For those eager to see the Longest Role In English History – Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet – “tear a passion to tatters” (III.ii) across the small screen, options abound. Hamlet gets adapted a lot. A lot a lot – likely due to a) its fame even among those largely ignorant of Shakespeare, b) all the ghosts and incest and murder, and c) that the title role is a colossal challenge and the temptation to give it to a great actor and see how they attempt it is always a temptation. But which to choose? Based more on the quality of the adaptation in and of itself than on the quality of the Hamlet performance by itself, here are some (relatively) impartial takes on several of the more readily available filmed adaptations, in chronological order – you shan’t trick us here at Shakespeare In Action into ranking them, that’s just asking for an Internet Argument.
1. Laurence Olivier, 1948
Notable Cast: Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, Jean Simmons as Ophelia, Christopher Lee as (literally!) Spear Carrier.
Probably what most people think of when they think of Hamlet on film if they haven’t seen one yet – slow and neurotic and black and white and very, very, very serious. There’s a lot to like – the intensely Freudian imagery of Elaine Herlie (younger than Olivier!) as Gertrude and the immense crown prop hanging over many of the big scenes, the paranoid Escher painting of a winding, claustrophobic set – and the performances are often brilliant in an old-fashioned way. No Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, however, and Olivier’s dreadfully simplistic introduction of the play states openly that it is the “tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind”. Be advised that it’s hard to resist this closed reading in the face of his marvellous talent, so those seeking a more nuanced take might want to look elsewhere.
2. Franco Zeffirelli, 1990
Notable Cast: Mel Gibson(!) as Hamlet, Glenn Close as Gertrude, Helena Bonham Carter as Ophelia, Ian Holm (Bilbo Baggins!) as Polonius.
One of the (literally) darkest versions, shot to be as “ye olde Medievale” as possible in a huge brooding castle full of surly men in furry cloaks. Some of the events are rearranged, and the script is drastically cut; the net result is that Hamlet talks as little as is dramatically possible, which makes him seem surprisingly tough and competent. Less attractively, Hamlet’s relationship with his mother is decidedly sketchy, especially since she looks amazing and Ophelia looks about ten years old. This is a direct and vicious Hamlet set back when life (even for princes) was “nasty, brutish and short.” Works best, maybe, as an action-packed, jump-cut companion piece to the more contemplative Princes on the list.
3. Kenneth Branagh, 1996
Notable Cast: Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet/Director/Screenwriter/Caterer/Wardrobe/Makeup/etc., Kate Winslet as Ophelia, Julie Christie as Gertrude, Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Billy Crystal as The Gravedigger, Robin Williams as Osric, Judi Dench as Hecuba (non-speaking).
The Behemoth. Uncut. Unedited. Four+ Hours of Elsinore Power. Everything is bigger, shinier, with more mirrors and more gold braid and more flashbacks and more completely unnecessary nude scenes. Kenneth Branagh’s extraordinary hubris in directing and writing his own star vehicle produces wonderful visuals but also hugely self-indulgent and unbelievably positive readings of his character. Also, severely punchable performances in the “comedy” scenes. Hamlet = Good, Horatio = Nice, everyone else = Foolish/Misguided/Bad. (Except for Polonius, who comes across as a manipulative and morally ambiguous master spy. Severely cool.)
4. Michael Almereyda, 2000
Notable Cast: Ethan Hawke as Hamlet, Julia Stiles(!) as Ophelia, Kyle MacLachlan(!!) as Claudius, Liev Schreiber(!!!!) as Laertes, Bill Murray(!!!!) as Polonius.
Ever want to see Hamlet rent a bunch of movies from Blockbuster in a stripey wool cap with huge dangling earflaps during “To be or not to be?” No? Too bad, it’s happening! The Manhattan-based Denmark Corporation (le sigh) is being taken over by Uncle Claudius (looking exactly, EXACTLY like Trey from Sex and the City) – cheap ‘modernizing’ touches ahoy! The ‘poison on the rapier’…is a handgun. The Mousetrap is an epically pretentious art movie Hamlet apparently makes on his laptop (in about ten minutes). Ophelia has cornrows (yo). Lovely touches like King Hamlet’s ‘ghost’ image flitting across security footage, or even Bill Murray’s comic heroics, can only go so far. If you want a smart version of this same staging concept, just show the Luhrmann Romeo + Juliet.
5. Gregory Doran (BBC2), 2009
Notable Cast: David Tennant as Hamlet, Patrick Stewart as Claudius.
Doctor Who vs. Captain Picard in a knock down drag-out fight to the finish! Yes, Hamlet is brilliant and erratic; yes, Claudius is commanding and kind of scary. Besides the stunt casting, this adaptation is worth showing primarily as it’s essentially a filming of the RSC production, and as such more of a filmed stage play than a feature film; the set is minimal, the costumes have no clear temporal setting, and the acting is stagey, often static, often with characters standing oddly far apart. For drama students in particular it’s a great way to show the conventions of representing space, interaction and movement in a stage context without having to go to a play.
Bonus Reel: Adaptations to Excerpt:
For trying to pick out particular aspects of Hamlet, here are some examples of how certain looser adaptations or film productions of the play can offer targeted visual or thematic inroads into possible ways to study or critique the play.
-The most famous, obviously, is The Lion King (1994) – just getting students to work out how the original characters map onto their African Savanna counterparts is a good test of their ability to get at the bare thematic bones of the play without being distracted by superficial differences.
-In terms of reinvention, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1990) is a beautiful exercise in empathy – after a scene from the play, show one of the Stoppard scenes continuing the action once the powerful characters have left, and you’ve got an inroad into the class politics of the play and the relative invisibility of the commoner in Shakespeare.
-Finally, to convey a sense of how old plays can have real political power, show a segment of the (severely curtailed, Russian subtitled) Gamlet (1964). Directed and starring victims of Stalinist persecution, the play is staged in open public spaces – capturing the spirit of modern police states, where what’s hidden is no longer so frightening as what’s vulnerable and exposed.