Concerning Various and Sundry Adaptations of Shakespeare Plays (Specifically, "Hamlet") to the Currently Popular Medium of the Cinema

I must confess that, despite my passionate love of literature, specifically classic literature, and my love of archaic language, I had never thought especially highly of Shakespeare. I had read several Shakespeare plays back in my homeschooled days, but had never been especially impressed. Once I began my higher education, I never had much time for reading, and in the precious few times which I had to read Shakespeare never really crossed my mind. Last semester I took a class entitled "Philosophy of Literature and the Cinema," in the course of which (pun intended) I read the play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and watched the 1948 Lawrence Olivier film version. I enjoyed both the reading of the play and the watching of the film, but was not markedly entranced, apart from being surprised by the amount of common sayings and idioms in the English language which come from the play (including "Frailty, thy name is woman;" "what dreams may come;" "this mortal coil;" "Brevity is the soul of wit;" “[Every] dog will have his day;” and several others which currently escape my memory), and being fascinated with and loving the short poem which Hamlet writes to Ophelia (click here to read the poem and learn more about it than you ever could have imagined).

My roommate Andrew is currently enrolled in a class entitled "Shakespeare on Film." One of his assignments was to watch as many film versions of "Hamlet" as possible, a task to which he took like a duck to a kindly old lady giving out bread crumbs from a park bench. The first two versions which he obtained were the 1990 version starring Mel Gibson and the 2000 version starring Ethan Hawke, and one night around 8:30ish he declared his intention to begin his studies by watching the former. I had heard good things about this version, and my curiosity was piqued, especially considering my renewed interest in archaic linguistics that has been coming out in spades this semester. So I determined to put off my homework until after the movie, and watched it with him.

It was amazing. I like Mel Gibson quite a lot as an actor, and he played a remarkable Hamlet—his emotion was dramatic but not overdone and his delivery natural and eloquent. I also was impressed with Helena Bonham Carter’s portrayal of Ophelia—although Ophelia is not exactly the paragon of womanhood, she is supposedly somewhat attractive, and I must confess that H.B.C. is not quite lackluster in that area—at least in this movie. (Try not to watch Fight Club shortly after this one.) And she was a good actress, too. I was much impressed with Shakespeare’s way with words, his brilliant metaphors and scathing wit.

Following this, I got a drink from the kitchen as Andrew declared his intention to watch the Ethan Hawke version immediately. Although I would have liked to see another version, I decided homework was more important at this point, and declined to watch it. But then, as the movie began, I saw that it was set in New York City in the year 2000 and the modern setting intrigued me, so I decided to eschew homework once again and watch this (it was now around 11 pm).

This version had some very interesting ideas based on the setting (Denmark was now a corporation, Hamlet was “Prince and CEO,” the play with which Hamlet determines the King’s guilt was a home movie made by Hamlet himself, etc.), but also (unfortunately) some very interesting casting choices. Ethan Hawke was an overly brooding and sulky Hamlet with one-dimensional emotional expression. In a blindsidingly surprising move, Bill Murray was Polonius, and in another surprising move engendering sickening emotion akin to that felt after the surprising move of fool’s mate a mere three moves into an important game of chess, Julia Stiles was cast as Ophelia. She too was overly brooding and sulky, besides the obvious but rather undesirable fact that she was, indeed, Julia Stiles. The whole movie displayed a profound ignorance of the basic facts and emotions and situations of the play. Most of the characters delivered their lines as if they had no idea what they had just said. As Stephen said, it had some interesting ideas, but they were ruined by bad execution. After this movie, it was nearing 2 am, and I decided to forget about homework altogether and worry about it tomorrow, and went to sleep.

The next film version of Hamlet that it was our privilege to view was my old friend the 1948 version with Lawrence Olivier. Within the first five minutes of the film Andrew had already given his approval to it as the best version yet seen. This version is black and white, and had many historically accurate details that I would have missed were it not for Andrew’s pointing them out. This version also had by far the best version of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. The Mel Gibson Ghost had been simply a normal actor, not even decked out in armor and a helmet as he is in the play, which had bothered me; the Ethan Hawke Ghost was similar, dressed in a suit and tie, of course. But Lawrence Olivier’s Ghost was properly spooky, surrounded by thick billowing clouds of smoke, dressed in full armor with the visor of the helmet lifted, and possessing a sufficiently sad and creepy voice to believably pronounce, “But that I am forbid / To tell the secrets of my prison house, / I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul....” All around, this was a very well done adaptation. And, as an added bonus, the score to the movie was written by an English composer named William Walton. We’re singing a piece entitled “Belshazzar’s Feast” in our choir this semester which is by William Walton, and it is an amazing piece. He uses many traditional tonal major-minor chord structures, but they are often placed in unusual juxtapositions that lend the music a fresh, original sound. I had never heard of William Walton before this semester, and was impressed by finding him in such a random place.

The fourth and final film version of Hamlet that we experienced was slightly different from the rest. It was a black and white 1960s German made-for-TV movie with English dubbing... and was the subject of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode. For those of you who are acquainted with MST3K, this is one of the best and funniest episodes I have ever seen. The movie was particularly bad, and indeed has gained a reputation as one of the worst Hamlet adaptations of all time (which is why it was preyed upon by MST3K), but had several funny moments apart from the watchers’ jokes. Hamlet was alternately weak and cowardly and unnecessarily violent, throwing both Ophelia and his mother down on separate occasions. The swordfight between Hamlet and Laertes at the end was not especially exciting, but Hamlet’s killing of the King was extraordinary—he ran up to a ledge, and, seeing the King below, dived off the ledge with a shout to knock over and stab the King. Brilliant.

I must confess, as this post comes to a close, that there is one highly esteemed version that we have thus far been unable to watch, due to the regrettable fact that it is not available through Andrew’s online Blockbuster rental service. This is the Kenneth Branagh version, made in 1996, also starring Kate Winslet as Ophelia and (interestingly enough) Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger (according to www.imdb.com). Many people consider this to be the best movie version of Hamlet. I of course cannot judge, partially because I have never seen it and partially because I never presume to be a qualified judge of such things. I have, however, seen Branagh’s adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing,” which I enjoyed very much and thought a worthy effort and very amusing (Keanu Reeves as the villain gives a priceless performance—not so much because the performance is especially good as much as the obvious fact that he is, indeed, Keanu Reeves as the villain). So for the final judgment I await the seeing of this last version. And to that end, Faye, Andrew and I depart for Blockbuster this very hour....

There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.

- Hamlet, Act V, Scene ii


Narisilme said...

Oh, do enjoy! I can't wait to hear what you think! Reading this has inspired me to pick up Shakespeare again. You know, I have the whole set of his works back in New...I mean, Dallas. I guess that's one of the things I'll be taking back with me to CA. Love you, frère!

Idhrendur said...

It's hard to imagine something worse than the Ethan Hawke version.

Well, other than "Manos, The Hands Of Fate."


Cormack McKinney said...

I too have been looking again at some of Shakespeare's works (considering I have been taking a class entitled "Shakespeare" this semester). He does have a gift for understanding and presenting multiple various points of view.
And, though romanticised too much for my liking, his poems are very well written. :]

Anonymous said...

Alas, I must comment on this one...
One must have a copy of Shakespeare's written word to view Branagh's Hamlet. Follow along or read along. Perhaps costumes would also enhance the movie experience. However, is it just me or did ol' William S. need a counseling session with prescribed meds???
Signed, EC's mama

Idhrendur said...

The more little things I am able to find about "EC's" parents, the more it all just makes sense.

And I mean that in the best of all possible ways.