Hamlet Film Adaptations

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
This lesson discusses several notable film adaptations of Hamlet, looking at how directors and actors have used the art form of film to interpret William Shakespeare's masterpiece.

Filming Hamlet

By one count, there are over 50 filmed versions of Hamlet, Shakespeare's longest and most-quoted masterpiece. This lesson leaves out some films that function mainly as records of stage productions. Instead, it focuses on adaptations that actively use the art and technology of film to interpret Hamlet. Even when films were still silent, Hamlet was put on screen. But the first project to treat the interpretation of Hamlet and the use of film with equal ambition was undertaken by Laurence Olivier, one of the twentieth century's greatest Shakespeareans.

Olivier's Hamlet

This gorgeous 1948 film won the Oscar for Best Picture, among many other international prizes. It's visibly influenced by the genre of film noir, with its strong contrasts between light and dark, and deliberately exaggerated camera angles. The camera itself becomes a character, pursuing, prying; Olivier's emphasis on surveillance would be taken up by subsequent film directors as well. His choice to stage Hamlet's conversation with his mother on the queen's bed, giving the scene incestuous overtones, was seen as shocking, but has proved influential.

Another of the film's notable interpretative choices is that Olivier himself performs the voice of the ghost, suggesting that its counsel may be in the prince's head. Hamlet himself is often shown literally on the edge of things; the 'To be or not to be' soliloquy is performed with Olivier balancing his body on a crenellation. As director and actor, Olivier conspicuously resists providing any easy answers to the enigma of Hamlet's madness.

The Genius of Place

Hamlet in the USSR

Director Grigori Kozintsev produced one of Hamlet's most striking film adaptations in 1964. His style is nothing less than monumental, using many dramatic shots of nature. Hamlet is visibly at the mercy of forces beyond his control, and the court is at the mercy of the tyrannical Claudius' whims. Kozintsev's reading of the play is both earthy and emotionally intense.

Hamlet at Elsinore

In the same year as Kozintsev's production, Phillip Saville produced a Hamlet for the BBC that was filmed on location. This marked a landmark in the use of television for Shakespeare. The medieval castle of Elsinore, in Denmark, provided an atmospheric backdrop for the fey, fragile Hamlet of Christopher Plummer, and the warm Horatio of Michael Caine.

Zeffirelli's Hamlet

Hamlet as blockbuster

As with his famous adaptations of Shakespeare's Italian plays in the 1960s, Franco Zeffirelli made setting a major character in his 1990 film version of Hamlet. He used camera angles to create an Elsinore that can feel both claustrophobic and terrifyingly open. The fact that the castle is first and foremost created for defense reinforces Hamlet's sense that he is in a covert war with Claudius. Controversially, Zeffirelli rearranged considerable portions of the play, as well as cutting it. Mel Gibson's unusually decisive Hamlet was acted - and filmed - more like a conventional action hero than a philosopher-prince.

Branagh Does The Whole Thing

Hamlet in a hall of mirrors

While Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet was a lavishly-produced blockbuster, it was most famous for filming the whole text of the play. Hamlet is so long that almost no one performs the whole thing, on film or on stage! Branagh's filming choices emphasize both the contrast between reality and appearance at the court, and the external danger to Denmark from Fortinbras. That Fortinbras is played by Rufus Sewell is typical of the luxurious casting. Kate Winslet is a heartbreaking Ophelia; the experienced Shakespearean Derek Jacobi plays a suave, chilling Claudius. Jacobi is one of two previous Hamlets in the film; the legendary Sir John Gielgud appears as Priam. While Branagh's Hamlet is conspicuously aware of performance history, subsequent filmed versions would experiment in deliberately iconoclastic ways.

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