Hamlet on screen
Over fifty films of William Shakespeare's Hamlet have been made since 1900. Seven post-war Hamlet films have had a theatrical release: Laurence Olivier's Hamlet of 1948; Grigori Kozintsev's 1964 Russian adaptation; a film of the John Gielgud-directed 1964 Broadway production, Richard Burton's Hamlet, which played limited engagements that same year; Tony Richardson's 1969 version (the first in colour) featuring Nicol Williamson as Hamlet and Anthony Hopkins as Claudius; Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 version starring Mel Gibson; Kenneth Branagh's full-text 1996 version; and Michael Almereyda's 2000 modernisation, starring Ethan Hawke.
Because of the play's length, most films of Hamlet are heavily cut, however Branagh's 1996 version used the full text.
- 1 Approaches
- 2 Significant theatrical releases
- 3 Other screen performances
- 4 Adaptations
- 5 Theatrical performances within films
- 6 List of screen performances
- 7 List of screen adaptations
- 8 References
The full conflated text of Hamlet can run to four hours in performance, so most film adaptations are heavily cut, sometimes by removing entire characters. Fortinbras can be excised with minimal textual difficulty, and so a major decision for the director of Hamlet, on stage or on screen, is whether or not to include him. Excluding Fortinbras removes much of the play's political dimension, resulting in a more personal performance than those in which he is retained. Fortinbras makes no appearance in Olivier's and Zeffirelli's versions, while in Kozintsev's and Branagh's films he is a major presence.
Another significant decision for a director is whether to play up or play down the incestuous feelings that Freudian critics believe Hamlet harbours for his mother. Olivier and Zeffirelli highlight this interpretation of the plot (especially through casting decisions) while Kozintsev and Branagh avoid this interpretation.
Harry Keyishan has suggested that directors of Hamlet on screen invariably place it within one of the established film genres: Olivier's Hamlet, he claims, is a film noir; Zeffirelli's version is an action adventure and Branagh's is an epic. Keyishan adds that Hamlet films can also be classified by the auteur theory: Olivier's and Zeffirelli's Hamlets, for example, can be viewed among the body of their directorial work.
Significant theatrical releases
Laurence Olivier, 1948
This black and white British film of Hamlet was directed by and starred Laurence Olivier. As in Olivier's previous Shakespeare adaptation, Henry V (1944), the film's score was composed by William Walton. It has received the most prestigious accolades of any Shakespeare film, winning the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Actor.
The film opens with Olivier's voiceover of his own interpretation of the play, which has been criticised as reductive: "This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind." Olivier excised the "political" elements of the play (entirely cutting Fortinbras, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) in favour of an intensely psychological performance. He played up the Oedipal overtones of the play, to the extent of casting the 28-year-old Eileen Herlie as Hamlet's mother, opposite himself (aged 41) as Hamlet. Film scholar Jack Jorgens has commented that "Hamlet's scenes with the Queen in her low-cut gowns are virtually love scenes." In contrast, Jean Simmons' Ophelia is destroyed by Hamlet's treatment of her in the nunnery scene: ending with her collapsing on the staircase in what Deborah Cartmell calls the position of a rape victim. According to J. Lawrence Guntner, the style of the film owes much to German Expressionism and to film noir: the cavernous sets featuring narrow winding stairwells correspond to the labyrinths of Hamlet's psyche.
Grigori Kozintsev, 1964
Hamlet (Russian: Гамлет; Gamlet) is a 1964 film adaptation in Russian, based on a translation by Boris Pasternak and directed by Grigori Kozintsev, with a score by Dmitri Shostakovich. The film is heavily informed by the post-Stalinist era in which it was made, Pasternak and lead actor Innokenty Smoktunovsky having been imprisoned by Stalin. In contrast to Olivier's film, Kozintsev's is political and public. Where Olivier had narrow winding stairwells, Kozintsev had broad avenues, peopled with ambassadors and courtiers. The camera frequently looks through bars and grates, and J. Lawrence Guntner has suggested that the image of Ophelia in an iron farthingale symbolises the fate of the sensitive and intelligent in the film's tough political environment.
