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Today Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is usually regarded as Shakespeare's greatest play, both for its richness of language and its psychological and structural complexity. It is also his longest work, at over 3,900 lines; a performance of the full text takes approximately four hours. Clearly, the play presents unique challenges for adapting to film. Sir Laurence Olivier's 1948 version still stands out from the pack as a coherently conceived interpretation of Shakespeare and as a work of cinema.
Not surprisingly, Shakespeare adaptations in general date back to theearliest days of cinema, and Hamlet is no exception. Thelegendary Sarah Bernhardt, who flouted gender boundaries to play therole of Hamlet on the stage, appeared in an 1899 experimental short depicting Hamlet's climactic duel. The Italian director Mario Caserini, best known for the spectacle The Last Days of Pompeii (1913), directed another version in 1910, and in 1913 the British film pioneer Cecil Hepworth produced a version staring Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson in the title role. During the sound era, perhaps due to the demands that the spoken text places on both actors and audience, no one attempted a full-scale, English-language feature film of the play before Olivier, though a British television version was broadcast in 1947. Interestingly enough, the first substantial sound adaptation was an Urdu-language production from India, entitled Khoon Ka Khoon (1935), directed by and starring Sohrab Modi, who had previously written and staged his own Urdu translation to great acclaim.
Laurence Olivier's first stage appearance as Hamlet ran in January and February of 1937 at the Old Vic Theatre under the direction of the famedtheatrical director Tyrone Guthrie. Olivier recreated the role later that summer for a series of special performances at Kronborg Castle in Elsinore (Helsingor), Denmark. It was Olivier's first performance at the Old Vic, and as Terry Coleman points out in his authoritative biography, it reflected his ambition to establish himself as a truly great actor. Olivier distinguished himself for his natural approach to reading Shakespeare's lines rather than declaiming them as verse, which his older rival John Gielgud did to admittedly great effect.Influenced by the writings of Professor Ernest Jones, Olivier andGuthrie also took an explicitly Freudian interpretation of the play,portraying Hamlet as driven by a quasi-incestuous love for hismother--a notion Olivier clearly repeats in the film. Eileen Herlie,the actress who plays Gertrude, was in fact more than ten yearsyounger than Oliver, and they appear very nearly the same age onscreen. One of the most interesting interpretive touches is how Gertrude knowingly drinks from the poisoned cup, her act thus representing a kind of self-sacrifice for her son.
However, Olivier was not content to make a mere filmed play, butrather conceived the film in overtly cinematic terms. The austeredesign of the castle set, the winding camerawork and the low-key,almost Expressionist lighting all contribute to the image of thecastle as a mental labyrinth. Of particular note is DesmondDickinson's deep focus cinematography, evidently inspired byCitizen Kane (1941). In terms of integration between cameraworkand staging of the actors, perhaps the most effective scene is thatdepicting the reaction of Claudius to the play-within-the-play "TheMurder of Gonzago"; here the camera winds about the room, graduallyrevealing the reactions of different members of the court andconstantly creating new foreground/background juxtapositions between various groups of actors. Olivier also uses the film medium to achieve dramatic effects that are not possible on the stage; for example, during the famed "To be or not to be" soliloquy Hamlet shifts back and forth between speaking the lines onscreen and thinking them in his head via voiceover commentary, to startling effect.
The most controversial aspect of the film has always been itsextensive cuts--about half the play's text. Not only did Olivierand his scriptwriter Alan Dent excise characters such as Fortinbras,Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but they removed entire soliloquies,reduced other speeches to a bare line or two, and even shuffled theorder of certain scenes; for example, the scene in which Claudius andLaertes plot Hamlet's death was moved to follow the scene in thegraveyard. However, at nearly 160 minutes Olivier's Hamlet isstill longer than most other versions that followed it. In fact, the full text of the play was not used in a film until Kenneth Branagh's 1996version, which ran at four hours. While that film was generally wellreceived, some critics felt that Branagh's version, shot in 70mm withlavish sets and an all-star cast, finally collapsed under the weightof its own spectacle.
In his review for Time, James Agee praised Olivier forbalancing the demands of "screen, stage and literature" and praisedhis performance of Hamlet in particular. While admitting that some viewers would likely be upset by Olivier's "liberties with the text," Milton Schulman of the Evening Standard expressed high praise forOlivier's interpretation of the role: "Laurence Olivier leaves nodoubt that he is one of our greatest living actors. His rich, movingvoice, his expressive face, make of the tortured Dane a figure of deepand sincere tragedy." The film ultimately won four Academy Awards:Best Picture, Best Actor (Olivier), Best Black and White Art Direction(Roger Furse and Carmen Dillon), and Best Black and White CostumeDesign (Roger Furse). It also received nominations for Best SupportingActress (Jean Simmons), Best Score (William Walton) and Best Director(Olivier).
Director: Laurence Olivier
Script: Alan Dent [and Laurence Olivier], adapted from the play byWilliam Shakespeare
Photography: Desmond Dickinson
Editor: Helga Cranston
Music: William Walton
Production Design: Roger Furse
Art Direction: Carmen Dillon
Costumes: Elizabeth Hennings, Roger Furse
Cast: Laurence Olivier (Hamlet); Eileen Herlie (QueenGertrude); Basil Sydney (King Claudius); Jean Simmons (Ophelia);Norman Wooland (Horatio); Felix Aylmer (Polonius); Terence Morgan(Laertes); Peter Cushing (Osric); Stanley Holloway (Gravedigger); JohnLaurie (Francisco); Esmond Knight (Bernardo); Anthony Quayle(Marcellus); Niall MacGinnis (Captain); Harcourt Williams (Player);Russell Thorndike (Priest); Patrick Troughton (Player King); TonyTarver (Player Queen); John Gielgud (Voice of the Ghost).
by James Steffen