One of the challenging aspects about transforming a play like Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” into a film which preserves the brilliance and depth of the play as it is written is the issue of the play’s minor characters. For example, in Franco Zeffirelli’s “Hamlet” (1990) which starts Mel Gibson in the lead-role, s direct emphasis on the character of Hamlet is pursued by the director and facilitated by the script. Many of the contemporary reviews of the film also focused on the lead-actor with the inference that Gibson’s performance in the role of Hamlet would either “make or break” him as a serious actor.
Reviewers were also quick to point out that Zeffirelli’s version of “Hamlet” was “clearly made for a mass audience” (Erskine, Welsh, Tibbetts, and Williams 142) and, as such, the movie is therefore understood to have created lowered expectations on its original release. The verdict on Gibson’s portrayal of Hamlet was mostly-positive with reviewers more or less agreeing that Gibson was “quite good as the prince and is certainly capable of doing justice to the lines” (Erskine, Welsh, Tibbetts, and Williams 142). Also of note was the fact that Gibson’s “performance [was] energetic and well modulated” (Erskine, Welsh, Tibbetts, and Williams 142).
The end-result of promoting the central character of Hamlet and lowering expectations for the film was that the film was by and large accepted by reviewers as a success. The problem with this appraisal of the film is that it leaves out certain very important points regarding the film’s neglect of the sub-plots and minor characters of Shakespeare’s original play. Even though “Hamlet” is widely loved for the lines of its main character, the play offers minor characters who play crucial roles not only in terms of the plot and thematic development of the play but with regard to the play’s dramatic structure and technical structure.
For example, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern help to forward crucial plot developments, but they also enable the play’s ironic ending. In most cases, with film-versions of “Hamlet,” the issue of the minor characters, and particularly the portrayal of the character, Horatio,” is very difficult because both Hamlet and Horatio are characters who were conspicuously written for the stage and each functions in Shakespeare’s play not only as characters but as theatrical and narrative devices which may not be translatable to film.
In order to more fully understand these qualities which are missing from the “Mel Gibson Hamlet,” it is useful to revisit the role of Horatio in the original play. Keeping in mind that Zeffirelli’s method was “to close in rather than open up the play,” (Erskine, Welsh, Tibbetts, and Williams 141) and that he “makes no attempt to conceal the fact that this is a film of a play and lets the play speak for itself” (Erskine, Welsh, Tibbetts, and Williams 141), the missing elements of the play’s supporting cast is a huge negative for the final film.
The formality of “Hamlet’s” technical structure is an important element of the play and Horatio, who is described as “Friend to Hamlet,” functions, essentially, the play’s narrator, interpreting conflict and action for the audience. Horatio’s role is obvious in play’s beginning when he remarks to Marcellus’: “A piece of him. ” This remark is Horatio’s ironic confession that he functions not only as a person in the play, but as a technical device. Horatio’s line is followed by Marcellus’ statement that Horatio “..
says ’tis but our fantasy,/ And will not let belief take hold of him ” (Act I, Scene 1). This line elevates Horatio’s credibility with the audience who, also, are likely to be initially skeptical of the presence of the ghost of Hamlet’s father. From the beginning of the play it is clear that Horatio is meant to serve as the play’s “interpreter” and his relationship with the audience is established quickly. Horatio’s role as narrator continues through the whole play. An example of Horatio’s versatility (from a technical point of view) is his role in Hamlet’s “Dram of Eale” speech in Act 1, Scene 4.
Here, Horatio speaks few lines, but helps to give a rhetorical provocation for Hamlet’s intricate and poetically dense speech. He functions as a “target” for Hamlet’s speech which is meant, obviously, to be directed at Claudius and perhaps to Hamlet himself, and to the world…. Not only is Horatio’s role as a narrative device enhanced in this famous scene, but a subtle elevation of his character development is evident in the way Shakespeare tacitly demonstrates Horatio’s friendship with and devotion to Hamlet.
The example of Horatio is meant to show just a glimpse of the subtlety of expression which was lost in the “Mel Gibson Hamlet,” precisely because so much emphasis was placed on the lead-role. In fact, Hamlet, the character as written by Shakespeare can only be fully understood by his relationship top the minor characters and the film is totally lacking in this respect. The movie, by placing far too much emphasis on the lead actor and the play’s lead character becomes one-dimensional despite fine performances from the cast.
Although Mel Gibson is a strong, believable, and passionate Hamlet, the play is not granted the same depth and detail as is evident ion the original work by Shakespeare. Another example of a film-version of Hamlet which misses the brilliance and depth of the original play, but which is till a very well-made film, is Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” which as one critic mentioned, is far too long and abstract. Most film-goers would probably be put off by the critic who said “Maybe if moviegoers got free T-shirts saying “I’ve survived Hamlet”, it would boost the box office” (“JUST BARD TIMING?
THAT” 5) but this charge is a good charge against the movie because rather than embracing the intense, always-moving-forward sense of energy which is in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Branagh chooses to create a more meandering, epic feeling to the story. Just as the lapse in the portrayal of the minor characters in the “Mel Gibson Hamlet” detracted from the cohesiveness of the film, the off-pace of Branagh’s movie helps to impede the experience of Shakespeare’s masterpiece rather than facilitate it.
Because a sense of time rushing by fast, furious, chaotic, and lethal pervades the play, “Hamlet,” and because events in the play as written by Shakespeare have an urgent (if fated) energy about them, the slow pace of Branagh’s film is a bad-match for the central themes and emotion of “Hamlet” the play. This sense that the Branagh version completely missed the sense of pace for the story is evident in critical reviews which remarked that “”If only they could have kept the proceedings to two and a half hours, this would have been a must-see masterpiece” (“JUST BARD TIMING?
THAT” 5). That opinion is a shame because in many ways Branagh did seem to capture the spirit and themes of “Hamlet” very well. Despite the well-meaning and very creative approaches of both of the directors discussed above, I would agree with the critical responses which praise the actors involved in the films but slight the directors and screenwriters a little for not managing to successfully capture the wholeness of “Hamlet.
” In one case, the director seemed too preoccupied with delivering a slid lead-performance and elevating the performances of the actors at the expense of the emotional and dynamic interrelationships between the characters in the original plat. In the second film, Branagh’s version, a misplaced sense of plot-pace and mood helped to disrupt the essential emotional flow of the original play. In the latter case, the mistake is far more devastating, I think, because the whole emotional energy of the original play “Hamlet” rests on the feeling that life and events speed out of control, in chaos, and go by so fast one can’t grasp them.
A slow pace doesn’t fit. In the case of Mel Gibson, his performance in “Hamlet” is so strong that the film is a success even if it does not actually preserve the depth and originality of the play, which was, of course, drawn itself from other versions of “Hamlet” and caused some degree of controversy when Shakespeare originally produced it for the Elizabethans. Works Cited Erskine, Thomas L. , James M. Welsh, John C. Tibbetts, and Tony Williams, eds. Video Versions: Film Adaptations of Plays on Video. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000. “JUST BARD TIMING? THAT IS THE QUESTION; Hamlet. ” The Mirror (London, England) 13 Feb. 1997: 5.