HAMLET directed by Laurence Olivier (1948)
HAMLET directed by Franco Zefferelli (1990)

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How about this as a summary of Shakespeare’s most famous play turned movie?:

“This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”.

If that seems too reductive, how about this:

“A guy comes home from school to discover that his father’s dead. To top it all off his mother is horsing around with his uncle. Add to that, the ghost of the old man comes back to tell him that it was his uncle who knocked him off so he could run off with the Queen. The guy goes off his nut”.

The first is Laurence Olivier’s voiceover before the main action begins.

The second is from an interview with Mel Gibson included in the extras on the DVD of Zefferelli’s film.

Frankly, neither really cuts the mustard but both are obviously aiming to pitch the story in an accessible fashion.

A full stage version of the play could last over 4 hours, a length likely to be off-putting for most movie-goers. Sensibly, both directors made radical cuts, each shaving off a good 90 minutes. Olivier, for example, courted controversy by entirely exluding scenes featuring the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Hamlet is commonly portrayed as a man who thinks too much and therefore more inclined to introspection and procrastination than daring deeds. Being no dashing Dane is precisely why Samuel Taylor Coleridge highlighted his “enormous intellectual activity and a proportional aversion to real action”.

It’s safe to assume that Zefferelli didn’t consider the English Romantic poet’s analysis when planning his movie. The Italian may not have read Coleridge but he did get to see Lethal Weapon and that’s how Gibson came to land the lead. On the surface this is an improbable, and potentially disasterous, casting but making Hamlet as prmarily a man of action does have a logic.

In the final scene he proves himself to be an accomplished swordsman and there’s also the drama of his escape from being transported to England after his ship was captured by pirates (this is related via a letter but is still the stuff of boy’s own adventures).

The Italian director had a reputation for being a bossy personality and this brash character is refected in a movie that is visually striking but lacks subtlety.

Olivier’s Oscar-winning movie is both more faithful to the bard as well as being richer in atmosphere. The roving shots through the shadows and stairways of the castle owe a lot to German Expressionism and create a wonderful sense of mystery and poetry.

To mope or not to mope is the question and part of Olivier’s superior vision is due the fact that he said yes to moping.

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