I’ve gotten to know this play pretty well over the last couple weeks, having as of this writing seen sixteen of the twenty-seven renditions I’ve lined up for this retrospective. It’s probably not too controversial to say that none of the films so far has captured the full drama and tragedy of the play. Some collapse under the mammoth task, and others are content to get just one or two facets of Shakespeare’s idea as right as possible. More than half of them abandon the early seventeenth century dialogue, for obvious reasons, leaving us with the outline of a story that I’ve already been so bold as to criticize. (Backup poison! Backup poison for the backup poison! I don’t see how this plan could possibly go sideways!) My favorites so far have been the ones with the freedom to play around with the text while still paying close attention to it.
As usual with these retrospectives (though I skipped it last year, with Goofy and Daffy), I’ve been writing reviews for each movie on my Letterboxd account. Here’s a sample of what I’ve written there so far:
Hamlet (1913) – It’s hard to say if I’m inflating this film’s quality based on having no expectations for something made in 1913, but it’s pretty good. Shadows on faces are effective, as is the ghost effect and the staging of two scenes in particular: the play-within-the-play and the discovery of Ophelia’s body in the river (off-camera). The (ahem) veteran actor Johnston Forbes-Robertson is having a great time playing the prince. For all the limitations of the tableau style, there are some good location shots, and an insert near the end that shows poison being applied to the sword and goblet is “stagy” in the best way. My only complaint is that, at least in the version I got from YouTube, the intertitles don’t always match up with the action. But hey, this thing speeds through Shakespeare’s longest play in less than an hour. Fairly impressive.
Hamlet (1948) – Monumental, which is certainly one way of handling the material. This might be the grayest movie ever made, and still would be if it were shot in color. Every last thing is made of stone, to say nothing of all the fog and bones. Olivier produced probably the definitive cinematic treatment of Hamlet Senior, still frightening after all these years. And he certainly does his best to make the thing cinematic, though all that camera movement starts to distract after a point. I prefer the much simpler staging of the play-within-a-play in the 1913 version (!) to all the arcing movements and cuts to close-ups of Claudius looking nervous here. The choice to cut out Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but keep the pirate ship is…an odd one. And I don’t really feel the tragedy of the finale hitting home in this one. (Perhaps the time has come for me finally to reckon with my personal opinion about this play. The character of Hamlet is obviously great — endlessly fascinating and alive — but I’m not sure this is the best story Shakespeare ever wrote.) Young, fey Peter Cushing as the courtier and salt-of-the-earth Stanley Holloway as the gravedigger liven things up quite a bit, but generally these two-and-a-half hours go by a little slowly. Still, that sword fight at the end is great, and this was clearly the most fully realized version of the play on screen to date.
Johnny Hamlet (1968) – Forget the bare bodkin, Enzo Castellari says. If it’s quietus you’re looking for, a six-shooter will get the job done any day of the week. I’ll admit that the existence of a spaghetti western Hamlet was a major reason for my embarking on watching all of the adaptations. Unfortunately, while the framework is the same — fratricide, remarriage, the son returning to investigate what really happened — this movie is mostly boilerplate genre stuff, a bunch of scruffy Italians beating the crap out of each other. A meta element is introduced, with traveling players showing up while rehearsing, you guessed it, Hamlet, but nothing comes of that. The real tragedy of Shakespeare’s ending, in which two young men who’ve been horribly wronged in similar ways attain complementary Pyrrhic victories, is ditched here in favor of a simpler Treasure of the Sierra Madre-style comeuppance. Obviously, it’s all entertaining, just not inspired.
Strange Brew (1983) – It would shock no one to learn that whatever parts of this movie were taken from Hamlet are mere window dressing. You’ve got your beer company scion (Lynne Griffin, the third and final woman as of this writing who’s played “Hamlet” in a film) perplexed at her uncle’s marriage to her mother after her father died in mysterious circumstances. And that’s it. Pam Elsinore (wink, wink) is just a plucky side character, and the uncle is merely a stooge for the real villain, Max von Sydow, who’s up to some kind of mad scientist stuff. Not that I’m disappointed. Literate in-jokes are great, especially when the rest of the movie is so gleefully silly. I wasn’t familiar with SCTV, but Moranis and Thomas’s characters here are very appealing, gently ribbing each other every few seconds and liberally sprinkling their dialogue with “geez” and “hoser” and “knob” and, of course, “‘ey?” These guys are sketch comics, so of course filling out a feature length film is a bit of a stretch for them, but it’s a pleasant way to pass the time regardless, a warmhearted Canadian self-parody, with hockey goons, flannel shirts, politeness, and beer. The one thing that bugged me is the Charles Fox score. Both its scary castle theme and its sad violin theme sound like they were ripped off from John Morris’s music for Young Frankenstein, a film I revere enough to make it impossible not to notice.
Hamlet (1990) – Alan Bates calls Mel Gibson unmanly so Mel stabs him, but not before whining about it a lot for some reason. The broadsword to Olivier’s rapier, Zeffirelli’s film gets the job done but smacks a bit of Shakespeare 101. Look no further than the Gibson casting — an actor so freighted with a “hero with an edge” persona that he doesn’t have to do much work at all in the role. And to his credit, he doesn’t overdo things much, with the possible exception of the scene where he carries a bunch of books on his shoulder and starts ripping pages out of them. Some of the elisions work: we don’t need another take on the cloud joke or the “in my mind’s eye” exchange. The gravedigger scene should be allowed to run in its entirety, though. A couple bits of staging are also of interest: Polonius’s commencement speech to Laertes is given in the open air, overheard by Hamlet, and “To be or not to be” is delivered in a crypt, so that Hamlet seems to be thinking less about suicide than the idea of death in general. The rest of it, though, is pedestrian. The combination of reverence and the fear of taxing people’s patience is a bad one.