This past spring, while teaching Hamlet in a literature-based composition course at the University of Alabama, I spent an afternoon watching the Olivier and Gibson versions back to back. It was, to say the least, an enlightening experience; having one film fresh in my mind made me much more aware of even the subtle differences between the two productions, and made me much more sensitive to the intricacies of the text. About four days later, I saw the Branagh film, and again the skein of the play and the characters became more complex.
Hamlet is the siren song of acting; incredibly dangerous, yet all but impossible to resist. Early in his career Richard Burton upstaged Olivier at a party with a spellbinding performance of the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy--in Gaellic. Mel Gibson tried to reclaim his status as a serious actor by endeavoring the role. Hell, even Keanu Reeves tried it (in the words of one reviewer, "The best that can be said of Reeves' performance is that he got all the words in the right order." Ow. I suppose we should be grateful he didn't say "To be or not to be, dude." (Just now, an image of Alicia Silverstone (in her Clueless guise) as Ophelia opposite Keanu popped into my head. I may be ill.)). Particularly in the wake of Branagh's film of the complete text, it's somehow appropriate to start off this site with a discussion of some of the different representations of the melancholy Dane.
Don't despair; I won't be discussing Keanu.
What I will discuss is 3-4 scenes and/or characters and examine the presentation in the different versions: What ideas get emphasized, what falls into the background? The bottom line, I suppose, is what works, and what doesn't work? And, of course, the real question, WHY? What effects do directorial choices have on how the story plays out?
The versions under discussion are:
I would have liked to have included the Hamlets of Nicol Williamson and Kevin Kline, but space, time, and availability all conspire against me.
For those you you who would like a quick reference to the text, just bamf over to the The Hamlet Homepage. You'll find the complete text as well as a wealth of other useful information. We'll wait for you.
I have done my best to keep my specific references to the various movies as accurate as possible; nevertheless, there may be some inaccuracies, particularly with the Branagh film, as I was only able to see it once. I have a copy of Branagh's screenplay, but I have used it primarily as reference.
The reader will probably be able to discern my preferences through the
discussions, but just in case, here's a capsule summary of sorts:
Whatever flaws there are in Gibson's performance, there is a vitality and
essential likability in Gibson's Hamlet altogether absent from Olivier's.
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