In my movie collection, if you go to the "H" section, you'll find Hamlet, Hamlet, Hamlet and a movie called Hamlet. That's right, four versions of Shakespeare's play. I know that there are much more, but the ones that I'm familiar with are Laurence Olivier's, Franco Zeffirelli's (starring Mel Gibson), Kenneth Branagh's, and Michael Almereyda's (starring Ethan Hawke). Which one is the best? Which is the worst? Here's what I think, from worst to the best.
Worst - Almereyda's Hamlet (2000)
This was an easy pick, as there isn't much good to say about it. In this version, the prince is transported to modern times, and instead of the country of Denmark, it's the Denmark corporation. Instead of hiding behind the curtain (arras), Polonius puts a microphone on his daughter. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are a couple of fratboy-type party guys. You get the idea. No, that's not what's wrong with the film.
I actually like all of those ideas. The problem is the execution and Ethan Hawke. While there are some cool visual moments, and cool ideas, it all simply doesn't come together. Hawke just can't hold the movie together, as he plays the tragic hero as a one-note character. Hamlet, of all of Shakespeare's characters, is probably the least one-note, having a variety of moods and feelings. Hawke has him stuck as the emo boy from Act I, scene 2 and never climbs out of it.
I once made the mistake of letting my class of seniors choose a version of Hamlet to watch when we were all done reading the play. They chose this one, and it was universally hated. Oftentimes, students will say, "nobody liked it" and they're pretty much just speaking for themselves and maybe a couple of friends. This time, it was absolutely true. Even the kids (or maybe even especially the kids) who really loved the play hated this movie. I can't recall a single student having anything positive to say about it. While I don't think that it's completely without merits, it's basically a stinker.
Not so bad - Olivier's Hamlet (1948)
Wait...what? Olivier's not the top choice! Blasphemy! Yeah, well, I don't like this one that much. Mainly because it's in black and white and black and white movies are boring. Nah, just kidding. Some of my favorite films are in black and white - really! This one is actually pretty good, even though perhaps just a bit dated. Olivier's performance is good and definitely more nuanced than Hawke's. Still, it just doesn't quite hit the right note with me.
It might have something to do with the opening line about how it's a story of a man who "can't make up his mind." Well, that's not really what Hamlet's problem is. At least, that's not the best way to explain it. He makes up his mind, he's just never certain enough about the situation to finally act upon it.
Also, I don't like what the movie cuts out. There's no Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Now, with a play like Hamlet, you simply have to cut out around half of what Shakespeare wrote (unless you're Kenneth Branagh - more on him later). Still, cutting the two of them out feels like blasphemy to me. That's more of a subjective thing though. Overall, it's a good film, but I wouldn't recommend it to a young audience. Die hard Shakespeare fans only for this one.
Pretty good - Zeffirelli's Hamlet (1990)
I genuinely like this one quite a bit. The one thing that it really has going for it is the fact that it's probably the most accessible version. It's also the first one that I saw, and I remember being able to follow the story pretty well, despite the fact that I had never read it. Watching the documentaries on the DVD reveals that's exactly what they were going for, and I'd definitely say mission accomplished on that one.
Every now and then, I feel like I'm watching Martin Riggs (his character in the Lethal Weapon films) as Hamlet (like when he does this weird groan when he gets pissed off at his mom). Still, I think that Gibson does an admirable job. He definitely seems to be treating the role with the seriousness that it deserves, and he pretty much pulls it off. One thing's for sure, his performance doesn't suffer from what Hawke's does. This is a Hamlet with a variety of emotions and moods - from moping to playful, loving to dangerous. There are a lot of genuinely brilliant moments in the film - especially the swordfight at the end.
The best - Branagh's Hamlet (1996)
What's not great about this film? Branagh decided to film every single flippin' line of the play, and he managed to create the hands-down best version of them all. While it's certainly a task to sit through all four hours at once, in many ways it goes by the quickest. It's also the one that I show to my students (in little, bit-sized pieces - basically reviewing what we had read the previous day). The sheer fact that this version includes Fortinbras (the prince of Norway who doesn't suffer from being indecisive like Hamlet is) is enough to make me happy, but there's so much more.
First of all, Branagh plays the character as multi-layered as an actor should. Still, there are other actors who really shine in this one. Kate Winslet creates more sympathy for Ophelia than any other version that I know. Derek Jacobi's King Claudius is a complex villain who seems to realize that he's dug his own grave. Billy Crystal seems as though he was born to play the Gravedigger. And, how about that Charlton Heston fella? He plays the main actor in the group of performers that visit Elsinore Castle. When he rails on about the damned dirty apes and how they destroyed the Statue of Liberty...oh, wait, wrong film. Seriously though, Heston is fantastic as the "Player King," especially in the scene where he's so moved by what he's saying that he bursts into tears.
I have a fellow English teacher who doesn't like this version, and she cites the ending and Fortinbras' dramatic entrance as the main reason why. Personally, I love the way it ends. Another reason why this is such an amazing accomplishment isn't so much that they manage to not cut a single line from the play, but Branagh understands that he's creating a movie and not just filming a play. They're different art forms, and the entrance of Fortinbras creates the catharsis that the movie needs.
So, while Branagh's version is my favorite, I'd probably recommend the Zeffirelli/Gibson one to the casual Shakespeare fan. The other two are for the big-time Shakespeare fan. And yes, they do exist, and not all of them are English teachers! (We're not a powerful enough of a lobby to get so many versions of this play made!)