Saturday, June 5, 2010

Hamlet: The Film's the Thing

English majors take perverse pleasure in writing about Hamlet, and I am no different than my melancholy Dane-loving brethren. This piece will mark the first time I’ve written about Hamlet on film, a combination of two of my loves. Laurence Olivier’s film adaptation of the play in 1948 won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor, and has played an influential role in how the play has been adapted to film since.

So, for the uninitiated, this is Hamlet in three paragraphs. William Shakespeare composed the play in 1600, and the play has remained popular for the last 410 years. The story follows the eponymous title character, a Danish prince and philosophy student in England, who his returning home to castle Elsinore after the death of his father, the King (also named Hamlet—people often forget there are two Hamlets in the play). Claudius, the King’s brother, is the successor to the throne and he has married Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. The death of his father and the hasty remarriage of his mother to his uncle cause Hamlet considerable angst—which is mistaken as madness—and he finds that Elsinore has devolved into “an unweeded garden”. Even the Elsinore sentries have noticed changes (“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”), especially in seeing the ghost of the dead King haunting the castle. The Ghost King reveals that Claudius murdered him and usurped the throne. The Ghost gives Hamlet a mission: avenge his father’s death by murdering Claudius and thus restoring honor to the kingdom.

Key subplots emerge. One involves Hamlet’s girlfriend, Ophelia, with whom Hamlet has an on-again, off-again relationship. The relationship between her brother, Laertes and their father, Polonius (a champion and ill-fated hide-behind-the-curtains meddler and Claudius’ closest advisor) is shown as a contrast to the relationship Hamlet has with his parents. Another involves the investigation Hamlet makes into the Ghost’s claims, culminating in a play-within-a-play sequence where Hamlet “will catch the conscience of the King”. The major subplot involves Hamlet’s supposed madness, and audiences have debated—right along with the characters—if Hamlet is genuinely mad or if he is putting on an act or if he is both at the same time. Ophelia and Hamlet’s childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are used by Claudius to test Hamlet’s reactions, and the debate between insanity and acting, life and death is summarized in the “To be or not to be” speech—the most famous monologue ever written. Lastly, Fortinbras, the prince of Norway and foil to Hamlet, idles just off Denmark’s shores, waiting to claim the kingdom for his own.

Everything comes to a head in the final act. Hamlet comes to terms with his fate, his mortality, and the mission the ghost of his father laid out for him—“Readiness is all.” Ophelia drowns, and after Hamlet disrupts her funeral (just before this is the “Alas, poor Yorick” scene, where Hamlet holds up the skull of the court jester from his childhood—the image of Hamlet holding up and debating with a skull is the most famous image of the character), a duel with poison-tipped foils is staged between Hamlet and Laertes, and at the duel, Claudius’ hidden secrets are revealed. However, as is the case with Shakespearean tragedy, everybody dies. Only Hamlet’s close friend Horatio survives as Fortinbras claims Elsinore for Norway.

The story has been adapted to film over fifty times since the turn of the twentieth century. The adaptations range from the traditional, to the epic (Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film was entirely uncut—a rarity for a Shakespeare film adaptation—and ran over four hours), to the international (Gamlet, a 1964 Russian production that Branagh and fellow Shakespeare expert John Gielgud consider the best filmed Hamlet ever), the modern (the 2000 Hamlet with Ethan Hawke set is set in the boardroom of the “Denmark Corporation”) and to the bizarre (Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas’ 1983 ode-to-all-things-Canadian comedy Strange Brew is set at Elsinore Brewery—got it, hoser?). The play has also been recontextualized as an existential comedy by Tom Stoppard. His play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, was also made into a 1990 film starring Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, and Richard Dreyfuss. (Stoppard also drastically shortened the play, staging The Fifteen Minute Hamlet, with an encore that further truncates the text.) The most popular—in terms of box-office grosses—filmic adaptation of Hamlet is the 1994 Disney animated musical The Lion King. The play has also inspired operas, music, songs, albums, fiction, poetry and episodes of television shows. Currently, FX Network’s motorcycle gang drama Sons of Anarchy is yet another outside-of-the-box Hamlet adaptation. So the most central question in a film adaptation of Shakespeare is how well his play is adapted to the medium of film. The film really is the thing.

Director/star Laurence Olivier’s version of the film has made very lasting impressions on how Hamlet has been interpreted on screen. His credentials for bringing Shakespeare to screen were firmly established four years earlier, delivering a very well regarded and Oscar-nominated Henry V. With the tone of that play being patriotic, Olivier was instructed by Winston Churchill to make Henry V a piece of morale boosting propaganda for British soldiers during WWII. Unsurprisingly, with Hamlet being a post-war picture, the film favors the psychological aspects of the play over the political aspects. In fact, Olivier is heavily indebted to film noir in bringing his adaptation to life.

