Hamlet Film Adaptation
Directors Kenneth Branagh and Franco Zeffirelli have both released fantastic productions of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. These directors have come up with two contrasting movie versions of the same play by manipulating film conventions in their own ways. The greatest aspect of watching the Mel Gibson’s and Branagh’s films together is noticing the subtle differences them. Both versions address, or evade, some of the most controversial issues in interpreting this play: Hamlet’s possible madness and the nunnery scene, the chamber scene in which the ghost appears, and Ophelia’s madness along with her suicidal demise.
However, by the gradual development of the vicious themes of betrayal, revenge and death, Branagh’s movie is much more effective in translating the theatrical Hamlet into a cinematic masterpiece. Branagh’s production is more enhanced and he successfully masters the role of Hamlet. The talented actors, excellent direction and magnificent set designs help Branagh’s movie excel over Zeffirelli’s version. Zeffirelli strays too far from the original text and layout of the play unlike Branagh.
The foremost thing to enhance Branagh’s film is its star cast. Firstly, the actors chosen for Branagh’s movie captivate the essence of Hamlet by penetrating themselves into the soul of their respective characters. Branagh as Hamlet is able to bring an introspective quality to his performance during his “to be or not to be” soliloquy. Branagh’s facial expressions reveal that he felt betrayed and feared the unknown after death. Brannagh commands the screen with a Hamlet more aggressive and emboldened than Mel Gibson’s.
In Zeffirelli’s version, Gibson as Hamlet acts subtly throughout this entire soliloquy without any variety in his facial expressions. This is shocking because he should have been more outrageous as his soliloquy is just after his confrontation with Ophelia. He became aware that Ophelia is cheating on him and thus the audience expected him to exhibit aggressiveness in his soliloquy. Gibson’s failure to do this ruined the development of the themes of betrayal and revenge. His argument with Ophelia could have provided a solid foundation for the development of these themes such as revenge.
Also, Michael Maloney in Branagh’s version is the perfect choice for the character of Laertes. His energetic invasion of the royal castle with a sword portrayed that he is out for vengeance. His desire to avenge his father’s death is evident from the horror prevailing in his eyes and his facial emotions. Conversely, Nathaniel Parker in Zeffirelli’s version fails to do justice to his character. Parker lacks the expected visceral emotions during his conversation with the King in the Madness scene.
Furthermore, Derek Jacobi as Claudius in Branagh’s version is worthy of recognition. Jacobi succeeds to penetrate deep into his character to exhibit shrewdness and the desperate urge to have Hamlet dead. In the Final scene, when Hamlet refuses the poisoned drink, the audience can easily identify the fear and nervousness on this King’s face. The viewers can understand that he wants Hamlet dead at any cost. This is exactly what Shakespeare intended to convey in his theatrical Hamlet.
In contrast, Alan Bates as Claudius in Zeffirelli’s adaptation fails to depict such emotions in the Final scene. Overall, the cast in Branagh’s film gave stronger performances than those of Zeffirelli’s version. In addition to the star cast, Branagh surpassed Zeffirelli in direction too. In terms of direction, Branagh cuts and edits very little from the play and his correct sequencing of the scenes facilitates the development of the main themes of betrayal, revenge and death which helps the viewers to get essence of the play.
In Zeffirelli’s version, Hamlet says Ophelia “Get thee to a nunnery” (III, i, 121) before commencing the Mouse Trap where both Ophelia and Hamlet are seated in the audience. This confuses Ophelia and she responds with a blank puzzlement. In the Branagh’s version, this dialogue is delivered when Ophelia is sent to spy on Hamlet by Claudius and Polonius. She feels exposed to danger and thus responds by getting scared, and later expresses her pity for him. Thus, the audience realizes that she is betraying her own love but is helpless. This kind of reaction best suits her character.
Besides this, when Hamlet killed Polonius in the Chamber scene, Branagh’s film focused more on Polonius’ body in the pool of blood. This helps the audience to grasp that this is just the beginning of violence and it foreshadows the death of other characters. Most importantly, the death and funeral of Hamlet is beautifully directed in Branagh’s film. Hamlet’s dead body is carried away by four men such that his arms are stretched on either side. The audience can view it in form of a Christian cross and then he is given a military burial by Fortinbras.
Thus, Hamlet’s death symbolizes a noble cause and the end of conspiracy in Denmark. On the other hand, Zeffirelli not only edits the important character of Fortinbras but fails to signify Hamlet’s death. On the whole, it can be concluded that Branagh better understood the power of the play which is evident by his superb direction. Furthermore, in Branagh’s version, the magnificent set designs are symbolic indications of disloyalty, revenge and death. The hall of mirrors in the royal palaces emphasizes the tensions between the worlds of illusion and reality.
When Hamlet says his soliloquy, the mirror is the tool used to delineate Hamlet’s character. It helps to reveal his intimate thoughts, his personality, his fears and is used to question his reflection about himself. The audience can grasp that he felt deceived by the people around him. Another example of the symbolism is the chessboard flooring. As Hamlet enters the room in the Nunnery scene, he is the only one there; symbolically, this makes him the last piece on board. Later in his soliloquy, he is trying to make a strategic choice concerning his life.
Killing himself would lead him being checkmated by Claudius and living would mean more troubles. If he wanted to live, he has to be very cautious of death, just like any player on chessboard. Also, in the last scene, the duel is conducted on a red carpet. The red colour associated with blood foreshadows the catastrophe involving the deaths of the chief characters. Additionally, in the Chamber scene, when the ghost of King Hamlet arrives, the audience can see candles burning in the background. This illustrates that his soul is in purgatory and is dying to seek revenge.
The audience can comprehend that he felt betrayed and urges for justice to let his soul rest in peace. In contrast, Zeffirelli’s version failed to use such techniques. However, it can be argued that the lack of dim lighting in the castle made it look artificial for the time period in which Hamlet was written. But the bright palace with the hall of mirrors, chessboard like tiles and red carpets indeed makes the audience feel that indeed “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (I, iv, 90).
This is because though the castle is lit, its decorative represents negativity. On the whole, the sets in Branagh’s version help to captivate the essence of the play better. In conclusion, Branagh’s narration helps to realize the themes of betrayal, revenge and death in depth than Zeffirelli’s movie. The remarkable performances of the star cast, outstanding direction and splendid set designs makes Branagh’s Hamlet better than Zeffirelli’s. Branagh indeed made Hamlet immortal for the generations to come.
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