Literary Adaptations: Comparing Versions of a Text

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

From ink to type, spoken to sung, the idea of the story morphs in each retelling. This lesson explores versions of Shakespeare's Hamlet as it transforms across different media: as a book, a song, and a movie.

What's In a Version?

Shakespeare's Juliet asked, 'What's in a name?'. Well, we might also ask 'what's in a play'? After all, it's possible that more people have seen a film adaptation of a Shakespeare play than have read one of his works cover to cover.

The fact that we watch movies to learn about literature begs the question: what differences exist between the original text and its filmed version? Comparing examples of Hamlet across media--in literature, film, opera, stage, and painting--begs questions of how each retelling adds its own unique twist.


William Shakespeare is one of the world's most widely adapted author. Of all of Shakespeare's 37 plays, Hamlet is one of his best known. From the many versions of the text--from the original manuscript and printed versions to stage performances and films--the tortured prince's words can be heard repeated by many historical and literary figures.

Hamlet is a role coveted by big name actors as a way to prove their Oscar worthiness. Many have taken it on, from Lawrence Olivier (1948) and Richard Burton (1964), to Mel Gibson (1990) and Kenneth Branagh (1996).

Modern adaptations of Hamlet like the 2000 film starring Ethan Hawke place its characters and events in new contexts. Contemplating 'to view or not to view' while browsing through the aisles of a video rental store will offer viewers a different experience than the reader who savors the words on the pages of a dog eared library copy.

This example suggests that the meaning of a play isn't confined to the pages of a script or the performance of the actors. As Hamlet and company change out of their Elizabethan garb, characters also speak in new languages. When the sets, costumes, props and dialogue changes, we have to wonder how the meaning of the work also shifts.

Translations Across Media

Shakespeare's plays were originally produced as quartos, one of the earliest kinds of printed book. Large sheets were printed, then folded into four sections and collated to make a leaflet roughly half the size of a book. The existence of different versions of the quarto suggests that there is no 'original' text, but merely a series of versions put to paper. Perhaps the 'original' version existed on the stage when the play was first performed.

Third quarto of Hamlet by Shakespeare, 1610

The famous graveyard scene portrayed Pedro Americo's Hamlet's Vision (Visão de Hamlet) (1893), for example, can convey the characters, props, and situation between Hamlet and his contemplation of Yorick's skull. That single moment is expressed well, but it cannot express the duration (time), gesture (movement), dialogue (language), and interaction (acting and directing) of a performance between actors on a stage.

Some aspects of storytelling can be better received in time-based media--film, literature, theater, music--, and others in two-dimensional art--painting, photography, illustration, sculpture.

Visao de Hamlet by Pedro Americo, 1893
Hamlets Vision

Adaptation and Inspiration

Adaptation refers to the process of translating a creative work from one medium to another: a novel adapted into a film, for example. Hamlet has been adapted into operas: Ambrose Thomas' 1868 version in French, and Franco Faccio's 1865 Amleto in Italian.

Even though it translates Shakespeare's original meter into another language and sets it to music, the opera is considered an adaption because it conforms roughly to the original play's storyline. But from the eloquent rhyming couplets to a soprano's crescendo, things get lost in translation.

Ambrose Thomas, Hamlet as Opera, 1868

How closely does a story need to conform to its source material to truly be considered an adaptation? Many people consider The Lion King to be based on Hamlet because of Simba's situational resemblance to the Danish prince. Timon and Pumbaa appear like Rosencrantz and Gildernstern, Hamlet's only friends.

But can a story be synthesized to its basic man vs. society plot and still convey the uniqueness that makes it a great work of literature? Some people answer no, referring to them as loose adaptations or derivative works 'inspired by' an original one.

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