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Hamlet on Film: An Alternative Medium Essay

Hardliners and literary purists of Shakespeare’s works might find it hard to engage in the entertaining yet profound modern adaptation of Hamlet. Michael Almereyda’s re-interpretation of Hamlet set in modern times has met mix criticisms one of disdain and the other filled with delight. There have been many attempts to make Shakespeare’s Hamlet relevant to today’s fast-paced and commercially driven society. Still the rest falter while a rare few have managed to shine to perfection even if the snotty will most likely pick on the apparent anachronism and lack of literary value.

Yet Almereyda’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet to film is able to transcend the fixation for the original and provide something that young audiences and readers alike can enjoy. Shakespeare’s Hamlet has attained universal familiarity. It follows a plot that even the uninitiated can relate to. It is a story about a person who, after finding out that his mother has married another (who turns out later to be the murderer of the father) just after the wake of the of his father, suffers an episode of mad rampage and revenge.

The madness that Hamlet suffers is a tale that is almost impossible to portray without the aid of poetic words and lyrics. This is probably why any attempt at projecting the complicated character and his vices in the big screen would most likely fail. His madness is simply beyond the reach of any cinematic magic. What is required is a clever play of words and the appropriate use of imagery and not a series of images that fails to deliver what is hidden and subtle.

Notwithstanding this major obstacle, Almereyda’s manner of telling the story in the same archaic English language but with liberal changes in setting, actors and overall plot has overcome the hurdle of making Shakespearean plays relevant. The fact that the plot was revamped to include radical technological advancements such as the advent of wireless telecommunications and the dominant presence of corporations is something that borders on incredible insensitivity to the original Hamlet to pure genius. At first glance, it is difficult to connect the past with the future.

Other adaptations strive to stay true to the script as well as the contextual background in translating the words of Shakespeare to moving images. However, Almereyda’s version, if it can be called as such, revolutionizes the way Shakespeare and his works are interpreted on the silver screen. For instance, kings were replaced by corporate big-heads and CEO’s and Hamlet—a medieval figure has been transformed to a person who embodies with utmost accuracy late-teenage angst with certain qualities that not only keeps in line with how Hamlet was then but also takes on other unique attributes such being pensive and reserved.

Ambitious as it is difficult, the modern version of Hamlet is in many ways a success than a failure. Ethan Hawke’s portrayal of Hamlet maybe a little too wide of the mark in certain scenes where it is obvious that the recitation of Shakespeare’s famous lines appear forced and contrived. But where it matters the most, especially the famous Hamlet soliloquy where he ponders on the several layers of life and living comes out as both contemporary and faithful to the original.

For instance, the scene in the video store is telling of how much the film has integrated old English to modern life. Ethan Hawke, who plays Hamlet, utters the famous monologue with consistency and resolve. At first, the words come out too slow and too artificial as if Shakespeare’s words suddenly turned violent and meaningless with Ethan Hawke’s voice. But after several moments of dramatic pauses and carefully timed emphasis on certain words, the teenage-angst driven speech becomes a beautiful and deliberate as if the character is both alike and different to Hamlet.

Perhaps this is because the lines are inherently profound and no matter who says it and in whatever manner the lines will never be less good than it is. Yet it is clear, that the portrayal is more than sufficient to pass the standards that Shakespeare, if alive today, would likely approve. In other words, the scene where Ethan Hawke performs the famous lines is a gamble by the director, which gamble has paid off.

For one, despite the initial problems with connecting the old times with the new inasmuch as the film is merely a rehash of an old play, the monologue has turned from ancient to modern. Thanks to the controlled way in which Ethan Hawke has delivered the lines, it becomes easy for the modern audience to appreciate the lines as if they were reading the original. Another notable feature of the scene is the fact that it is set in video rental store. This is significant because it is generally assumed that when Hamlet said these words he was alone and in a dark place.

In the scene however, the place was well lighted and the actor although technically alone was surrounded by shelves of consumer-friendly products i. e. movies and blockbusters, which if interpreted in the modern sense would probably paint a picture of a world overwhelmed by the omnipresence of consumers and products. In other words, the scene was shown in a way that touches base with the reality of the corporate world as juxtaposed to the dark and brooding environment when Hamlet felt the need to question life and his desire to live.

The changes in some of the lines are also a contentious issue when watching the film after having read the original. While it is admirable that the screenwriter has decided to edit a few words out in order to make some of the lines easy to the ears of the moviegoer, the fact that some of the words were taken out and replaced with a “re-interpretation” if not an abbreviation of complex thoughts puts a huge crevice from the original work from the adaptation.

One such instance is the scene where Hamlet slowly dies as he utters his final words. The original version has a measured cadence to the words but the film turns this rhythm into short phrases that notwithstanding the close similarity to the original fails to capture the original scene when Hamlet dies. These departures from the original are probably a necessary evil in order to produce and make a film of such scale and ambition.

It would not be surprising that to transform a Shakespearean ballad into a modern version would require some tweaking in order to present the story to the audience that does not only overwhelm them with details and the subtlety of the original but manages to thresh out the beauty of the play without being too cerebral. In the same vein, the film is successful as a modern adaptation of Hamlet precisely because the world wherein the story is set is almost similar. While the Prince of Denmark had his grand stature and his privileged position as a respected intellectual in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, so did the Hamlet in Almereyda’s film.

The rest of the characters also jive with, or at least stay parallel to, the original. They appear and play the roles in the film almost exactly as how one would imagine the characters while reading the play. Indeed, the visual advantages of film are play a major role in making the film a success as compared to the flat and limited stage acting. It is a fact that the plays of Shakespeare were performed on stage with real actors very much like films of today are dominated by actors and actresses.

However, it is entirely different when the medium involves the big screen, closed-up images, camera angles and the freedom to shoot scenes in whatever form and location. The limitations of staging Hamlet on a closed-in theatrical platform are overcome by the power of the film to zoom in and out of key locations. In addition, not only are the locations more versatile and limitless, comparatively, but the facial expressions and the movements of the actors and actresses become magnified for the audience to hear and see with incomparable precision and detail.

Ultimately, these main visual and auditory advantage help make the modern adaptation a faithful re-production of Hamlet and an exquisitely wrought and clever modern portrayal of timeless and iconic characters playing out a famous story of revenge, betrayal and redemption. Works Cited Hamlet. Dir. Michael Almereyda. Perf. Ethan Hawke, Julia Stiles, Bill Murray, Kyle MacLachlan, Diane Venora, and Sam Shepard. Miramax, 2000. Film.

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