Although Michael Amereyda and Gregory Doran have both directed film adaptations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I have an appreciation for one more than the other. Gregory Amereyda’s Hamlet (2000), is a modernist reworking of the original script but it is not the modernization of filmic elements that makes it unrealistic, underappreciated, and less compelling but rather the shortcomings in the performance of the actors. I will admit that elements such as the setting, costumes and props contribute to the overall performance but even the attractiveness of or the familiarity with a more technological world is not enough to compensate for disappointing performance, particularly given by Hamlet and Claudius, in Amereyda’s adaptation. An in-depth exploration of the second scene of the first act reveals the similarities and differences between the films and between the films and the original script that make one film more successful than the other.
The premise for the second scene of the first act is Claudius’ announcement of his marriage with the widow of the recently deceased king of Denmark and Hamlet’s suspicion of Claudius’ motives. Apart from the characters’ names and most of the dialogue, many of the other elements have been transformed in making Almereyda’s adaptation of Hamlet. Moving from the original script to the screenplay for this 2000 film, we are carried through a passage of time and space. This depiction of Hamlet is not historically accurate as it set in an age of modernization and technology. The setting, the costumes, and the props in the second scene of the first act helps to establish this. The majestic kingdom of Denmark becomes a renowned corporation based in New York City and Castle Elsinore becomes Hotel Elsinore. The characters dress according to occasion and their ranking but what is particularly striking is how Hamlet presents himself. After Claudius’ announcement in the Denmark Corporation, Hamlet sports his tuque. It seems almost inappropriate and separates him from his uncle Claudius and Gertrude as an outsider, lost in his own childish thoughts. In keeping with the modern times, the film also demonstrates the uses of microphones during Claudius’ announcement, video footage to represent memories of Hamlet’s father, and surveillance footage to depict the father’s ghost. Ultimately, though the contemporary nature of the setting, costumes and props in Amereyda’s Hamlet is more relatable to today’s audience, it is less representative of Shakespeare’s original work.
Doran’s Hamlet (2009) is in many ways simpler than Amereyda’s adaptation. While the 2000 film adopts many set changes throughout a single scene, the same scene in the 2009 film is confined within the walls of one room within, what appears to be, the Elsinore castle and not the Elsinore hotel. Though there is simplicity in the singularity of a setting, there is nothing simple about the props that make up this setting. From extravagant chandeliers to draping curtains and high ceilings, the Elsinore castle is worthy of its name. This adaptation also stays true to the on-stage instructions given by the original playwright where Claudius’ announcement and his and Gertrude’s plead for Hamlet to stay are both made to be very private events and include only the correct number of cast members. Meanwhile, the 2000 film manipulates the cast on stage to include more actors to make Claudius’ news a public press release and fewer actors to make the plead for Hamlet to stay more of a private conversation. In general, Doran’s Hamlet maintains a fine balance between the relatively historical setting and the contemporary costumes of the today’s royalty. It in these ways, then, that Doran’s use of setting, costumes and props contributes to a more refined film.
Amereyda’s creative approach in Hamlet (2000) does not stop at what the film illustrates but it also greatly influences the process of film editing. His reworking does not follow the chronological timeline of the original playwright and instead produces its own rearrangements. Firstly, the short sequence that precedes Act 1 Scene 2 shows Hamlet watching a video of himself in which he recites parts of his monologue, which would have otherwise occurred in the Act 2 Scene 2. Secondly, Almereyda’s Hamlet uses a flashback during Act 1 Scene 2 to recount Horatio’s encounter with the ghost of the recently deceased king instead of opening the film as it would opens the play. These two examples represent the creative choices of the director to make the storyline unpredictable and enticing. On the other hand, Doran’s reworking of Act 1 Scene 2 more closely resembles the original timeline of events and is, thereby, slightly less exciting. Furthermore, the two directors have their own unique ways of presenting Hamlet’s soliloquies, which are expressive of his internal thoughts. Where Amereyda has Hamlet perform his first “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt” soliloquy as a voiceover, Doran has Hamlet perform it live and directly to the audience. In Doran’s film, a direct address abolishes the invisible fourth wall of the fictitious world and connects this world to us in the real world. This creative choice makes the Doran film more interactive and engaging while the voice-over in Amereyda’s film creates a sense of detachment.
Voice-over in Amereyda’s Hamlet (2000).
While the costumes and props establish the setting and support the actors and actresses in filling their roles, an important part of their performances can be accounted for by the inherent ability to act and the direction they receive. In Act 1 Scene 2, the performances of Claudius and Hamlet are subjected to scrutiny because they are key players in this particular sequence. David Tennant, as Hamlet in the 2009 adaptation, delivers a comparatively promising performance than Ethan Hawke in Hamlet (2000). The difference in the type of language used by a character is a deliberate choice by the director to influence how the audience resonates with the character. Ethan Hawke relies on a naturalistic language, which unfortunately undermines the disoriented and paranoid nature of a character such as Hamlet while David Tennant’s exploitation of a heightened language seems more appropriate. The line “Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’” is great example of this (l.76). The opposite is true for the character of Claudius, where the 2000 film renders a more expressive and cheerful Claudius than the 2009 film. For example, in Amereyda’s Hamlet (2000), after Claudius’ bitter-sweet announcement, his exaggerated delivery of the lines “And now, Laertes, what’s the news with you?…” (ll.42-47) followed by his inappropriate dancing allows me to believe in Hamlet’s suspicion of foul play by Claudius, unlike in Doran’s Hamlet (2009). In general, then, I believe a solid performance is indicative of a well directed film and for that reason, I find Doran’s adaptation of Hamlet far more compelling because of the effective creative choices he makes.
Example of Hamlet’s heightened language in Doran’s Hamlet (2009).