Friday, July 3, 2009

My Hamlet Collection

For Hyperion to a Satyr to work, I needed a proper sample of filmic staging, but it all starts with the text. Though I have a few editions at home, four of them from Complete Works and one of them in Klingon, I'll just be copy/pasting the scenes right off the Net. Hamlet's in the public domain, right? Still, my most-read edition is a pocket sized printed for classical schools, in which the dirty bits have been removed. Wouldn't want to taint the children's minds with Fortune's favours or heads between maids' legs! I've course restored the text in pencil and it's the copy I've carried around for years. One day, I'll be able to perform the whole play by heart, I'm sure.

The Movies
Kenneth Branagh (1996): Because Branagh's version uses the integral text, it's going to be the first one I look at for each scene. It's the standard. Clocking in at more than 3½ hours, this Hamlet makes the characters a lot more ambiguous. Scenes usually cut (even for stage performances) would make Polonius a lot more sinister than he usually is, just as Claudius, too often the cardboard villain, is more sympathetic. Branagh knows how to entertain, throwing movie stars into the bit parts and making them shine. I'm never bored despite the length.

Laurence Olivier (1948): I'll then proceed chronologically, starting with Olivier' Oscar-winning interpretation. Though a black&white from the 40s, this feels like a very modern film, using trick photography to get into the title character's head. His Hamlet is no doubt where the modern cliché of the melancholy Hamlet comes from. He's such a sad sop. Like most of the films mentioned here, I still have the old VHS tape and in this case, only recently converted to DVD.

BBC (1980): Part of the BBC's complete Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare, directed by Rodney Bennett and starring Derek Jacobi in the title role. Despite the television look of the production, Jacobi is really quite excellent, tapping more into the trickster Hamlet than others before or after him. It's unfortunate that I didn't feel as positive about Patrick Stewart's Claudius. Like Branagh's 1996 version, it uses the complete text.

Franco Zeffirelli (1990): No doubt the most popular film version, starring Mel Gibson's quite visceral Hamlet. It's a very different interpretation, but it really works. Shame about the various cuts made to the text however. It's fine for casual viewers as a sort of Braveheart 0.5, but I found the through line to be thoroughly butchered and many characters turned into clichés. Also: I do so hate it when directors go the Freudian route with Hamlet/Gertrude scenes.

Kevin Kline (1990): Included as an example of a filmed stage performance, as opposed to an actual film, and because it's in my collection. Kline owes his performance to Olivier's Hamlet mostly, but I found some of the actors miscast. Ophelia, for example, is way too old for the part. What effect this has will be food for discussion on this blog eventually.

Hamlet 2000: Michael Almareyda's Lurmanized Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke as Hamlet, soliloquizing on his webcam and stalking the halls of the local Blockbuster. It doesn't quite work as well as Romeo+Juliet, though it is infinitely better acted, and required a lot of moving scenes about. The highlight for me wasn't so much the modern trappings as the performances of Bill Murray as Polonius and Sam Shepard as the Ghost.

Alexander Fodor (2007): Another modernization, this art house Hamlet is sometimes clever, sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrifying, and sometimes amateurish. In the final analysis, it doesn't work, but where else can we see a scheming female Polonius and Ophelia high on heroin? The experimentation is taken to an extreme, which is fascinating and certainly worthy of discussion, but this is the only film credit of most participants and it shows.

Plays Within Plays
There are two filmic works of interest in which Hamlet is staged as part of the story, and we see sizable enough portions of the play to be able to draw discussion from them. These are:

Slings & Arrows Season 1: This wonderful Canadian comedy explores both the backstage and on stage travails of a Shakesparean theater festival. In the first season, not only does the storyline mirror Hamlet's (we won't get into that), but they must also stage the play with a young Hollywood action star in the title role. Would be worth it just for the smart discussion about staging the play even if it weren't so darned good.

A Midwinter's Tale: A small black and white project by Kenneth Branagh in which a troupe of loser actors must put on Hamlet for Christmas. Hilarity ensues. Called In the Bleak Midwinter in the UK, this gem features a lot of Branagh's regular players, but sadly isn't out on DVD yet. I might be taking photographs straight off the television for this one. Despite the comedy, the Hamlet that eventually comes out of these unlikely thespians has some rather lovely bits.

Other Media
Comics: I have two Classics Illustrated stories of Hamlet, one the original and rather straightforward adaptation from 1955, the other the fancier 1990 version with more evocative art by Tom Mandrake. I can tell you which I prefer, though neither is truly satisfying. We won't dwell too much on these, but we'll certainly give them their due.

Music: French songwriter-composer Johnny Hallyday once wrote a sort of rock opera about Hamlet, available to Francophiles as a 2-cd set. It's at times wonderful and at others, completely ridiculous. Again, since I don't plan to put sound on the blog, I won't be lingering too long on each song, but I think interested parties deserve to at least see a translation of those songs.

