escapades in Sherwood would be. The fact that there are 4 seasons, and 143 episodes should have been a clue, really. The series starts as you might expect with Robin (Richard Greene) coming home from the crusades, only he finds his home occupied by a Norman Lord. 

Unable to get him to leave Robin goes to the Sheriff of Nottingham to voice his complaint (as you can probably guess, this doesn’t go well). The Sheriff (Alan Wheatley) is also Norman and  takes an immediate disliking to Robin who is Saxon, siding with the squatter, but eventually has to agree to give Robin's lands back. 

Under the guise of signing his lands back over to him, the Lord attempts to murder Robin but is accidentally killed by his own man instead. Now framed for the Lord’s murder, Robin escapes to Sherwood forest and joins the band of outlaws living there.  

From here on, each episode introduces one of the members of what would become Robin’s inner circle: Little John (Archie Duncan), Maid Marian (Bernadette O’Farrell), Friar Tuck (Alexander Gauge) etc.

adventures of robin hood 1955 richard greene

The series is full of fun stories and antics; with intelligent writing and satisfying acting, the series goes over the traditional Robin Hood tales−coming home from the crusades, fighting Little John on a bridge, taking part in an archery contest−but has plenty of new material for viewers to enjoy (you kind of have to expand when you have over 100 episodes!)  

The series is restricted by the 25-minute running time, as it doesn’t allow for overly complex stories to be told, none of the story arcs are split over multiple episodes. It could be partly due to this that there isn’t much development in the characters, after they are introduced and their personalities are established characters rarely move out of their comfort zones.

 The audio of the series is also not the best but that’s mainly due to the time it was made and budget; however, quite a few episodes have unique opening songs that tell you what the episode will be about, which is a nice detail.

8. Disney’s Robin Hood – 1973

A glimpse into the animal kingdom, the animals of Sherwood intend to tell their audience ‘what really happened’ to Robin Hood. The beginning of the film establishes that the good-natured fox Robin (Brian Bedford) and his best friend the bear Little John (Phil Harris) have been stealing from the rich and giving to the poor for a while now (no need for yet another origin story). 

They’ve become quite good at it too, almost arrogantly they disguise themselves as fortune-tellers and steal all of the lion Prince John’s (Peter Ustinov) money and jewels. This angers him so much that he sets the trap of the famous archery competition to lure Robin out of hiding, it’s successful but Robin is only captured for a moment.  

What follows is a marvellously chaotic and creative fight sequence that makes the most of the cartoon medium, with frenzied animals brawling and darting all over the place, smashing through buildings and animals alike. Although Robin’s side wins, the celebration doesn’t last long as Prince John raises the taxes so high that no one can pay them and practically all the animals are thrown in jail.

disney's robin hood

Robin can’t stand by anymore when it is announced that Friar Tuck (Andy Devine) will be hung the next day. Robin and Little John rescue everyone from prison and in a daring feat steal all the money Prince John unjustly collected right from under his nose, possibly making this version of Robin Hood the boldest and most brazen of them all!  

They don’t manage to get out undetected though, as Sir Hiss (Terry-Thomas) wakes up and alerts the Prince, this results in another battle in which Robin is trapped in the castle and seems to be in real peril when it is lit on fire and his escape routes are quickly whittled down. Luckily all’s well that ends well as Robin gets away and is later revealed to be pardoned upon King Richard’s return.

 The story of Disney’s Robin Hood is satisfactory and entertaining, but the real achievement lies in the 2D animation. It is clear that all the animators have dedicated time to think about how each of the animals will move and interact with things, and the little details add so much to the film, especially−I think−if you are an older viewer (i.e. not a young child) you appreciate these things so much more.

Despite Robin and Marian being produced, I don't think Robin Hood will ever grow old, like King Arthur or James Bond he is a character that can be reinvented over and over again. Will they be good adaptations? Not necessarily but the core of Robin will always be great.  

robin hood classic book cover
A graduate from UEA with a BA in English Lit. with Creative Writing. An aspiring writer and editor, loves anime/manga, films and books.

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