Rich chiaroscuro imagery fills the screen, and the deep focus cinematography (another 1940’s stylistic hallmark) by Desmond Dickinson is crisp and crystalline. Black and white is the perfect film stock for Hamlet, with its light and dark contrasts creating a perfect visual metaphor for the themes of duality—good vs. evil, sanity vs. insanity, life vs. death—the story contains. The light and dark color scheme extends to the costumes of the actors, none more effective than Olivier’s as Hamlet. He is almost always wearing black, his hair is platinum blonde, and his makeup is chalky—making Olivier look one step closer to the grave. Olivier’s costume design for Hamlet has proven tremendously influential, and Branagh reprised the look for his Hamlet in 1996.

Olivier is also indebted to German expressionism and gothic horror—especially in his set design. Elsinore Castle is enormous in the film. Often, Hamlet is alone on screen and his solitary figure set against the labyrinthine hallways and spacious rooms of the castle suggests a man lost within his own mind. One could easily imagine a horror film like F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu being staged on this set. The gothic look of the castle is especially effective in the scenes where Hamlet is speaking with the Ghost. Olivier really used production design to his greatest advantage in presenting his visual adaptation of the play.

Olivier errs in his screenplay. All film versions of Hamlet (save, of course, for the unabridged Branagh version in 1996) or any Shakespeare play face difficult decisions about which parts of the play need to be excised when crafting the screenplay. Shakespeare-adapting screenwriters face an unenviable and difficult task when it comes to choose which lines to leave in and which lines will be eliminated. Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s longest and richest plays, is arguably the most difficult to adapt successfully. Olivier’s version cuts almost half the dialogue. Yet his cardinal sin in the adaptation comes in the narrated prologue to the film, where after the “So oft it chances in particular men” speech from Act I, Scene IV, Olivier offers his thesis to Hamlet’s character. He reduces Hamlet’s tragic flaw thusly: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”

I feel that anyone can interpret Hamlet in any reasonable way they choose, and Olivier was an authority on Shakespeare, but reducing the play to simply being about “a man who could not make up his mind” is a gross oversimplification. In fact, Olivier’s interpretation borderlines on erroneous, as Hamlet does make up his mind—but the character is far more concerned with making the morally right decision instead of acting rashly. In fact, only when Hamlet acts rashly—such as his murder of Polonius, mistaken for Claudius eavesdropping behind Gertrude’s curtain—do his actions lead to tragedy. I always feel that by the end of the play, Hamlet becomes confident in his fate and secure about the actions he will take to resolve it, a far cry from a man racked with indecision.

Olivier also omits any mention of both the pair of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Fortinbras. Olivier makes this choice to focus on the psychological intensity of the lead role, but in doing so, loses key scenes that flesh out the character of Hamlet. Hamlet’s scenes with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the second act of the play give the audience the most insight into the personality of Hamlet before his father’s murder, and the scenes also contain some of the most humorous moments of the play (humor is non-existent in this film version of Hamlet, as Olivier chopped most of the gravedigger sequence too, leaving out the fantastic joke about who is the “master builder”—“a gravedigger—the houses he builds last ‘til doomsday”). Gone with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is Hamlet’s famous dismissal of them—the “What a piece of work is man” speech.

Without Fortinbras, Hamlet loses his most important foil. In the play, Fortinbras seeks to conquer the kingdom of Denmark to revenge his father. His firm decision making and swift action stands out in complete contrast to Hamlet’s brooding and inquisition. In many ways, Shakespeare shows audiences Fortinbras as the man that Hamlet should most emulate—one who honors a dead father by taking action to avenge him. If Olivier’s Hamlet is tragic because he is a man who can’t make up his mind, wouldn’t Olivier’s interpretation of the character be enriched by showing a foil to him? Wouldn’t Fortinbras, the man of action, further illuminate Hamlet’s crippling indecision? Though Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Fortinbras are small roles, they are crucial to understanding the character of Hamlet, and with their omission from the film, Olivier missed an opportunity to make his film stronger.

The worst parts of the film involve Gertrude. Eileen Herlie, the actress who portrays her, does a fine job, but Olivier is very much caught up in the Oedipal and Freudian interpretations of Hamlet that suggest the character’s inability to act stems from unfulfilled sexual desires toward his own mother. Herlie was 28 when she played Gertrude—in contrast to Olivier, who was 41, a full thirteen years her senior—and the age disparity in the ages of the actors shows that in casting a Hamlet much older than a Gertrude, a sexual conquest is possible. In the scenes where Hamlet confronts Gertrude, Olivier is dominant and physically imposing toward Herlie and one can easily imagine that if Olivier was a bit more perverse in his interpretation, Hamlet would rape Gertrude.

