William Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ is a political tragedy full of betrayal and murders. Hamlet, a Danish prince finds out from the ghost of his father that he was killed by his brother who ended up marrying Hamlet’s mother. The play then progresses as Hamlet struggles from indecisiveness on whether to take revenge and kill Claudius, the uncle turned step-father all the while pushing away his loved ones like his girlfriend, Ophelia.
Meanwhile Michael Almereyda’s film, ‘Hamlet’ which is set in the 21st century was also made in 2000, with the ever-pervasive influence of technology very much present at the turn of the century – Hamlet is seen to be obsessed with video cameras, while Claudius makes use of CCTV cameras and wires. The cinematic adaptation opens up a variety of interpretations from the way the actors decide to perform, to the music and deliberate camera angles, to the modern art direction.
Hamlet played by none other than Ethan Hawke is not the royal prince he is supposed to be, but a CEO heir and the dorky underdog who wears his emotions on his sleeve. He makes the feigned madness that Hamlet puts on as part of his revenge plan seem more real. With his red shot eyes, he seems drunk or stoned all the time. His indecisiveness is shown more such as he paces back and forth, deciding what to write in his letters and juggling with beer bottles in front of Ophelia. He plays with guns and is seen as generally unstable. In the play, we clearly see that he’s pretending to be mad – there are scenes where he breaks away from his play-acting to reveal his plot to the audience. In the movie, we wonder if the plot has changed and if he’s really insane. In the play, Hamlet’s main focus is on revenge, honour and duty. But in the movie, he seems more introspective, as he wonders about being and existentialism.
His soliloquies are sometimes said sarcastically; he flippantly delivers the “to be or not to be” speech. In the play when we read a line like “for in that sleep of death what dreams may come…must give us pause,” there is a certain gravitas to it. Hawke’s Hamlet is morbid and looks at life with disdain. From the first half of the movie, we already know that Hamlet is slightly deranged and darker than usual. He turns violent in the closet scene where he is supposed to confront his mother, Gertrude about Claudius. He raises his hand on Gertrude, almost choking her. We are glad when the ghost interrupts for we are scared that he might actually kill Gertrude. Hawke takes inspiration from Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet who for the first time in any adaptation threw Gertrude on the bed violently. Shakespeare’s text just shows a rude and screaming Hamlet. The gestures and movements are left to the actors.
In the movie, he shows more affection towards Ophelia – he watches her videos all the time. His point of view on writing the love letters shows that he genuinely has feelings for her. He is truly heartbroken when she breaks up with him. He’s not just all about revenge. In the play, he wants her out of the way so that he can go about hatching his plot. This is again seen when after Ophelia’s funeral she’s forgotten by Hamlet but in the movie, he remembers her time and again. He knows he might die and may see her in the afterlife, inferred by the scene where he looks at Ophelia’s photograph sadly.
Funny-man Bill Murray takes the role of Polonius, father to Ophelia and a very serious, smarmy politician and adds a new dimension to the character with dry humour that we had not seen before. He ends up tying Ophelia’s shoelaces while giving her advice on love, to emphasize the fact that she is a child. His deadpan deliverance of dialogues and use of props make us inappropriately giggle – losing helium balloons when he catches Hamlet and Ophelia together. His reaction to Hamlet’s madness follows the text to the tee. But while in the play his reaction would be inferred as concern or curiosity, from Murray’s eavesdropping on Hamlet to his shocked expression, it adds a comedic subtext.
In every scene, Murray takes Polonius’ straightforward character and makes him goofy and funny that doesn’t in anyway downplay the original intention of the need for such a character that is, he is not just a comic relief. While in the play we understand that he has to be sensitive as to not offend Claudius and Gertrude about Hamlet’s “affliction,” Murray – while sticking to the stammering speech of the original text – somehow makes it refreshing and relatable. He makes full use of the irony in the subtext such as when he says “I will be brief,” but then he’s everything but brief.
