Classics · From Page to Screen · Shakespeare

From Stage to Screen: Hamlet (2009)

Here’s a question to think about: what makes a good adaptation of Shakespeare? Is it one that’s completely faithful to the source, or one that provides a new perspective? Watching the 2009 Hamlet movie with David Tennant, this is a question I found myself asking again and again. Aside from clips of Romeo + Juliet in eighth grade, I’ve never really watched a modern dress version of Shakespeare, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I wasn’t even sure that modern dress could work without taking away from the play. But if anything, it makes it more accessible.

Don’t get me wrong, not everything fits perfectly. Denmark is no longer at war with Norway, for one thing. And what about the fact that Hamlet uses a camcorder during the play-within-a-play? When he hesitates to kill Claudius only moments later, why not record his confession instead and press charges in court? On a different note, the updated setting allows the actress playing Ophelia to emphasize the character’s subtle defiance, but takes her descent into madness out of its original context. In fact, it takes the entire play out of its original context. In light of that, it’s actually surprising how well it works, and how few things seem out-of-place in the modern day. It’s done well, and generally seems natural rather than forced – as well as being more of an alternate present day than simply a historical play with guns and blue jeans. Updating it certainly shows better than any historical-costume production could how relevant the themes of greed, vengeance, mental illness, and death still are in the present day.

The acting is excellent. Hamlet is wonderfully complicated and human, and I found myself feeling far more sympathy for him than I did when I was simply reading the script. He comes across as vulnerable but dangerous, hesitant but determined, and more and more unhinged as the play goes on, before seeming to find some degree of peace in the final scene. Claudius comes across as conflicted and almost – almost – sympathetic in the early scenes, before forgetting his guilt and growing more vicious near the end. Gertrude shows more genuine regret than I imagined, even early on. She seems to realize the cup is poisoned when Claudius warns her not to drink, which is very much how I saw it as I read. Ophelia is probably the character most affected by the updating, because the expectations of young women in Shakespeare’s day and today are quite different. But good acting largely makes up for it, and in my opinion anyone who can say “Woe is me!” not just with a straight face but in a tearful whisper is a very good actress.

The movie was emotionally draining, but it wouldn’t have been a good adaptation of Hamlet if it wasn’t. This is a story that confronts death and evil in a no-holds-bared kind of way, and if one could simply get up from it without feeling the need to contemplate those things, what’s the point?

That’s not to say I had no criticisms. The play-within-a-play relied too much on crude humor, and it seems ridiculous for a modern-day acting troupe to be all men, as they would have been in Shakespeare’s day. The character of Horatio was somewhat ignored, which is a shame because he’s actually pretty important, and his choice to live – one of the few bits of hope in the ending – could have been more powerful than it was. Hamlet himself was perhaps too violent in his scene with Gertrude. While he’s obviously angry with his mother, I was shocked to see him manhandle her the way he does. After all, what’s the point in “I will speak daggers to her but use none” if he then goes on to more-or-less physically attack her?

However, even the best movies are not perfect, and with plays many things are just a matter of interpretation. Overall, the acting choices were excellent, the sets minimal but used well, and the modern update very well-done. I particularly loved the use of security camera footage: the way the ghost doesn’t appear on it, the movement of one alerting Hamlet to the fact that he’s being watched, and the way he later tears down a camera before saying “now I am alone”. Laertes pulling a gun on Claudius is far more chilling than him drawing a sword could possibly be for an audience that has likely never seen one outside of movies and museums. The characters watching through one-way mirrors instead of hiding behind curtains and such is also a fitting change, and the overarching story sadly fits as well in today’s world as in Shakespeare’s. I wouldn’t recommend the movie for everyone, but depending on what exactly you’re looking for, it’s an excellent adaptation that emphasizes the story’s continued relevance.

Classics · From Page to Screen · Shakespeare

From Stage to Screen: Henry V

When it comes to reading Shakespeare versus viewing Shakespeare, I say do both. I don’t think I’d get half as much out of movie versions or live performances without also reading the script, but each time I’ve seen Shakespeare performed I’ve felt like I got something out of it I wouldn’t have from the script alone. Personally, I like to read the plays first and see them afterwards, which is what I did with Henry V. After finishing my reading of it last week, I watched the 1989 Kenneth Branagh movie.

The whole movie is dark and gritty – not inappropriately so, but more than the play necessarily demands. It adds a long, dialogue-free battle sequence in place of several short scenes, and it cuts humorous moments in favor of emphasizing tragic ones. Any adaptation of Shakespeare has to decide what aspects of the story it’s going to focus on, and this is clearly a gritty historical epic. It’s also taken out of its original medium, making the chorus’ request for the viewers to use their imagination redundant. On stage, it’s impossible to show what a real battle would look like, but movies can come much closer. However, that’s something that couldn’t be avoided except by cutting the chorus altogether, and that would be a shame.

The flashbacks from Henry IV make a world of difference. I don’t regret not reading Henry IV first, but I do think seeing that the little group of unsavory supporting characters are King Henry’s former friends changes the way I see some of his actions. In that light, the play is the story of a young king who chooses his kingdom over his friends, a theme that’s emphasized by contrasting his friendly banter with these men in the flashbacks and his harsh decisions in the present day. This theme is even woven into in the scene in which he unveils three of his nobles’ treason. By addressing so much of his speech just to one of the three, Branagh gives the impression that this man was someone King Henry truly trusted, making the betrayal all the more personal and Henry’s decision to execute the men harsher than it would be otherwise.

I’ve said before that King Henry V – as Shakespeare portrays him – comes across as morally ambiguous, but not pointlessly cruel. Branagh’s portrayal captures this perfectly: the relief on his face when the town of Harfleur surrenders; the single tear when he condemns an old friend to death; the desperate tone of his prayer after visiting the soldiers in disguise; the gentle way he courts Princess Katherine after fighting a war against her people. He’s ambitious, he’s ruthless, but he’s not without a conscience. It would be easy to lean too heavily toward making him a flawless hero, or even toward exaggerating his negative qualities, but the movie kept a good balance.

If you can’t tell, I absolutely loved it.