Blog Directory CineVerse: To see or not to see: A popcorn history of "Hamlet"

To see or not to see: A popcorn history of "Hamlet"

Friday, August 28, 2009

by Erik J. Martin

Which is the best version of "Hamlet" on film? For fans of William Shakespeare’s immortal play, the penultimate question is no longer “to be or not to be,” but “to see or not to see.”

For my money, there's nothing rotten in Denmark about Kenneth Branagh’s sprawling, four-hour epic “Hamlet”--released in 1996, filmed in picturesque 70mm and starring himself as the Danish prince. Arguably more than any other adaptation of the literary classic, this version has garnered greater word-of-mouth, critical acclaim and praise from Shakespearean scholars who appreciate Branagh's unabridged, fresh and enthusiastic depiction of the play.

Yet, despite the buzz, Branagh's realized vision may not be the definitive big screen version of Shakespeare’s most famous work. In fact, it is only one of many must-see cinematic renditions of “Hamlet," that timeless, tireless drama that keeps trying to top itself on the big screen.

The earliest celluloid records show that the play was first filmed in 1913 as an uncredited British production starring stage and silent film star Sir Johnston Forbes Robertson. 

But it wasn’t until 1948 that the classic was conquered in full cinematic, strikingly daring black-and-white bravado by Laurence Olivier, who, as director and star, infused the British production with the full-throttle dramatic panache that would make even Orson Welles proud (production note for purists: the film was shot in Hamlet's native Denmark). Olivier was deservedly rewarded with four Oscars, including best picture and best actor.

Twelve years passed before "Hamlet" surfaced again on-screen, this time via an obscure 1960 film version directed by Franz Peter Wirth and with Maximillian Schell in the title role. Nine years later, stage actor Nicol Williamson lent a robust credibility to the role played opposite Anthony Hopkins in a British produced sleeper.

The next major "Hamlet, " a 1980 BBC production featuring the dramatic talents of Derek Jacobi and Patrick Stewart, was a silver screen anomaly of sorts in that it made its debut on television. 

Mel Gibson made female viewers swoon as the lead in director Franco Zefferelli's 1990 rendition, shot on location in Northern Scotland. And filmmaker Michael Almereyda updated the Bard's story in a modern-day setting with his take on "Hamlet" released in 2000 and starring Ethan Hawke.

Other marquee stars who have portrayed Hamlet in stage and screen versions include:

  • John Barrymore (1925, London stage)
  •  John Gielgud (1934, London stage) 
  • Richard Burton (1964, stage) 
  • Christopher Plummer (1964, BBC Television) 
  • Richard Chamberlain (1970, NBC TV)
  •  William Hurt (1979, Circle Repertory Theater) 
  • Christopher Walken (1982, American Shakespeare Theater) 
  • Harry Hamlin (1982, McCarter Theater)

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