Kozintsev consistently cast actors whose first language was not Russian, so as to bring shades of other traditions into his film. Smoktunovsky's individual manner of acting distinguished the film from other versions, and his explosive behaviour in the recorder scene is viewed by many critics, as the film's climax. Douglas Brode has criticised the film for presenting a Hamlet who barely pauses for reflection: with most of the soliloquies cut, it is circumstances, not an inner conflict, that delay his revenge.
Tony Richardson, 1969
The first Hamlet filmed in colour, this film stars Nicol Williamson as Prince Hamlet. It was directed by Tony Richardson and based on his own stage production at the Roundhouse theatre in London. The film, a departure from big-budget Hollywood renditions of classics, was made with a small budget and a very minimalist set, consisting of Renaissance fixtures and costumes in a dark, shadowed space. A brick tunnel is used for the scenes on the battlements. The Ghost of Hamlet's father is represented only by a light shining on the observers. The version proved to be a critical and commercial failure: partly due to the decision to market the film as a tragic love story to teenage audiences who were still flocking to Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 Romeo and Juliet, and yet to cast opposite Marianne Faithfull's Ophelia the "balding, paunchy Williamson, who looked more like her father than her lover."
Franco Zeffirelli, 1990
Film scholar Deborah Cartmell has suggested that Zeffirelli's Shakespeare films are appealing because they are "sensual rather than cerebral", an approach by which he aims to make Shakespeare "even more popular". To this end, he cast the Hollywood actor Mel Gibson - then famous for the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon films - in the title role. Cartmell also notes that the text is drastically cut, with the effect of enhancing the roles of the women.
J. Lawrence Guntner has suggested that Zeffirelli's cinematography borrows heavily from the action film genre that made Gibson famous, noting that its average shot length is less than six seconds. In casting Gibson, the director has been said to have made the star's reputation part of the performance, encouraging the audience "to see the Gibson that they have come to expect from his other films": Indeed, Gibson was cast after Zeffirelli watched his character contemplate suicide in the first Lethal Weapon film. Harry Keyishan has suggested that Hamlet is well suited to this treatment, as it provides occasions for "enjoyable violence". J. Lawrence Guntner has written that the casting of Glenn Close as Mel Gibson's mother (only eleven years older than he was, in life, and then famous as the psychotic "other woman" in Fatal Attraction) highlights the incest theme, leaving "little to our post-Freudian imagination". and Deborah Cartmell notes that Close and Gibson simulate sex in the closet scene, and "she dies after sexually suggestive jerking movements, with Hamlet positioned on top of her, his face covered with sweat"
Kenneth Branagh, 1996
In contrast to Zeffirelli's heavily cut Hamlet of a few years before, Kenneth Branagh adapted, directed, and starred in a version containing every word of Shakespeare's play, running for around four hours. He based aspects of the staging on Adrian Noble's recent Royal Shakespeare Company production of the play, in which he had played the title role.
In a radical departure from previous Hamlet films, Branagh set the internal scenes in a vibrantly colourful setting, featuring a throne room dominated by mirrored doors; film scholar Samuel Crowl calls the setting "film noir with all the lights on." Branagh chose Victorian era costuming and furnishings, using Blenheim Palace, built in the early 18th century, as Elsinore Castle for the external scenes. Harry Keyishan has suggested that the film is structured as an epic, courting comparison with Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments and Doctor Zhivago. As J. Lawrence Guntner points out, comparisons with the latter film are heightened by the presence of Julie Christie (Zhivago's Lara) as Gertrude.
The film makes frequent use of flashbacks to dramatise elements that are not performed in Shakespeare's text, such as Hamlet's sexual relationship with Kate Winslet's Ophelia. These flashbacks include performances by several famous actors in non-speaking roles: Yorick is played by Ken Dodd, Old Norway by John Mills and John Gielgud as Priam and Judi Dench as Hecuba in a dramatisation of the Player King's speech about the fall of Troy.
