I have become convinced that making a film version of Hamlet is less an artistic project than a form of theatrical sadomasochism that certain actors and directors inexplicably feel compelled to put themselves through. Having now seen this version, I have seen all four of the most notable versions (the others being Branagh’s, Zeffirelli’s and Almereyda’s). More than any other Shakespeare play, the directors and lead actors seem to never overcome their sense of intimidation in the face of the text. I believe that is why I have always liked Almereyda’s version, as he and his lead actor Ethan Hawke fall victim to this less than the others.
There’s a lot more to say in comparison of these four versions, but we will save that for another day. Today its about Olivier. This stark black-and-white version could not be more different in tone and style than Henry V and Richard III and is often treated as the Jan Brady (forgotten middle child) of the Olivier-Shakespeare trilogy. Even the Criterion Collection, which released the DVDs of all three films, gives Hamlet the short shrift. Henry V gets a commentary track and the illuminating illustrations from the “Book of Hours” that I mentioned in my earlier post. Richard III gets the full-on 2-disc special edition treatment. The Hamlet disc doesn’t even include the trailer. (Digression: Will the way films are presented on DVD affect our formulation of the film canon? It seems like it is already happening to some degree. We’ll take this up another day as well.) This reputation is somewhat justified as it doesn’t measure up to the other films either as Shakespearean adaptations or films unto themselves.
However, the film does raise several questions about the play and methods of adaptation that are worth exploring. The first I want to talk about is Olivier’s famous voice-over prologue in which he declares it “A story about a man who could not make up his mind”. Shakespearean scholars groan at this ridiculous oversimplification of perhaps the most complex drama in the Western canon, but is this really such a bad thing? Scholars and theatrical people (actors, filmmakers and theatrical directors) are not doing the same job, only working on the same material. Though many think of Olivier as some type of Shakespearean scholar, he is not, he is an actor. In the lecture by Marjorie Garber that I mentioned last time, she argued that the disciplines involved in the production of art (theatre, painting, sculpture, etc) should not be in the humanities at all. They have more in common with engineers and other experimental sciences than they do with scholars of literature or art history. When filmmakers or theatrical directors get too scholarly, they lose the life of the work and you end up with something like Branagh’s Hamlet, which everyone more or less admires but rarely watches. Olivier has the guts to make a specific interpretation of Hamlet, even if that interpretation is not entirely successful.
The reason for this failure is what I mentioned in the opening paragraph. Olivier can never overcome his intimidation in the face of the text to fully go with a quirky interpretation. He was definitely weighed down withe burden of being "Laurence Olivier: Greatest Shakespearean Actor of Generation; Heir to Garrick and Kean" to go all the way. He would be much freer in Richard III, a play with much less cultural baggage than Hamlet.
The other issue is one that I have always been fascinated by: actors’ age-appropriateness. Olivier was 40 when he played Hamlet opposite a 27-year-old Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) and an 18-year-old Ophelia (Jean Simmons, who spends the movie looking like she hopped off a Swiss Miss package). The years 1944 to 1948 were apparently rough on Olivier, as he looks at least a decade older than he did as Henry V, and believing that he just returned from college really stretches the old suspension of disbelief. What is better, a great reading by an actor of inappropriate age, or a less-technically precise performance from an actor who actually looks like their character (a la Ethan Hawke in Almereyda’s film)? It is of course an endless debate, but where you fall says a lot about the lens through which you view Shakespeare.