A Level English: Lights! Camera! Action! “Hamlet” in Film

Theatre What better excuse can we make to justify eating endless amounts of popcorn than to watch a film version of “Hamlet”? Countless film directors have transformed “Hamlet” into motion picture. They have attracted new Hamlet-devotees, aided students and authors alike in writing up critical comparisons of the play; they have been useful to those of us who find the Shakespearean language difficult to understand, have inspired future directors and actors to continue recreating the play in alternative styles and have helped extend and even increase our interest in “Hamlet”, through the colourful array of different ways it has been remade.

For those of us who might be overwhelmed by the sheer variety of film versions to choose from, however, or to the many students who might not have the time to watch all the different versions of “Hamlet”s there are, I have summarised some of the characteristics of a few versions of the play.

You can still bring your popcorn along.

Kozintsev’s Hamlet (1964)Kozintsev's Hamlet (1964)

Tiffany Ann Conroy Moore in “Kozintsev’s Shakespeare Films: Russian Political Protest in Hamlet and King Lear” writes that: “[in Kozintsev’s version] torches are placed on the stage for illumination. Here, as elsewhere in the film, fire and flame represent truth: inside Elsinore, torches, candles and the fireplace, when lit, represent glimmerings of truth inside the castle’s hyper-controlled world of falsity”

Sir Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” (1948)Sir Laurence Olivier's

Campbell Dixon, in his original review for Hamlet, wrote that “Cutting (unavoidable even on the stage) helps enormously to tighten up the action…Olivier, very rightly, in a medium that, must be popular or nothing, plays for sympathy. He does not spare us – how could he? – Hamlet’s fierce egotism, his callousness towards the murdered Polonius (“I’ll lug the guts into the neighbour room”, his savage jests later about the corpse…and his gleeful sending of his schoolfriends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death… [it is] a virile, fascinating performance” (Credit: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/william-shakespeare/10782898/Shakespeare-Laurence-Olivier-as-Hamlet-original-1948-Telegraph-review.html)

Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” (1996)Branagh's

Dr Alistair Brown, in his interesting essay “The visual poetry of filmed Shakespeare: Branagh’s Hamlet and Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood” observes that: “Branagh must provide visual cues throughout the play, such as having Ophelia’s meeting with Polonius (Act II, Scene I) take place in a confessional, to raise our awareness of the religious context of the court such that when Hamlet hesitates killing Polonius whilst he is repenting we understand that this is, theologically, a rational hesitation…” (see http://www.thepequod.org.uk/essays/litcrit/visualpo.htm for the full essay)

Gregory Doran’s “Hamlet” (2009) Doran's

It must be remembered, however, that these films present an interpretation of “Hamlet”. You should be wary not to take these presentments of “Hamlet” as the ‘correct’ ways of interpreting the text. Film is powerful- it shapes your views, offers knowledge and new insights, but it is also dangerous, because it is often quite easy to be mislead by one interpretation of the play. It is important to always bear this in mind.

Nevertheless, adaptations of the play are useful in engaging you to consider other ways of looking at “Hamlet”; being open to other interpretations can prove to be an effective way of enriching your own ideas, and your own approach to the play. I find that watching the different ways that “Hamlet” has been presented in film has helped me become more open to new readings of the text, which have often been illuminating, and have also helped me appreciate the complexity and effectiveness of the ambiguity of “Hamlet”.

If you have anything to add, please feel free to comment!

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