Sunday Shakespeare: Hamlet on Film

AP Photo/Royal Shakespeare Company, Ellie Kurttz

AP Photo/Royal Shakespeare Company, Ellie Kurttz

Donna Kelly takes a look back at five of the most famous adaptions of Hamlet on film

With Benedict Cumberbatch currently treading the boards as the Danish prince at the Barbican, the word on everyone’s lips at the moment is Hamlet.

William Shakespeare’s tale of tragedy of murder and revenge in medieval Denmark is arguably the Bard’s most famous and most-discussed play and it’s not hard to see why.

For those who have never read (or indeed seen) Hamlet, the play tells the story of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark who returns home from University when his father, the King, dies. Claudius – brother to the King and Hamlet’s uncle – has taken the thrown and Hamlet’s widowed mother Gertrude for his bride. One night, the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears and tells Hamlet that he was murdered by Claudius. Seeking revenge, Hamlet plans to recreate the monstrous deed in a play with the help of some traveling actors to torment the conscience of the evil Claudius.

What makes Hamlet so special is the complex and fascinating lead role. The young prince invites the audience to become his personal confidante as he wrestles with abstract ideas of mortality, philosophy, grief and unrequited love. The role is the Holy Grail for actors and is the part most young actors aspire to play. Each actor’s interpretation of the role is also different so no two great actors ever play him quite the same way. The joy in this is that you can see 100 adaptions of Hamlet and each one will be different.

In our first post in our Sunday Shakespeare series, we take a look back at five of the most famous adaptions of Hamlet on film. Whether you’re a true Shakespearean or a just curious film fan, we recommend giving the below films a watch to experience the full genius of Hamlet for yourself. Don’t forget to comment at the end and let us know your favourite adaptions.

Laurence Oliver’s Hamlet (1948)

Laurence Oliver Hamlet

First on the list is Sir Laurence Olivier’s Oscar-winning 1948 adaptation of one of Hamlet – arguably the best of them all. Olivier delivers one of his greatest Shakespearean performances as the Danish prince and his adaptation of Hamlet is the one everyone else is measured by.

What makes Oliver’s adaptation so special is that it is straightforward. Olivier portrays Hamlet as “a man who could not make up his mind” and his dark, thoughtful and complex performance brings a deep understanding to Hamlet’s inner struggles and dilemmas. Oliver skilfully shows how the prince falls apart under the burden of his thoughts and inability to accept his mother’s marriage to his uncle. His brilliant monologues also bring out all the master’s irony and wit.

Oliver is joined by a strong supporting cast with Eileen Herlie as the Queen, Jean Simmons as Ophelia, Felix Aylmer as Polonius and Terrence Morgan as Laertes. The film is moodily shot in black and white with Oliver cleverly using the lights and shadows of Elsinore castle to create his own kind of Shakespeare noir.

Oliver’s adaptation won him an Oscar for Best Picture and Best Actor and is the only adaptation of Shakespeare to win both Best Picture and Best Actor.

Franco Zeferelli’s Hamlet (1990)

Franco Zeferelli’s Hamlet copy

One of the most controversial adaptions of Hamlet is Franco Zeferelli’s 1990 film featuring Mel Gibson and Glenn Close. In this adaptation, Zeffirelli takes elements of Shakespeare’s original play and chops, drops and rearranges parts to create a film that focuses on the story. While Zeferelli’s adaptation is certainly a masterful piece of film work, many argue that it isn’t true to Shakespeare. The director, however, has done a great job of turning a complex text into a film easily understood by viewers.

In Zeffirelli’s adaption, Mel Gibson plays the role of Hamlet. Many believe Gibson was too old to play the role (thereby making Glenn Close too young to be his mother Gertrude) however he does pull off a convincing portrayal as the Danish prince. Unlike Olivier, Gibson’s portrayal of Hamlet is more true-to-human nature, displaying Hamlet’s brooding and depressing personality and the true desperation of the character in his quiet moments.

The film features an all-star cast with Glenn Close as Gertrude and Helena Bonham-Carter as Ophelia. Close’s performance is worth a mention, with the actress bringing life to Gertrude displaying traits both despicable and kind. Bonham-Carter’s portrayal of Ophelia is equally astounding, particularly her reaction to her father’s death which is incredibly convincing and terribly sad.

While Zeferelli’s adaptation may seemingly miss vital parts to the play, the director has created his own beautiful tribute to Shakespeare and it’s certainly worth a watch.

Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996)

Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet

Giving Sir Laurence Olivier’s adaption a run for its money is Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 Hamlet. Branagh’s dedication to stay true to the original text makes it one of the most loved adaptations and one that is both accessible and understandable to the general viewer.

Part of the genius of Branagh’s interpretation of Hamlet is in the use of flashback scenes and intense close-ups to enhance the production. Branagh himself is also a wonderful Hamlet, making us understand more than any other Hamlet, the distracted, anguished and tortured prince. His sharp, irresistible performance is one of its kind, guiding us to not only an appreciation of Hamlet’s actions but also to an understanding of why Hamlet is so long in assuming the name of action.

An all-star cast support Branagh in the lead role including Derek Jacobi who is superb as Claudius and Kate Winslet as Ophelia. Winslet’s performance is particularly worth a mention with the actress bringing an unusual strength to the role and her mad scene with Claudius is one of the best. Other performers include are Richard Briers, Nicholas Farrell, Michael Maloney, Reece Dinsdale, Timothy Spall Julie Christie, Charlton Heston and Robin Williams.

Branagh’s four-hour adaptation of Hamlet was nominated for four Oscars and remains one of the most wonderful cinematic productions of Hamlets to date.

Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000)

Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet

Next on the list is Michael Almereyda’s 2000 film adaption starring Ethan Hawke. Set in modern-day New York City, Almereyda’s adaptation of Hamlet is certainly an interesting one with the director interpreting many of the core scenes (and themes) of Hamlet in the context of corporate America.

Stylish, inventive and visually striking, Almereyda’s adaptation counterbalances the traditional speech and lines of the play with a contemporary context and delivery. Almereyda also departs from the usual staging conventions (medieval costume, stone castles) to present the story in a modern context. In this film, Denmark is no longer a country but now a corporation and Claudius is not a King, but now a CEO.

Ethan Hawke stars in the lead role, delivering the brooding, confused, lovesick, and ultimately self-destructive Hamlet that Shakespeare intended. Bill Murray’s performance as Polonius and Julia Stiles’ performance as Ophelia are also worth a mention, as is Sam Sheppard as the Ghost.

While Almereyda’s adaptation may not match up to the grandeur of Olivier’s or the cinematic spectacle of Branagh’s version, it is a respectable effort and deserves to be viewed if not celebrated.

Gregory Doran/RSC’s Hamlet (2009)

RSC Hamlet

Finally, our summary of Hamlet on film wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the RSC’s 1996 TV movie adaption of Hamlet starring David Tennant. Fresh and contemporary, the RSC’s modern spin on Shakespeare’s Hamlet does a fantastic job of capturing the essence of the play within a modern context.

In this production, the RSC juxtaposes the language of Shakespeare in a modern setting, with the reflective black stage providing a suitably stark backdrop for us to focus on the actors.

David Tennant is portrayal as Hamlet is unique and intriguing with the actor playing the tightly-wound Prince with pain, uncertainty and a kind of measured lunacy. His “To be or not to be” speech has been described as chilling and is certainly worth a watch.

The casting of Sir Patrick Stewart as the soft-spoken and deadly Claudius also adds gravitas to the production. His smooth, menacing and revealing performance will give you shivers and his genuine love for Gertrude gives us an insight into one of the main reasons why he murdered his own brother.

Penny Downie as Queen Gertrude, Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius, Mariah Gale as Opehlia and Peter De Jersey as Horatio make up the supporting cast. The only slight downside to the RSC’s production is the use of the same actor for multiple minor roles, which is a little distracting at times.

All in all, the RSC’s adaption is arguably the best Hamlet since Branagh’s and will certainly appeal to a modern audience who may be fed up with the loftier Shakespeare productions.

Whether you prefer the cinematic splendour of Sir Laurence Olivier’s adaptation or the fresh, modern take of Michael Almereyda’s version, it is easy to see why Hamlet remains one of Shakespeare’s most loved plays.

Let us know your favourite adaption of Hamlet in the comments section below and be sure to follow Frankly My Dear UK on Facebook and Twitter for your chance to win some fantastic prizes.

About Donna

Donna is the Editor of Frankly, My Dear UK. By day, she is a digital marketing whizz, by night she reviews film, theatre and music for a wide range of publications including WhatsonStage, The Public Reviews and ScreenRelish. Loves Shakespeare, prosecco and Formula 1