Shakespeare On Film: Hamlet

As dramatic pieces, the works of Shakespeare are best experienced in live performance. There is nothing wrong with reading Shakespeare — and it does make for great reading; do yourself a favor and read it aloud — but the experience of reading Shakespeare alone pales against seeing a well-done performance with an audience. So, be sure to catch the Heart of America Shakespeare production this summer in Southmoreland Park. But, as we don't live in an area where there's always a Shakespeare play in production, we are fortunate in that there are good films of Shakespeare plays.

Given the length of space I have here, I will limit my comments to some film versions of Hamlet. Though Hamlet is not my favorite Shakespeare play—that honor would go to Henry IV, Part 1—it is the play I have seen the most. I have seen every film version I've been able to get a hold of, and I never miss a chance to see a production of this play—I fondly recall a stage production at Union Station about a year ago with Jake Walker as the melancholy Dane, and have most recently seen a simulcast production from London, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. Keep an eye out for that Cumberbatch production, as simulcast productions are sometimes later released on DVD or streaming.


Directed by Laurence Olivier, with Olivier (Hamlet), Basil Sydney (Claudius), Eileen Herlie (Gertrude), Felix Aylmer (Polonius), Jean Simmons (Ophelia)—music by William Walton

This was a major production, directed by and starring one of the leading Shakespearean actors of his day, Laurence Olivier. It won an Academy Award for Best Picture, the only time Shakespeare has been accorded that honor. The sets are stark, and the black and white cinematography by Desmond Dickinson is impressive. The music by Sir William Walton, one of the great 20th c. English composers, adds a lot to the film.

Olivier's Hamlet is best when he moves—when he chases the ghost of his father to speak with it, and in the duel scene at the play's end. Olivier did his own stunts. Felix Aylmer plays a rather dithering Polonius, and he is very endearing. This production is somewhat stagey in its delivery of lines, but all speak their lines "trippingly on the tongue."

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Directed by John Gielgud, with John Gielgud (Hamlet), Andrew Cruickshank (Claudius), Marian Spencer (Gertrude), Baliol Holloway (Polonius), Celia Johnson (Ophelia)

If Olivier was one of the greatest of Shakespearean actors of his generation, surely Gielgud was as good. His 1948 stage production was famous, and someone managed to get the cast together to do a studio recording. The sound, at times, is a bit uneven, but on the upside, you have Gielgud emoting as Hamlet—makes me swoon just thinking about it. The others in the principal roles are also outstanding. This is only available in audio, but well worth it. You can find the audio on hoopla digital, and check it out using your library card.

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Directed by Franz Peter Wirth, with Maximilian Schell (Hamlet)

Actually, this production of Hamlet is terrible. It was so terrible, that the producers of Mystery Science Theater 3000 decided to do a send-up of it in their 10th season. If you want to see how bad a production of Hamlet can be, check this out, but do yourself a favor—get the Mystery Science Theater version. This production was done in German, then dubbed into English, using the actual Shakespearean lines, but read with a German accent (Schell renders his own lines).

Paul Verhoeven (best known for directing Das Boot and most reviled for directing Showgirls) is one of the gravediggers. Best line in this rendition is Mike Nelson's comment following "To be or not to be," which he characterizes as the verbal equivalent of DUM, DUM, DUM, DAHH! from Beethoven's 5th. This can also be seen in its entirety on YouTube.

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Directed by Grigori Kozintsev, with Innokenty Smoktunovsky (Hamlet)—music by Dmitri Shostakovich, text by Boris Pasternak.

There is a problem with watching Shakespeare in languages other than English. It is Shakespeare's command of the English language that makes his plays worth seeing, reading, or hearing, and that is lost in translation. Pasternak's translation is excellent, but unless you know Russian, you won't know that. Kozintsev, though, is a masterful director, and the black and white cinematography by Jonas Gritsius is wonderfully bleak. Best of all, the score is by Dmitri Shostakovich, the greatest composer of the Soviet Union, and arguably, the greatest composer of the 20th century.

