Release Date: 6 May, 1948
Oscar Ceremony: 24 March, 1949
Director: Laurence Olivier
Starring: Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, John Laurie
Shakespeare’s Hamlet holds a special place in my heart. I’ve read the play, I’ve watched Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film adaptation, I’ve taught both of them in my short-lived teaching career AND I’ve visited Kronborg Castle (also known as “Hamlet’s Castle) in Denmark. My next step would be to play Olivia in someone’s production/adaptation. My cousin studies filmmaking, but clearly I don’t bug her enough to gain anything out of it, ha ha.
This makes Hamlet the first Best Picture winner whose plot I know inside out. Since the story is such a universal classic, I won’t bother commenting on its symbolism too much. After all, it’s not really Laurence Olivier’s doing. However, I will bother giving you a brief context, since it’s possible that you might not be entirely familiar with Hamlet. I actually only read it for the first time last year, so I get it. If you’re genuinely interested, check out Shmoop or Sparknotes; they acted as your lifesavers during high school, but they turn out to be very interesting sources in your adult life as well. Trust me.
Essentially, Hamlet tells the story of a young prince who has to cope with the death of his father and the fact that his uncle Claudius has taken his place as king. Even worse, Claudius has also married Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude. It’s crazy how quickly everyone seems to have gotten over the tragedy. However, the plot gets even thicker when Hamlet encounters his father’s ghost, who reveals that King Claudius deliberately murdered him. Hamlet is determined to seek revenge on King Claudius. Meanwhile, he also has to deal with the affection of Ophelia, the king’s counsellor’s daughter. Spoiler alert, things get a little messy in every department.
Olivier made three major decisions in relation to plot changes, which I would like to discuss. They are as follows: some soliloquies are delivered as inner thoughts instead of being spoken out loud, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s characters (Hamlet’s childhood friends ordered to watch him by the king and queen) have been eliminated, and SPOILER ALERT, Queen Gertrude’s death is portrayed as an intentional suicide as opposed to an accident.
1. Soliloquies as thoughts
I did not like this one bit. One of the best parts of Shakespeare is to see characters deliver amazing soliloquies to the audience, and when performed well, they are really something. While I’m not a huge fan of Laurence Olivier, I have no doubt he would have aced all of them, so I don’t see why he made the choice of portraying them as thoughts. What I mean is, there are a few scenes where you see the character’s face and hear him talk, but his lips aren’t actually moving; it’s all in his head. The other thing is that there doesn’t seem to be any consistency; sometimes the speeches are in characters’ heads and other times they are spoken. Pick a side.
2. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s absence
I never really cared much for these two, nor did I think they were necessarily an integral part of the plot (unless you’re watching Lion King, in which case they would be the equivalent of Timon and Pumba, and WOW are they different in that). Honestly, it makes sense to overlook them in Laurence Olivier’s version because it fits with the more overall serious tone he was going for. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were mostly there as comedic scapegoats, so the movie survives very well without them.
3. Queen Gertrude’s death
Another one of my favourite things about Shakespeare are the chaotic scenes where everyone dies. One of the most absurd ones is in Titus Andronicus, but that’s a whole other story. We’ll talk about that some other time. Anyways, so in Hamlet the play’s climax, a lot of characters die in a bunch of different ways, and the queen actually dies by accidentally drinking a glass of poisoned wined intended for Hamlet. Call me sadistic, but I actually found it hilarious. Tragic, sure, but hilarious, and very well suited for the mood. However, you will notice that in this film version, Laurence Olivier decided to make the queen drink it on purpose, deliberately knowing that it’s going to kill her. I was a bit thrown off by this because I still didn’t think it made that much sense, but it’s supposed to be regarded upon as a more dignified, and less chaotic death. Ok, sure.
As you can see, Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet is arguably a more noble and serious portrayal than other film adaptations. If you can look beyond the grown men wearing tights and puffy sleeves, and the fact that a 41-year-old Laurence Olivier plays a teenaged Hamlet when the actress who plays his mother is about 29, it really is. I believe that the changes he chose to make reflect his intentions to go for a more somber interpretation of the play. If you’re looking for a version that pays closer attention to comedic relief, turn to Kenneth Branagh’s, but keep in mind that the reason he was able to cover a wider range is because it’s 4 hours long. If you want to make a reasonably lengthed film, there are naturally some elements that you need to strategically choose to overlook, and that’s what Olivier did. On another note, if what you’re looking for is laughs and one huge unbearable crying fit, go for The Lion King (only loosely based on Hamlet). Gets me every time.
Comparisons aside, watching Shakespeare on film is not always easy, especially if you’re not familiar with the story or with the original English it was written in. This particular movie feels slow, but the dialogue is extremely fast-paced, which can sometimes be hard to follow. That’s why the actors’ jobs are so incredibly important; we end up relying on their performances and interpretations to truly grasp what’s going on. In order to succeed, the actors themselves need a thorough understanding of Shakespeare’s lines, which takes a lot of work. This one goes out to Olivier and his fellow actors, as well as any other man or woman who has ever nailed a Shakespeare performance. Well done.