Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Act I Scene 1 - Hamlet 2000

Hamlet 2000 takes the Romeo+Juliet route, setting the play in modern times, shuffling words around to make it all make sense in a world without swords and royalty. The film sets Hamlet in millennial New York City and right away, we're told via captions that "The King and CEO of the Denmark Corporation is dead." So the filmmaker's solution is to equate power with power. Corporations as nations, wherein the true power may well lie today. This solves a number of problems with adapting the text for the modern era. Denmark will be the name of the (family-controlled) company, something to be inherited as much as a throne, and something to kill for - power, money, women. The head of a company has advisers (Polonius), security (guards) and a base of operations, in this case, Hotel Elsinore.
The captions further reveal that the new CEO (called King in a media-savvy kind of way) has hastily married his brother's widow, and that Hamlet has returned from school suspecting foul play. This is new information. While it's entirely possible to interpret the play that way (if simply based on the line "My prophetic soul!"), Hamlet does not necessarily suspect murder until it is revealed to him by the Ghost. Of course, "foul play" may speak to adultery as much as murder, but that still informs Hamlet's frame of mind. He's not just grieving for his father's death, he suspects and is thus extremely resentful of both his mother and stepfather. Ethan Hawke's Hamlet is thus an angry young man, somewhat passive-aggressive. In modern terms, he is emo.

This Is All Prologue
In this prelude, we're also introduced to a device to "modernize" Hamlet's soliloquies: Video diaries. Less the scholar/warrior that a "student" might represent in Medieval and Renaissance settings, this Hamlet is an artist. He uses video montage to express his ideas.
These make liberal use of auto portrait, but also include "ironic" footage from secondary sources and, of course, text from the soliloquies over the action. The prologue uses a speech displaced from Act II Scene 2, on the qualities of man ("the paragon of animals"). It fits as an introduction to Hamlet's emotional state (more true than in the original scene where "I have of late, but wherefore I know not" is disingenuous), presenting a Hamlet that is far more isolated (or "dreadfully attended", since we're already quoting from that scene) than in the standard play. If the modern world tends to isolate people more than ever before, then an isolated Hamlet goes inside himself - a strong image of the soliloquies - only expressing his true self in the digital world, in coded fashion at that. It is telling that he's shown watching his own work (there are quite few instances where he allows others to see it).

From the video to static, from static to the title card HAMLET in bold letters over a red background, and then off to the wedding scene.

What About Scene 1?
Scene 1 does exist, in abbreviated form, as a flashback interwoven with the end of Scene 2. As Horatio and his girlfriend Marcella (Marcellus changes gender) tell the story of the Ghost, we see snippets from the scene as written. Horatio, Marcella and security guard Bernardo see the Ghost on a security monitor, riding an elevator (up from hell?). They follow it to another floor and Horatio tries to speak to it, and the Ghost disappears.
That is the extent of it. Fewer than 7 lines in total. The trio, reduced to bit parts, increase Hamlet's isolation, but they do remove the soldier/scholar contrast that could otherwise exist. This is not a martial world, however, soldiers being out of place.

The Ghost
Played by the great Sam Shepard, the Ghost seems a mix of solid and intangible, obviously leaning on a wall, weary in his frumpy trench coat, and yet walking right through a soda machine as he goes transparent. While the ONE Pepsi machine showing through him is an intriguing image, I'm not sure what it's meant to portray. One King? First King? Scene One? Simply an allusion to the Coke/Pepsi taste test (Hyperion/Satyr, Hamlet Sr./Claudius)? I'll let the viewer decide.


snell said...

Note 1: I believe that Ethan Hawke is by far the youngest of the Hamlets you're looking at...which should prove an interesting test of the aphorism that by the time you're old enough (in terms of experience) to play Hamlet, you're too old to play Hamlet the character...

Note 2: The video diaries were somewhat prescient, actually. What came off as a tiny bit pretentious in 2000 looks a lot better in the post-YouTube, post-everybody has a video-camera in their phone era. Now I can almost see some of Ophelia's crazy scenes as demented blog posts...

Siskoid said...

Two excellent observations.
1) Born in 1970, Ethan Hawke is just a year older than I am and would have been 30 in 2000 (probably 29 when filmed), but looks younger than he is (as do I, I can still pass for 22). For comparison purposes, Mel Gibson was 34, Derek Jacobi 42, Kevin Kline 43 and Olivier 41. William Belchambers in the next Hamlet (Fodor's) is probably younger (his résumé has him "playing" 25, but no date of birth. And I don't think he was ready... but I'm getting ahead of myself.

2) It's true. Hamlet 2000 probably aged better than expected. It feels like 2009.

Siskoid said...

Oh, and Branagh 36.

Craig D. said...

I should have read this entry sooner; I would have seen that Snell had already made pretty much the same comment I recently made on another entry about Hamlet's video diaries being ahead of their time and reflecting the YouTube era. Though I said that they would have seemed "silly" in 2000, not "pretentious." I'm not sure which is more correct.

I've heard some snarky critics accusing this film of using obvious product placement, with the Pepsi machine and some other brands, but I once read an interview with Michael Almereyda in which he said that he had to pay for the use of the brands rather than the other way around. I think he said something about wanting to create a sense that the characters are overwhelmed in the modern world, not just by the media and surveillance but also by brands, marketing, and advertising.

One little tidbit I noticed when I recently revisited the film: the actress playing Marcella was also on Sons of Anarchy, which is loosely inspired by Hamlet.

Siskoid said...

These days I think of Paula Malcomson as being from Caprica or Deadwood. I've never seen Sons of Anarchy, but you've piqued my interest!

Craig D. said...

I haven't seen Caprica (I've never really been interested in Galactica, old or new) but I picked up Deadwood a couple of months ago and I'm kicking myself for not checking it out sooner. I need to get back to it, since I left off a few weeks ago somewhere around the halfway point, the middle of Season 2. I'm constantly being distracted by other shows and movies.

I'm mixed on Sons of Anarchy. It started off so wonderfully but the writing in the last few seasons has had me screaming at the TV screen. I went back and checked out The Shield, which involved a lot of the same people, and found it to be hugely superior from start to finish.

Oh, and the Hamlet connections are minimal in Sons of Anarchy: you've got the young Vice President of an outlaw motorcycle club, his mother, and his step-father the President. He's haunted by visions of his father, the old President, and eventually discovers that his step-father killed his father to become the new leader. Bloody vengeance follows with lots of misunderstandings and the wrong people getting killed. The similarities pretty much end there. It's fun, but Shakespeare it ain't.