Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet, released in 2000, and Gregory Doran’s film from 2009 interpret the source material in vastly different ways. In Almereyda’s retelling of the play, Ethan Hawke plays Hamlet, a brooding filmmaker in 1990s New York City. Doran’s Hamlet is more faithful to the original text; a made-for-TV version of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s stage production, it stars David Tennant in the titular role. An interesting scene to compare the two films is the fifth of the first act, in which the deceased king returns as a ghost to tell Hamlet of his murder at the hands of Claudius.
As with the rest of the film, this scene in Doran’s Hamlet does little to reinvent Shakespeare’s text. Save for a few superfluous lines that have been removed, the scene retains its original shape. Foreboding music accompanies almost the entire scene. It begins with the king, played by Patrick Stewart (who also plays Claudius), leading Hamlet away from Horatio and Marcellus. The king appears as described in the text; he is dressed in full armour, with his visor raised, and an ethereal mist surrounds him throughout the entire scene. After they leave the battlements and enter a large, dark room, Hamlet, sword drawn but still unsure as to what exactly he is witnessing, attempts to control the situation, saying “Whither wilt thou lead me? I will go no further” (l.1). The ghost speaks for the first time, and his loud, haunting, almost robotic voice draws a submission from Hamlet before revealing he is, in fact, “thy father’s spirit” (l.9).
During the next roughly twenty lines, the ghost describes his current torment, slowly circling the dumbstruck Hamlet. The ghost calls on Hamlet to avenge him, and when Hamlet learns the nature of his father’s death, he falls to his knees. Gritting his teeth and stabbing his sword into the ground, Hamlet seems eager to take up the charge. The shot then changes to show the ghost from Hamlet’s point of view, following him as he circles his son again and announces, directly into the camera, that “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life / Now wears his crown” (ll.39-40). The music briefly adopts a higher, more sorrowful tone as the ghost remembers his “seeming-virtuous queen” (l.46); it is the one moment in which Stewart’s ghost appears truly regretful. The rest of the scene continues in much the same way, until the ghost aggressively embraces Hamlet, drawing up his head, and demanding that he “Let not the royal bed of Denmark be / A couch for luxury and damned incest” (ll. 83-4). The embrace becomes more tender; the king cradles his still kneeling son’s head, before the pale light of morning indicates he must leave. The ghost then disappears, leaving behind only the mist and the echoes of his last command, “Remember me” (l.91). Hamlet is left, still on his knees, to deliver his subsequent soliloquy.
The same scene in Almereyda’s version has an entirely different tone, but shares certain elements. It takes place not in the castle, which in this film would be Denmark Corp.’s headquarters, but in Hamlet’s well-lit, but dirty, apartment. On one side of the room, a television shows images of explosions. The ghost, played by Sam Shepard, appears on Hamlet’s balcony, and, unlike Patrick Stewart’s, his figure and voice are perfectly normal. Another difference between the scenes lies in the manner of their speech; Shepard and Hawke avoid the theatricality of Stewart and Tennant, resorting instead to whispers and understated facial expressions. Shepard’s ghost embraces Hamlet in a similar way to Stewart’s, when he delivers lines 18 to 20, which were among those cut in Doran’s film; he roughly grabs his cowering son’s hair, referring to it as “thy knotted and combined locks to part” (l.18) then gently caresses his cheek. Almost all of Hamlet’s lines in this scene are cut, notably including lines 29 to 31, in which he announces his desire to seek revenge. The result is a sullen Hamlet that shows almost no emotion, and seems more inclined to introspection than action.As in Doran’s version of the scene, the ghost hugs Hamlet as he finishes his speech. In this instance, however, Shepard delivers his final line as a whisper in Hamlet’s ear. Interestingly, the ghost’s disappearance is illustrated in the same shot sequence in both films: a shot of the two characters embracing, a head-on shot of Hamlet watching his father vanish, and then a shot of where the ghost ought to be standing. The scene ends with the appearance of the Denmark Corp. logo on TV as Hamlet’s offscreen voice says “The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!” (194-5), replacing the rest of his soliloquy.
The differences in the interpretations of this scene are indicative of larger patterns throughout the films. Almereyda’s version is more cerebral, and subtle. By turning Hamlet’s soliloquies into thoughts, he explores the tortured prince’s growing insanity. Hawke’s portrayal of Hamlet as completely detached from those around him suggests an attempt to withdraw from society in self-defence, a very difficult thing to do in modern New York. Ultimately, the film, while enjoyable, falls short of its potential, as it resists the theatre too much, allowing its characters to become somewhat dull. Doran’s, on the other hand, makes its theatrical origins abundantly clear. Tennant shines as a Hamlet that is frequently over-exuberant, almost to the point of being manic. There is no understatement; the director’s bold choices and actors’ strong performances make for complex, layered characters, and the film is better off for it.
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