His gestures are overdone to stress his point. For example, in the swimming pool scene, his nervousness combined with his flamboyant gestures almost makes him adorable, an adjective never before used for a character like Polonius. The director gives him enough freedom to take the scene and interpret it in his own way. Flowery speeches are said sarcastically, with the help of a toothy grin here and a wink there. You don’t even realize you’ve missed him till he comes on screen next, in Gertrude’s bedroom. He makes Polonius so endearing, that he lightens any scene – fumbling and forgetting his coat in the closet scene – where he’s supposed to hide in the closet while Gertrude is confronted by Hamlet – that could ruin the plan.
Ophelia has a much bigger role in the movie. There are scenes specially created which show her point of view. In the play, she’s a dutiful daughter, who listens to her elders. In the movie, Julia Stiles’ Ophelia is seen as a 21st century rebellious teenager who is always annoyed when things don’t go her way. When her brother, Laertes lectures her or her father snatches the love letter and reads it to Claudius she is embarrassed.
It should be highlighted that the dialogues in the play and the movie are the same, but it’s the actor’s portrayal of the character that changes the meaning. “This in obedience hath my daughter shown me” is completely ironical after we see Stiles’ Ophelia complete exasperation over her father, Murray’s Polonius. Unlike the dutiful father-daughter duo on the play, in the film, she has no choice but to go along with her father’s plan to spy on Hamlet. Her anger is clearly seen through her tears. Moreover, staying true to the advent of technology, Ophelia’s flowers are replaced by polaroids of flowers and when she drowns, she’s surrounded by Hamlet’s letters.
On the other hand, in the play, we give Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude the benefit of the doubt that maybe she had no say in her remarriage, that maybe Claudius bullied her. But in the movie, it seems that she may have genuine feelings and is attracted to him. They are seen as a power couple who share and do things together. There are more scenes from their point of view – they’re playful and laugh at the bumbling lackeys, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and have fun. In the play, she is honestly concerned about Hamlet and eagerly wants to know if his friends could shed some light on his behaviour. She is unlike Diane Venora’s Gertrude who’s distracted and teases Claudius while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are giving their report on Hamlet. Venora portrays Gertrude more like a Lady Macbeth, with vicious deliverance of simple lines and who supports her husband even if his motives for Hamlet are dubious.
In the end, she redeems herself when close up shots of her infer that she knows something foul is going on during the duel between Hamlet and Ophelia’s brother, Laertes where he tries to avenge her. In the play, we don’t know if she suspects the cup given at the beginning of the duel to Hamlet is poisonous. But in the movie, she deliberately stops Claudius and makes up excuses to delay the inevitable, trying to protect her son in any way she can. Finally, when she drinks the cup, the look she shares with Claudius, confirms her theory.
Political aspects from the play are excluded, like Fortinbras’ ambition and Laertes’ revolution. Almeryeda sticks to the original play, but to fit everything in the 2-hour film format, he excludes certain unimportant elements that Shakespeare may have added to impress his patrons or audience. The audio-visual medium gives us a lot more freedom to interpret each character’s actions.
Opting for an existential piece rather than the supernatural drama the play was, the film’s soundtrack is especially melancholic during the appearances of the ghost, hinting that there may be something more psychological rather than fantastical going on. The playing of violent films in the background to showcase Hamlet’s mood is another innovative use of technology.
The ending is definitely more dramatic than the play. Hamlet has the same wounds as Claudius and Laertes. Laertes is immobile and his speech is cut short, and Claudius falls instantly when shot. So how does Hamlet move without the help of Horatio, shoot Claudius and give a whole speech? But the one deviation from the play that enriches the story is when Hamlet is dying, his life flashes before his eyes, and he sees his loved ones – Ophelia, Gertrude and his father, and his regrets such as fighting with Laertes at Ophelia’s funeral. The film ends with him being satisfied that he has been successful in his mission. Since we can see Hamlet’s last thoughts, it elevates the movie from the genre of just a tragedy to maybe a more philosophical category.
Disclaimer: The above review solely illustrates the views of the writer.