Games: Mike Young designed a really cool Hamlet-themed game published by Interactivites Ink that requires players to take on the various roles and attempt to accomplish their characters' goals (even if they change the story). I wish he'd done the same with other plays, because it's really cool. I don't plan to discuss the silly text-based game that's available on the Internet, but have fun with it if it's your kind of thing.

Holy Grails
These would be my principal sources, but since this project is expected to take many years, there's a more than average chance I'll be adding to them. Richard Burton's Hamlet very much interests me, but Criterion isn't selling it cheap, and I've usually balked at the 50$ price tag. I saw Nicol Williamson's performance once on tv, but it doesn't exist on DVD and I'm well past buying new VHS tapes. And I hear that David Tennant's Hamlet will be filmed and broadcast on BBC2 with possible DVD release, which I won't be able to resist as a Doctor Who geek.

If I do add a Hamlet to the list, I'll play catch-up through the scenes already covered, and everything'll be easily accessible through the sidebar table of contents. You'll be able to search by specific film and by specific scene.


snell said...

Great, now I'm going to have buy some more versions of Hamlet to keep up with you...

If they purged the dirty bits from Hamlet, what the hell was left??

Richard Burton's Hamlet (and it's not Criterion...are we talking about the same production?) is available on Amazon US for 27 USD.

I'm shocked--shocked!! that you're not covering Hamlet 2 or the German production taken on by Mystery Science Theater 3000 (which features, and I'm not kidding, Ricardo Montalbon dubbing Claudius!!).

Good luck on the venture, my friend...I'll be along for the ride.

Siskoid said...

"If they purged the dirty bits from Hamlet, what the hell was left??"
Everything they didn't realize was dirty.

The Mutt said...

Do you think he meant country matters?

Jack Norris said...

Are you going to be addressing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at any point? Not exactly a version of the play, and not exactly another story where Hamlet is staged, so it doesn't quite fit into the categories you've outlined, but I've always found it a lot of fun.
One year a couple of years ago, the local Shakespeare troupe did alternating nights of Hamlet and RAGAD with the same cast, something I'd been wanting to see for years.
Also, I know you're specifically focusing on movies, but have you seen any live (not necessarily big & famous) local versions that have impressed you?

Siskoid said...

Actually, yes, I should mention G&RAD at some point. One of my favorite plays, and I have the film as well.

I've never seen a live production of Hamlet, except some terrible scenes put up by English lit classes, which I'll probably mention.

I don't live in a particularly large town or even a theater-savvy province for that matter.

Doc_Loki said...

I don't know if you have access to LiveJournal, but Robin Laws is doing something similar on his LJ at the moment:

I look forward to reading your take on the big H :)

Siskoid said...

Yes, with the diagrams. Hamlet as role-playing game. It's an interesting and fun take. I check it out once in a while.

Prof. Chronotis said...

I've only just learned about "Der Rest ist Schweigen" and would like very much to see it ... any idea if it's ever been released on home video of any kind?

Anonymous said...

I don't know if you are reading comments on posts this old, but just in case... BBC just released their 1964 "Hamlet at Elsinore" on DVD (starring Christopher Plummer).
And while I'm commenting - this blog is fantastic.

Siskoid said...

Thanks Anon! I'll look into it.

And yes, I monitor all comments everywhere through the magic of emailed comment notifications!

Anonymous said...

You should have included Jack Benny's "Hamlet" scene in the 1942 "To Be Or Not To Be".

Siskoid said...

There are so many, I went with what I had on the shelf. The rest will turn up, some day!

Anonymous said...

Hey Siskoid,
Love your blog!
Have you seen the German version of Hamlet from 1960? I don't have an actual version, but Mystery Science Theater's version is really worth checking out:
Funny stuff!

Siskoid said...

Heard of it, but haven't seen it. (So many versions out there.) I'll give it a shot when I get the chance!

Linnet Moss said...

I am so glad I found your wonderful blog! Only a couple of weeks ago I wrote a post called "Hyperion to a Satyr," being a fan of Ciarán Hinds who is going to play Claudius in the London production. Are you going to see it? I think he will make a perfect foil to the cerebral Mr. Cumberbatch.
I just watched the Branagh Hamlet for the first time and I would like to use some of your caps in a post about it if you agree. I would credit and link to your blog of course.
To my mind there is nothing wrong with a Freudian interpretation of the closet scene. After all, Hamlet speaks very freely to his mother about her sex life! There is something weird about that. And he is very clearly jealous of Claudius's relationship with her. But I draw the line at what Olivier did, casting a Gertrude who was younger than he.

Siskoid said...

You're lucky! I'm an ocean away.