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Directed by John Gielgud, with Richard Burton (Hamlet), Alfred Drake (Claudius), Eileen Herlie (Gertrude), Hume Cronyn (Polonius), Linda Marsh (Ophelia)

When Gielgud's production of Hamlet opened at the Lunt-Fontaine Theatre on Broadway, it was somewhat controversial—dubbed the "dress rehearsal Hamlet," the play was done with minimal set, with the actors dressed as they might dress themselves when the play was in rehearsal. The finished product, though, is quite polished, despite the rough set. This film is a filmed record of an actual stage performance (the audience applauds at the conclusion of each scene, and on Burton's first entrance). As such, it has certain limitations—some actors are not heard as clearly as others (Burton, though, is always loud and clear), and we get very few close-ups. Burton's rendering of the lines is a bit overpowering at times, something that would be less jarring seeing it done live. Hume Cronyn plays perhaps the craftiest Polonius on film—the old man as a career politician, rather than as the foolish windbag others portray. The ghost of Hamlet, Sr. is rendered as a reflection on the wall, with Gielgud doing the voice.

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Directed by Rodney Bennett, with Derek Jacobi (Hamlet), Patrick Stewart (Claudius), Claire Bloom (Gertrude), Lalla Ward (Ophelia), Eric Porter (Polonius)

This is one of the BBC productions of all of Shakespeare. The scene between Hamlet and his mom in her chamber was quite shocking in its day. Not only is Jacobi one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of our day, but Patrick Stewart's cool, calm, and collected Claudius is very impressive. For some reason, Bennett put a curly wig on Stewart's head, which undercuts the actor's gravitas.

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Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, with Mel Gibson (Hamlet), Alan Bates (Claudius), Glenn Close (Gertrude), Ian Holm (Polonius), Helena Bonham Carter (Ophelia)

When this production came out, people shook their heads—Gibson as Hamlet, are you kidding? But, it works. What Gibson brings to the role, especially in the final scene, is Hamlet's anger—in any production, Hamlet is angry, but Gibson's take on anger has the suggestion of an explosion about to happen. Bates is very impressive as a rather oily Claudius, and Ian Holm does a very good job of a crafty Polonius (in the Hume Cronyn mold). Helena Bonham Carter's Ophelia, especially once she has gone mad, is very impressive. The music for the film was by Ennio Morricone, one of the giants of movie music, best known for his scores of spaghetti westerns.

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Directed by Kenneth Branagh, with Branagh (Hamlet), Derek Jacobi (Claudius), Julie Christie (Gertrude), Richard Briers (Polonius), Kate Winslet (Ophelia)

Branagh's production of the play is known as the only cinematic realization of the entire play. This makes for a very long (4 hours) film, and a very uneven production. Jacobi is marvelous as Claudius, and Kate Winslet's Ophelia is outstanding as well. For the great actor he is, Branagh lets the stage actor in him get in the way, and his performance is a bit stagy for a film production. Jack Lemmon's appearance as Marcellus was sadly memorable as a very poor final performance by a great American actor. The score by Patrick Doyle is great, as are all of Doyle's efforts.

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Directed by Michael Almereyda, with Ethan Hawke (Hamlet), Kyle MacLachlan (Claudius), Diane Venora (Gertrude), Bill Murray (Polonius), Julia Stiles (Ophelia)

Like Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet, this production of Hamlet is an update, set in late 20th c. New York, where something is rotten in the state of Denmark Corporation. This is the only production I know of where I get a real sense of Hamlet as a student—Hawke portrays the young Hamlet as a brooding film student. Julia Stiles' Ophelia is, unlike most productions, a girl, rather than a woman playing a girl. The choice of Bill Murray as Polonius is interesting - he plays him as part fool, part conniver, part snide observer of events. My favorite scene of this film is the "play within the play" scene, here presented as one of Hamlet's experimental films—I found this an exciting redo of a scene that is sometimes tough to take—for those who bemoan the loss of language in this segment, I would remind them that the language in the "play within a play" scene is pretty hackneyed and cliché.

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Directed by Gregory Doran, with David Tennant (Hamlet), Patrick Stewart (Claudius), Penny Downie (Gertrude), Oliver Ford Davies (Polonius), Mariah Gale (Ophelia)

Another staged production shot for TV, this production is most memorable for Tennant's portrayal of the young Dane—Tennant really plays up the crazy side of Hamlet. Stewart's understated portrayal (even more controlled than his earlier portrayal from 1980) of Claudius captures the menace as well as it's been done.

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I know this is a lot to digest; in brief, if you've never seen a film version of Hamlet, I'd recommend Olivier's treatment; if you've seen a few, I'd recommend the Soviet film version as a nice change of pace; if you'd like to see an interesting twist on the play, making it more of a visual than auditory experience, try the Almereyda.