I don’t entirely discount Oedipal and Freudian interpretations of Hamlet—there is enough evidence in the text of the play to make a compelling case for that point of view. I always feel that Hamlet’s anger toward his mother is born not out of unrealized sexual desires or jealousy toward Claudius, and instead from an extreme distaste toward Gertrude’s behavior. Hamlet is angry at his mother because he feels that she does not at all honor her late husband’s memory and affection toward her—if she ever felt that way at all—by jumping immediately into a marriage with her husband’s brother. In fact, Hamlet harbors suspicions that Gertrude may even be a co-conspirator to the King’s death.

Still, a mother-fixated Hamlet has pervaded filmic adaptations since. In Italian Franco Zeffirelli’s (who helmed the definitive, very excellent traditional film version of Romeo & Juliet in 1968) 1990 version of Hamlet with Mel Gibson as the prince and Glenn Close as the queen, he basically goes where Olivier didn’t quite. The Hamlet/Gertrude scenes in that film are even more sexually suggestive, and when Gertrude dies, a sweat-drenched Hamlet falls on top of her, suggesting post-coital actions. Also notable is that Close was cast primarily on the strength of her man-eating role from Fatal Attraction (Gibson was chosen because of his work in Lethal Weapon as the madman, suicidal cop Martin Riggs), and that again there is an unbelievable age disparity between the actors playing Hamlet and Gertrude. This time, Close’s Gertrude is the older actor, though she is only 11 years older than Gibson, a disparity more believable in a sexual partnership than the age divide between a mother and son. No matter the disparity, rare is the modern Hamlet interpretation that doesn’t include a sexual element between Hamlet and his mother. Rarer still, is an actor cast who is closer to Hamlet’s actual age—around twenty (I always imagine Hamlet as a full-of-himself, pseudo-intellectual college sophomore).

Grievances aside, it is important to remember that whenever Shakespeare is presented on screen, it will always reflect the interpretations the filmmakers have of the text. No director, screenwriters, or actors will ever get things completely right. The fun in watching a film based on Shakespeare is in the debate over what details and interpretations the viewer agrees or disagrees with, and for all I dislike about Olivier’s Hamlet there is also much to admire.

The Ghost King is spectacularly rendered. The play within the play, as always, provides excellent meta-commentary on the audience that is currently experiencing Hamlet, and Olivier makes the scene work as a commentary on audiences watching a film. The duel at the climax of the film is rousing and excitingly staged (when watching the film, keen-eyed Star Wars fans will undoubtedly notice Peter Cushing, the indelible Grand Moff Tarkin in the 1977 original film, here in his first film role as Osric, the courtier who referees the Hamlet/Laertes duel and delivers the line, “A hit! A very palpable hit!”). Olivier’s delivery of the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy doesn’t disappoint.

Hamlet is very much an Oscar anomaly—no other direct interpretations of a Shakespeare play have matched its Best Picture win, and the film isn’t typical of the late 1940’s cinema more beloved by Oscar. In fact, as stated previously, Olivier’s Hamlet is far closer to film noir—a genre nearly completely ignored by the Academy—than at all like the socially conscious pictures that reaped the majority of Academy acclaim. The film’s Best Picture victory is significant in that it was the first entirely British production to claim Oscar’s top prize, and since then Great Britain has by far been the most dominant foreign country in terms of actors and filmmakers receiving awards and nominations (Olivier himself was honored fourteen times by the Academy: nine nominations as Best Actor and winning for his role as Hamlet, once as Best Supporting Actor, once as Best Director and one Best Producer award for Hamlet along with two Honorary awards).

Shakespeare would also continue to provide fodder for Best Picture winners. Film versions of Romeo & Juliet were nominated for Best Picture previous to Olivier’s Hamlet (George Cukor’s 1936 version) and after (Zeffirelli’s 1968 film), and twice has the play been reimagined and awarded Best Picture. West Side Story (for my money, this is bar none the greatest reimagining of any Shakespeare play in any medium) famously updated Romeo & Juliet set amongst New York street gangs in the 1950’s—first a Broadway musical then film. The film won 10 well-earned Oscars. Tom Stoppard contributed to the screenplay for Shakespeare in Love—which offered fictional speculation to the motivations behind Shakespeare composing his most famous romantic tragedy—and lifted many scenes verbatim. Shakespeare in Love took home 8 Oscars.

Olivier’s Hamlet took home four statues, and is proof positive that the medium of film has been very kind to the Bard indeed.


Hamlet (1948)

Director: Laurence Olivier

Starring: Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Eileen Herlie, Basil Sydney, Peter Cushing*

Studio: Two Cities (Universal handled the U.S. distribution of the film)

Total Oscars: 4 (Best Picture, Best Actor—Laurence Olivier, Best Costume Design—Black & White, Best Art Decoration/Set Decoration—Black & White) out of 7 total nominations (Best Director—Laurence Olivier, Best Supporting Actress—Jean Simmons, Best Score)
*The very famous and prolific Christopher Lee has an uncredited role as a spear carrying soldier

NEXT BLOG: All the King’s Men

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