Michael Almereyda, 2000
Directed by Michael Almereyda and set in contemporary Manhattan, this film stars Ethan Hawke, who plays Hamlet as a film student. It also features Julia Stiles as Ophelia, Liev Schreiber as Laertes, and Bill Murray as Polonius. In this version, Claudius becomes CEO of the "Denmark Corporation", having taken over the firm by killing his brother. The film is notable for its inclusion of modern technology: for example, the ghost of Hamlet's murdered father first appears on closed-circuit TV. The script is heavily cut, to suit the modern day surroundings. Ethan Hawke is the youngest of the big-screen Hamlets, at 29.
Other screen performances
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the central character, Prince Hamlet, was perceived as effeminate; so it is fitting that the earliest screen success as Hamlet was Sarah Bernhardt in a five-minute film of the fencing scene, in 1900. The film was a crude talkie in that music and words were recorded on phonograph records, to be played along with the film. Silent versions of the play were directed by Georges Méliès in 1907 (Hamlet), Luca Comerio in 1908, William George Barker in 1910, August Blom in 1910, Cecil Hepworth in 1913 and Eleuterio Rodolfi in 1917.
In Maximilian Schell's performance in Hamlet, Hamlet is an idealist activist standing up to Claudius' corrupt establishment. Karl Michael Vogler played Horatio. This version was successfully televised, but technical and dubbing issues caused it to be less successful on the English language big-screen. The English version is best remembered for being mocked on one of the final episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
John Gielgud directed Richard Burton in a successful run of the play at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in 1964-5. A film of the production, Richard Burton's Hamlet played limited engagements in 1964. It was made using ELECTRONOVISION, which proved to be an ineffective hybrid of stage and screen methods, although its novelty value made the film a commercial success at the time. See Richard Burton's Hamlet.
Philip Saville directed Christopher Plummer in a TV version usually called Hamlet at Elsinore, filmed in black-and-white at Kronborg Slot, the castle at Elsinore where the play is set. It featured Michael Caine as Horatio and Robert Shaw as Claudius.
Richard Chamberlain was a rarity: an American actor in the central role of a UK Shakespeare production. His critically acclaimed television Hamlet was, in his words, "pressed into service as part of the student protest, with Hamlet as victim of the generation gap." While in England he took vocal coaching and in 1969 performed the title role in Hamlet for the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, becoming the first American to play the role there since John Barrymore in 1929. He received excellent notices and reprised the role for television, for The Hallmark Hall of Fame, in 1970.
S4C's Shakespeare: The Animated Tales series included a half-hour abridgement of Hamlet, featuring the voice of Nicholas Farrell as the Dane. The animator, Natalia Orlova, used an oil-on-glass technique: a scene would be painted and a number of frames would be shot, back-lit; then some paint would be scraped off and the scene partially repainted for the next frame. The effect has been described as "oddly both fluid and static ... capable of [representing] intense emotion."
Adapted from the successful Royal Shakespeare Company production, Hamlet directed by Greg Doran starring David Tennant as Prince Hamlet and Patrick Stewart as Claudius was produced for BBC Two and the RSC by Illuminations Television. It aired on 26 December 2009 and was released on BBC DVD on 4 January 2010. The successful RSC stage version saw Tennant lauded, despite having to withdraw from some shows for health reasons. This was the first Shakespeare work to be filmed on the pioneering RED camera system, with most of the stage cast resuming their roles.
Hamlet has been adapted into stories which deal with civil corruption by the West German director Helmut Käutner in Der Rest ist Schweigen (The Rest is Silence) and by the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa in Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemeru (The Bad Sleep Well). In Claude Chabrol's Ophélia (France, 1962) the central character, Yvan, watches Olivier's Hamlet and convinces himself - wrongly, and with tragic results - that he is in Hamlet's situation. A spaghetti western version has been made: Johnny Hamlet directed by Enzo Castellari in 1968. Strange Brew (1983) is a movie featuring the comic fictional Canadians Bob and Doug MacKenzie (played by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas). As standins for the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, they investigate the manufacture of poisonous beer at the Elsinore Brewery where the prior owner has mysteriously died, and is now run by his brother Claude. Aki Kaurismäki's Hamlet Liikemaailmassa (Hamlet Goes Business) (Finland, 1987) piles on the irony: a sawmill owner is poisoned, and his brother plans to sell the mills to invest in rubber ducks. 1995 comedy film Tommy Boy also mirrors Hamlet closely; protagonist Tommy's father dies, his mother is married to his "step brother", and Richard acts as Horatio to Tommy.
