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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 the earliest days of cinema, and Hamlet is no exception. The legendary Sarah Bernhardt, who flouted gender boundaries to play the role 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 famed theatrical 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 and Guthrie also took an explicitly Freudian interpretation of the play, portraying Hamlet as driven by a quasi-incestuous love for his mother--a notion Olivier clearly repeats in the film. Eileen Herlie, the actress who plays Gertrude, was in fact more than ten years younger than Oliver, and they appear very nearly the same age on screen. 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, but rather conceived the film in overtly cinematic terms. The austere design of the castle set, the winding camerawork and the low-key, almost Expressionist lighting all contribute to the image of the castle as a mental labyrinth. Of particular note is Desmond Dickinson's deep focus cinematography, evidently inspired by Citizen Kane (1941). In terms of integration between camerawork and staging of the actors, perhaps the most effective scene is that depicting the reaction of Claudius to the play-within-the-play "The Murder of Gonzago"; here the camera winds about the room, gradually revealing the reactions of different members of the court and constantly 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 its extensive cuts--about half the play's text. Not only did Olivier and 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 the order of certain scenes; for example, the scene in which Claudius and Laertes plot Hamlet's death was moved to follow the scene in the graveyard. However, at nearly 160 minutes Olivier's Hamlet is still 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 1996 version, which ran at four hours. While that film was generally well received, some critics felt that Branagh's version, shot in 70mm with lavish sets and an all-star cast, finally collapsed under the weight of its own spectacle.
In his review for Time, James Agee praised Olivier for balancing the demands of "screen, stage and literature" and praised his 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 for Olivier's interpretation of the role: "Laurence Olivier leaves no doubt that he is one of our greatest living actors. His rich, moving voice, his expressive face, make of the tortured Dane a figure of deep and 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 Costume Design (Roger Furse). It also received nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Jean Simmons), Best Score (William Walton) and Best Director (Olivier).
Director: Laurence Olivier
Script: Alan Dent [and Laurence Olivier], adapted from the play by William 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 (Queen Gertrude); Basil Sydney (King Claudius); Jean Simmons (Ophelia); Norman Wooland (Horatio); Felix Aylmer (Polonius); Terence Morgan (Laertes); Peter Cushing (Osric); Stanley Holloway (Gravedigger); John Laurie (Francisco); Esmond Knight (Bernardo); Anthony Quayle (Marcellus); Niall MacGinnis (Captain); Harcourt Williams (Player); Russell Thorndike (Priest); Patrick Troughton (Player King); Tony Tarver (Player Queen); John Gielgud (Voice of the Ghost).
by James Steffen