Shakespearean cinema, like many of the other subjects I’ve approached in my annual film retrospectives, is something in which I’ve long wanted to become more fluent. There are boundless avenues for exploration, from straight adaptations to the myriad stories that share some affinity with the plays. When embarking on a concentrated study of a group of films, variety is important, so I wanted to tackle a subject that would allow me to run the gamut. Enter Hamlet, cum aliis. One of the most famous fictional characters of all time, the dream role for many an ambitious actor, Hamlet has been portrayed throughout the history of cinema, in productions from all over the world. The first was a French production from 1900 starring no less than Sarah Bernhardt, and as of this writing the most recent is Claire McCarthy’s 2018 film Ophelia, told from that character’s perspective.
Wikipedia cites a source that claims there are more than fifty Hamlet films in all. My own list of feature films for this retrospective comes out to 27. The discrepancy can be attributed to a number of things. First, obviously, the older and more obscure films that are either lost or never released on video cannot be included. (A lost 1907 short by Georges Méliès is especially missed, as is a 1911 version, directed by August Blom, that was filmed in Elsinore itself.) I also decided to forgo filmed records of stage productions, because otherwise this exercise might never end. Made-for-TV movies didn’t make the cut either. Finally, I can’t be sure how many semi-adaptations were included in that longer list. Movies that include a character who’s an actor and plays Hamlet at one point shouldn’t really count, thus disqualifying such classics as To Be or Not to Be. The distinction becomes arbitrary at this point, because To Be or Not to Be has more of Shakespeare’s actual words in it than some of the looser adaptations included below, but these are the rules and I’m sticking by them.
Even with those restrictions, the variety on offer is staggering. The global nature of this series puts all my previous retrospectives to shame. In addition to the expected Anglo countries, there are films from Finland, France, Germany (and West Germany), Italy, Russia, Turkey, India, China and Japan. It would seem that Hamlet holds some fascination with practically every culture that’s heard of him. These films also cover many of the major film movements and styles, from film noir to the French New Wave to spaghetti westerns to animation to wuxia epics to Bollywood extravaganzas. Having seen only six of the 27 films up to this point, I’m prepared for the connection to the Bard, in some cases, to be quite tenuous. On the one hand, the always-popular novelty of setting Shakespeare in the present day while retaining the language is certainly represented, and on the other I found two silent-era versions, which by necessity reduce the play to its iconic actions. Other films have a still vaguer connection to the source. Take a particularly famous example: The Lion King features only the barest outline of Hamlet‘s plot — a prince’s father is murdered by his own brother, only to return as a ghost and clear up some of the prince’s misconceptions — and a whole bunch of other stuff that has nothing to do with it. It’s amusing to throw it into the mix anyway, but let’s just say it’s a good thing there’s only one movie called The Lion King to waste our time with here. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the one and only unabridged movie version of Shakespeare’s play, directed by Kenneth Branagh and clocking in at 242 minutes.
As has become my custom, the retrospective will begin on January 1 and in this case be confined entirely to that month. This is the list of films in chronological order, with the name of the director and the actor playing the prince. (Note that in some cases they are one and the same.) The Chabrol film and the Disney film are, of course, repeats from earlier retrospectives, but in the case of the former, this will be the first time I see it with the aid of subtitles.
Hamlet (1913) – Hay Plumb / Johnston Forbes-Robertson
Hamlet (1921) – Svend Gade & Heinz Schall / Asta Nielsen
Strange Illusion (1945) – Edgar G. Ullmer / James Lydon
Hamlet (1948) – Laurence Olivier
The Rest Is Silence (1959) – Helmut Käutner / Hardy Krüger
The Bad Sleep Well (1960) – Akira Kurosawa / Toshiro Mifune
Ophélia (1963) – Claude Chabrol / André Jocelyn
Gamlet (1964) – Grigori Kozintsev / Innokenty Smoktunovsky
Johnny Hamlet aka The Wild and the Dirty (1968) – Enzo G. Castellari / Andrea Giordana
Hamlet (1969) – Tony Richardson / Nicol Williamson
Hamlet (1976) – Celestino Coronado / Anthony Meyer
Intikam Melegi aka The Female Hamlet (1977) – Metin Erksan / Fatma Girik
Strange Brew (1983) – Rick Moranis & Dave Thomas / Lynne Griffin
Hamlet Goes Business (1987) – Aki Kaurismäki / Pirkka-Pekka Petelius
Hamlet (1990) – Franco Zeffirelli / Mel Gibson
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990) – Tom Stoppard / Iain Glen
The Lion King (1994) – Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff / Jonathan Taylor Thomas & Matthew Broderick
Tommy Boy (1995) – Peter Segal / Chris Farley
Hamlet (1996) – Kenneth Branagh
Let the Devil Wear Black (1999) – Stacy Title / Jonathan Penner
Hamlet (2000) – Michael Almereyda / Ethan Hawke
Hamlet (2005) – Stephen Kavanagh
The Banquet aka Legend of the Black Scorpion (2006) – Feng Xiaogang / Daniel Wu
Hamlet (2007) – Alexander Fodor / William Belchambers
Hamlet (2011) – Bruce Ramsay
Haider (2014) – Vishal Bhardwaj / Shahid Kapoor
Ophelia (2018) – Claire McCarthy / George MacKay & Jack Cunningham-Nuttall