Tom Stoppard directed a 1990 film version of his own play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, with Gary Oldman and Tim Roth in the title roles, which incorporates scenes from Hamlet starring Iain Glen as the Dane; Douglas Brode regards it as less successful on screen than it had been on stage, due to the preponderance of talk over action.
The highest-grossing film adaptation of a theatrical film taking inspiration from the Hamlet story is Disney's 1994 Academy Award-winning animated feature The Lion King, in which the king's brother murders the king, taking his place as ruler of the Pride Lands. The exiled son of the late king (the main character, Simba) is exhorted by his father's ghost to challenge his wicked uncle. The screenplay's authors state they were influenced by both various traditional African myths as well as Shakespeare's story in creating this film. As it befits the genre, the tragic ending of Shakespeare's play is omitted.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead is a 2009 American independent film written and directed by Jordan Galland. The film's title refers to a fictitious play-within-the-movie, which is a comic reinterpretation of Shakespeare's Hamlet and its aftermath. The film stars Jake Hoffman, Devon Aoki, John Ventimiglia and Ralph Macchio.
Haider is a 2014 Bollywood film directed by Vishal Bhardwaj, and written by Basharat Peer and Bhardwaj. It is an adaptation of Hamlet, and is set in Kashmir. The film stars Tabu, Shahid Kapoor as the eponymous protagonist, Shraddha Kapoor, and Kay Kay Menon. 
Theatrical performances within films
Another way in which film-makers use Shakespearean texts is to feature characters who are actors performing those texts, within a wider non-Shakespearean story. Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet are the two plays which have most often been used in this way. Usually, Shakespeare's story has some parallel or resonance with the main plot. In the 1933 Katharine Hepburn film Morning Glory, for which she won her first Best Actress Academy Award, Hepburn's character Eva Lovelace becomes slightly drunk at a party and very effectively begins to recite To be or not to be, when she is rudely interrupted. In James Whale's 1937 fictional biopic The Great Garrick, Brian Aherne, as David Garrick, performs part of the final scene of Hamlet, in full eighteenth-century garb. In Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 To Be or Not to Be, the title soliloquy becomes a subtle running gag: whenever Jack Benny's character - the pompous actor Joseph Tura - begins the speech, a member of the audience loudly walks out: usually to make love to Tura's wife, played by Carole Lombard. (This also happened to Mel Brooks' character Frederick Bronski in the 1983 remake.) In the 1955 film Prince of Players, a biography of Edwin Booth, Richard Burton appears in the title role and performs several scenes from Hamlet. The 1969 Robert Bresson film A Gentle Woman has the wife and husband attending a performance; in which we see the character Elle engrossed in the final scene of the play. Shelley Long's character plays Hamlet in the 1987 film Outrageous Fortune. Kenneth Branagh wrote and directed the low-budget In The Bleak Midwinter (released in the USA as A Midwinter's Tale) immediately before shooting his famous Hamlet. Shot in just 21 days, and telling the story of a group of actors performing Hamlet on a shoestring to save a village church, the film is a tribute to Ealing Comedies, and to the foibles of the acting profession, shot in black and white. The PBS documentary Discovering Hamlet is about the stage production that Branagh appeared in years before making the film, and includes scenes from that production.  The film Hamlet 2 centers around a high school drama class and their teacher, played by Steve Coogan, attempting to stage a very experimental and controversial musical sequel to Hamlet.
