All serious moviemakers and thespians know William Shakespeare will never go out of style. His universal tales of love, loss, anger and desperation continue to span time, cultures and mediums. Each theatrical incarnation of a Shakespeare play is different from the next as are all interpretations brought to the big screen. Case in point: Writer-director Andrew Fleming made a splash at Sundance earlier this year with Hamlet 2. Set for an August 27 release, the movie is not quite a direct take on the Bard’s tragic story of revenge, but inspired by the legend nonetheless.

It is for all these reasons that MM has decided to honor Shakespeare with a full summer of Shakespeare on Film. Visit us each week for a new excerpt from BFI’s 100 Shakespeare Films by Daniel Rosenthal. As Julie Taymor explains in the book’s introduction: “There will never be too many versions of any of the Shakespeare plays because each artist brings his or her own vision to the script. The more you see these plays in all their varied forms, the deeper and richer they become. It’s often not about the story at all, but all about how you tell it.” From Charlton Heston’s Antony and Cleopatra to Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, we cover the classic and the bold, beginning with Laurence Olivier’s 1948 Academy Award-winning Hamlet.

Hamlet (1948)
d. Laurence Olivier

Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet is both grim fairytale and psychological case study. The colorful pageant of Henry V (1944), [which he also directed] gives way to a monochrome engraving: Somber, disturbing and, as box-office success on both sides of the Atlantic proved, accessible. “A movie for everybody,” declared The Washington Post, “Be you nine or 90, a PhD or just plain Joe.” Its $3 million U.S. gross was exceptional for any non-Hollywood picture and it became the only Shakespeare feature to win the Best Picture Academy Award (it also took the BAFTA for Best Film), while Olivier’s remains the only original-text Shakespeare performance to have won Best Actor.

His decision to ignore the play’s politics and make accessibility his watchword brought controversy as well as acclaim. Using Alan Dent as Text Editor, Olivier removed about 50% of the text. Out went Reynaldo (Polonius’s servant), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the second grave-digger and Fortinbras and two soliloquies (“What a piece of work” and “How all occasions”). Supposedly arcane words were changed; for example, “maimed rites” became “meager rites.” All this prompted a Times leading article (“Alas, Poor Hamlet!”) and furious letters, despite Olivier’s attempt to forestall such hostility by writing in The Film Hamlet: A Record of Its Production that he had directed “an ‘Essay in Hamlet’, and not a film version of a necessarily abridged classic.” All this goes to show the extent to which Shakespeare’s texts were viewed as sacrosanct.

Olivier’s “essay” begins with his famously simplified declaration: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.” Swirling mist clears and four soldiers on a platform carry the dead Hamlet, before dissolving to the beginning of the play, inside the castle designed to Oscar-winning effect by Roger Furse and Carmen Dillon at Denham Studios.

Olivier requested “significant austerity” and they gave him a clifftop Elsinore of cold grey stone, long, arched passageways and steep, winding staircases—credible yet not wholly realistic, clearly medieval yet somehow out of time. Aristocratic English accents resound in rooms largely devoid of furniture, and the strangely intense mood is heightened by William Walton’s marvelously varied score (confined largely to interludes between spoken passages) and Desmond Dickinson’s deep-focus photography, which keeps figures sharply defined, even when 30 meters from the lens.

Dickinson’s numerous crane shots could be a Ghost’s eye view. His camera pulls back from Jean Simmon’s captivating Ophelia, weeping prostrate on a staircase, then rises to the battlements, zooms in and ‘disappears’ through Hamlet’s skull as he begins “To be, or not to be,” delivered, like most of the soliloquies, in voiceover, by a man staring suicidally into the waves below, then holding up his dagger. While this is undoubtedly cinematic, as an actor Olivier still had one foot on the stage, and his contemplative poses and lyrical verse-speaking have worn less well than the film’s psychology.

100 Shakespeare Films

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Extracted from 100 Shakespeare Films by Daniel Rosenthal, BFI Publishing, 2007. Reprinted by kind permission of BFI Publishing/Palgrave Macmillan.