With ‘Hamlet,’ to film or not to film hasn’t been much of a question
William Shakespeare has more screen credits than any other writer, and “Hamlet,” in one form or another, has been filmed more than any of his plays. The first version, lasting all of two minutes, was made in 1900. Sarah Bernhardt starred in the title role.
A tradition of “Hamlet” unexpectedness — gender-bending, too — extends to the latest version, Claire McCarthy’s “Ophelia,” currently playing at the West Newton Cinema. Under the one-form-or-another category, this definitely qualifies as other. The title says as much. The story is told from the point of view not of Hamlet but his ill-fated beloved (Daisy Ridley).
There are some big names on hand. Naomi Watts plays Gertrude. Clive Owen plays Claudius. But if the title isn’t enough to suggest how radical a redo of Shakespeare’s play “Ophelia” is, there’s the fact that Hamlet is played by George Mackay. Who he? This is not a version that cares all that much about a certain famously moody Dane. If that isn’t enough, Gertrude finds herself with a twin sister, Mechtild. Who knew?
Claude Chabrol made an “Ophelia” (1963), too. It certainly reworks “Hamlet,” though not from the title character’s point of view. A young man, Yvan, watches what remains the most famous screen “Hamlet,” Laurence Olivier’s 1948 version, which won a best picture Oscar and Olivier a best actor Oscar. Yvan superimposes that “Hamlet” on his own life. Chabrol being Chabrol, said superimposition is not a good idea.
The gold standard for “Hamlet” reworked from the point of view of another character — or characters — is Tom Stoppard’s 1966 play, the one with the all-time spoiler title, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” The title characters are minor figures in “Hamlet.” In Stoppard’s absurdist comedy, they’re the heroes. Amid all the bravura wordplay and inspired construction, Stoppard reminds us of a truth so basic it’s otherwise universally ignored: Even the most minor players in someone else’s story are the heroes of their own.
In 1990, Gary Oldman and Tim Roth starred in a film version. Stoppard directed, the only time he’s done so. Perhaps that accounts for why a work that can be so dazzling onstage is so leaden transferred to the screen.
In “Strange Brew” (1983), Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas — better known to “SCTV” fans as Doug and Bob McKenzie — do Stoppard one better. Not only do they present “Hamlet,” sort of, from the perspective of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, sort of. They present Rosencrantz and Guilderstern, sort of, as Doug and Bob McKenzie. Even better (or worse, depending on how you look at it): Elsinore isn’t a castle, it’s a brewery. Hey, Polonius, pass the Tuborg.
Hamlet weirdness can go low. There’s a 1968 spaghetti western, “Johnny Hamlet.” No, Clint Eastwood doen’t play the man with Hamlet’s name. Hamlet weirdness can go high. Akira Kurosawa’s adaptations of “Macbeth” (“Throne of Blood,” 1957) and “King Lear” (“Ran,” 1985) rank among the greatest film versions of Shakespeare. “The Bad Sleep Well” (1960), his reworking of “Hamlet,” isn’t in that league. For one thing, it’s more a borrowing of “Hamlet” elements than an actual version of the play. The weirdness comes in via the borrowings. Kurosawa’s equivalent of the play-within-a-play, for example, is a very large wedding cake.
Hollywood released not one, not two, but three “Hamlet” adaptations between 1990 and 2000.
Franco Zeffirelli, who died earlier this month, directed the first one, with Mel Gibson in the title role. This drew some snickers. Yet Mel acquitted himself just fine. He was no stranger to Shakespeare. In a student production at Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art, he played Romeo to Judy Davis’s Juliet. Now that would have been something to see.
Like Zeffirelli, Kenneth Branagh made his filmmaking reputation with Shakespeare adaptations: “Henry V” (1989) and “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993). “Hamlet” is Shakespeare’s longest play. So a key issue is length. The Olivier version is 154 minutes. The Zeffirelli clocks in at a comparatively tidy 135 minutes. The Branagh goes for broke: 242 minutes. Of course, when you’re star as well as director the need to make cuts doesn’t seem quite so urgent. In contrast, Michael Almereyda’s 2000 version cuts to the chase: 112 minutes. That’s 110 minutes more than the Bernhardt version, back in 1900, but still. Ethan Hawke plays a modern-day Hamlet. Instead of having been King of Denmark, his now-dead dad was CEO of Denmark Corp. Sam Shepard plays his ghost. That’s inspired casting, but not as inspired as Bill Murray playing Polonius.
It’s worth noting that the happiest influence “Hamlet” has had on the movies isn’t via versions of the play. Ernst Lubitsch’s classic comedy “To Be or Not to Be” (1942) takes its title from the most famous line in “Hamlet” — in all of Shakespeare (in all of literature)? — and stars Jack Benny as a Shakespearean actor who puts the ham back into Hamlet.
As for “North by Northwest” (1959), it has nothing to do with Hamlet — though, come to think of it, Eva Marie Saint might have been a fine Ophelia, and James Mason ditto for either Claudius or Polonius. The connection is the title. The screenwriter, Ernest Lehman, took it from the play: “I am but mad north-northwest. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a hand saw.” “Hamlet” isn’t just the most-filmed Shakespeare play. It’s the most quotable, too.