The BFI National Archive contains at least twenty films featuring characters performing (sometimes brief) excerpts from Hamlet, including When Hungry Hamlet Fled (USA, 1915), Das Alte Gesetz (Germany, 1923), The Immortal Gentleman (GB, 1935), The Arizonian (USA, 1935), South Riding (GB, 1937), My Darling Clementine (USA, 1946), Hancock's 43 Minutes (GB, 1957), Danger Within (GB, 1958), The Pure Hell of St Trinian's (GB, 1960), Shakespeare Wallah (India, 1965), The Magic Christian (GB, 1969), Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask (USA, 1972), Theatre of Blood (GB, 1973), Mephisto (Hungary, 1981), An Englishman Abroad (GB, 1983), Withnail and I (GB, 1986), Comic Relief 2 (GB, 1989), Great Expectations (GB/USA, 1989), Hysteria 2 (GB, 1989), The Voice Over Queen (USA, 1990) and Tectonic Plates (GB, 1992).
List of screen performances
|Georges Méliès||Georges Méliès|
|Hamlet (Silent, UK, 1910)||Silent
|William George Barker|
|August Blom||Alwin Neuß|
|Mario Caserini||Dante Cappelli|
|E. Hay Plumb||Johnston Forbes-Robertson|
|Eleuterio Rodolfi||Ruggero Ruggeri|
|Hamlet (aka Hamlet, The Drama of Vengeance)||Silent
|Svend Gade & Heinz Schall||Asta Nielsen|
List of screen adaptations
This list includes adaptations of the Hamlet story, and films in which the characters are involved in acting or studying Hamlet.
- Oh'Phelia (UK, 1919) animated burlesque of the Hamlet story.
- Anson Dyer director
- To Be or Not To Be (USA, 1942) is the story of an acting company in 1939 Poland.
- The Bad Sleep Well (aka Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru) (Japan, 1960) is an adaptation of the Hamlet story set in corporate Japan.
- Acting Hamlet in the Village of Mrdusa Donja (Yugoslavia, 1974) Entered into the 24th Berlin International Film Festival.
- Hamlet Goes Business (Hamlet liikemaailmassa) (Finland, 1981).
- Strange Brew (Canada, 1983), a comedy. Something is rotten in the Elsinore Brewery.
- Tom Stoppard director
- Gary Oldman as Rozencrantz (or Guildenstern)
- Tim Roth as Guildenstern (or Rozencrantz)
- Richard Dreyfuss as the Player King
- Renaissance Man (USA, 1994) is the story of an unemployed advertising executive teaching Hamlet to a group of underachieving trainee soldiers.
- Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff directors
- Matthew Broderick as the voice of Simba (the Hamlet character)
- James Earl Jones as the voice of Mufasa (the Old Hamlet character)
- Jeremy Irons as the voice of Scar (the Claudius character)
- In The Bleak Midwinter (aka “A Midwinter’s Tale”) (UK, 1996) tells the story of a group of actors performing Hamlet.
- Stacy Title director
- Jonathan Penner as Jack Lyne (Hamlet)
- Jamey Sheridan as Carl Lyne (Claudius)
- Mary-Louise Parker as Julia Hirsch (Ophelia)
- Feng Xiaogang, director
- Zhang Ziyi as Empress Wan (Gertrude)
- Daniel Wu as Prince Wu Luan (Hamlet)
- Zhou Xun as Qing Nu (Ophelia)
- Ge You as Emperor Li (Claudius)
- Vishal Bhardwaj, director
- Shahid Kapoor as Haider (based on Hamlet)
- Tabu as Haider's mother (based on Gertrude)
- Shraddha Kapoor as Arshia (based on Ophelia)
- Kay Kay Menon as Haider's Uncle (based on Claudius)
- Thompson, Ann and Taylor, Niel HAMLET (The Arden Shakespeare 3rd Series, Thompson Learning, 2006) Introduction, p.108
- Guntner, J. Lawrence: Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear on film in Jackson, Russell (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film (Cambridge University Press, 2000) pp.117-123
- Guntner, pp.120-123
- Keyishian, Harry Shakespeare and Movie Genre: The Case of Hamlet in Jackson, Russell (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film (Cambridge University Press, 2000) pp.72-81, at p.75
- Keyishian, pp.73-4
- Brode, p.120
- Guntner, p.118
- Jorgens, Jack Shakespeare on Film (Bloomington, 1997) p.217 cited by Davies, Anthony in The Shakespeare films of Laurence Olivier in Jackson, Russell (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film (Cambridge University Press, 2000) p.171
- Cartmell, Deborah Franco Zeffirelli and Shakespeare in Jackson, Russell (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film (Cambridge University Press, 2000) p.215
- Guntner, p.119
- Guntner, pp.120-121
- Guntner, p.120
- Guntner, p.121
- Sokolyansky, Mark Grigori Kozintsev's Hamlet and King Lear in Jackson, Russell (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film (Cambridge University Press, 2000) p.202
- Sokolyansky, p.203
- Brode, pp.127-9
- Brode, p.130
- Cartmell, Deborah Franco Zeffirelli and Shakespeare in Jackson, Russell (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Screen (Cambridge University Press, 2000) p.212, quoting a Zeffirelli interview given to The South Bank Show in December 1997.
- Cartmell, p.215
- Guntner, pp.121-122
- Quigley, Daniel Double Exposure, in Shakespeare Bulletin winter 1993 pp.38-9, cited by Keyishian, p.77
- Keyishian, pp.72-81
- Keyishian, p.77
- Crowl, Samuel "Framboyant Realist: Kenneth Branagh" in Jackson, Russell The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film (Cambridge University Press, 2000) p.232
- Crowl, p.223
- Crowl, p.227
- Keyishian, p.78
- Guntner, pp.122-123.
- Keyishian, p.79
- Hamlet (1996)
- Filmhead.com review accessed 6 April 2007.
- Brode, Douglas I Know Not Seems: Hamlet in Shakespeare In The Movies (Oxford University Press, 2000 (but page numbers taken from Berkley Boulevard paperback edition, 2001)) p.117
- Brode, p.117
- Brode, p.118
- Brode, pp.123-5
- Brode, 125-7
- McKernan, Luke and Terris, Olwen (eds.) Walking Shadows: Shakespeare in the National Film and Television Archive (British Film Institute Publishing, 1994) p.54
- Brode, p.132-3
- Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1980) (TV)
- Holland, Peter Shakespeare Abbreviated in Shaughnessy, Robert (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Popular Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2007) p.44
- "Tennant to reprise Hamlet for BBC". BBC News. 29 May 2009. Retrieved 4 May 2010.
- Wilson, Benji (20 December 2009). "David Tennant brings Hamlet to TV for Christmas". The Times. London. Retrieved 4 May 2010.
- Brode, p.147
- Howard, Tony Shakespeare's Cinemantic Offshoots in Jackson, Russell (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film (Cambridge University Press, 2000) pp.300-1
- Howard, pp.301-2
- Howard, p.300
- Howard, p.302
- Brode, p.150
- Don Hahn, Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff (2003). The Lion King: Platinum Edition (Disc 2) (DVD). Walt Disney Home Video.
- Vogler, Christopher (1998). The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers.
- Official film website
- McKernan and Terris list 45 instances of uses of Hamlet, not including films of the play itself, at pp.45-66. They list 39 such instances for Romeo and Juliet at pp.141-156. The next closest is Othello, with 23 instances, at pp.119-131.
- Howard, p.296
- Howard, p.309
- Crowl, p.226
- McKernan and Terris, pp.45-66
- McKernan and Terris, pp.45-46
- Brode, p.117; McKernan and Terris, pp.45-46
- Guntner, p.117
- McKernan and Terris, pp.51-52
- "Hallmark Hall of Fame" Hamlet (1953)
- McKernan and Terris, p.54
- McKernan and Terris, pp.54-55
- McKernan and Terris, p.55
- McKernan and Terris, pp.56-57
- McKernan and Terris, pp.57-58
- McKernan and Terris, pp.58-59
- McKernan and Terris, p.47
- "Sinematurk". Archived from the original on 2005-05-15. Retrieved 26 August 2007.
- McKernan and Terris, p.60