Hamlet: A stage and screen production.

Does the cinema have adequate formal resources to convey character, interiority and psychology in screen adaptations of literary texts? In your answer you should refer closely to at least one cinematic version of Hamlet studied on this course.

 

The cinema is a medium of which many can indulge, whether that be in either independent or mainstream film productions that span across a wide range of genres. The theatre itself offers audiences similar visual experiences however it is difficult to determine which medium has the superior formal resources when adapting a literary text. One has to take into consideration the logic of performing within the constraints of a stage whereas the cinema has limitless options in order to enhance the production itself and also the text’s main themes and character arcs. Significantly, two of William Shakespeare’s cinematic adaptations of ‘Hamlet’[1], (both Laurence Olivier’s in 1948 and Sir Kenneth Branagh’s[2] in 1996), are effective in transferring the fragmented psychology that consumes the play’s main protagonist and by applying the technical codes and conventions it enforces how cinema is adequate within its resources to successfully adapt such an iconic literary text through the use of mise-en-scene, cinematography, sound, editing and visual effects.

Laurence Oliver’s film adaptation of Hamlet is one of if not the most iconic cinematic productions of a Shakespearean text, with Hamlet generating the most film adaptations overall. The film was nominated for seven and won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but it was well documented that Olivier’s production was met with substantial edits and dismissals of certain acts and scenes in order to abide by industry standards of that time. Neil Taylor regarding this particular production wrote, “…in order to be marketable, it had to conform to cinematic conventions, and these included a conventional maximum length. By being ‘ruthlessly bold’ and turning it into ‘An Essay on Hamlet’ rather than a compressed version of the play, Olivier kept it down to 155 minutes, losing more than half of Shakespeare’s lines.”[3]  At first, the idea of cutting scenes and entire interior monologues when adapting a literary text, especially a play of this magnitude, can be perceived as being unfaithful to the source material, highlighting a certain inadequacy that cinema has over a theatrical portrayal because of the restrictions of keeping to an ideal running time, whereas the text can be written freely to whatever length the author desires. However, cutting lengthy scenes and dialogues allowed Oliver to somewhat apply his own interpretations of the play and was able to convey Hamlet’s character in a more astute and personal way in which his primary focus was on both the interiority and psychology of the play’s troubled main protagonist.

The opening act of the play plunges us straight into the narrative where in scene five, we see our protagonist encounter the ghost of his father to inform him of such darkening revelations. He tell his son, “I am thy father’s spirit, doomed for a certain term to walk the night…till the foul crimes done in my days of nature are burnt and purged away.”[4] The foul crimes relates to his death of which his treacherous brother Claudius has committed. Performing this scene on the stage can leave the audience somewhat yearning for a reconstruction into how this significant event played out. Some theatrical productions leave it to the audience’s imagination whereas in both Oliver’s and Branagh’s production we see both director’s choosing to use of the flashback technique. Both flashbacks into the death of how Hamlet’s father died play out with his ghost providing the voiceover as the events unfold. The use of visual effects is also prevalent within both films but most notably within Olivier’s production where we see the ghost entering the scene. The filter within the frame of the camera is manipulated by creating a disorientating blurred effect to echo the same response that Hamlet bears when seeing the ghostly image of his father. Again this determines that cinema can adapt the psychological element from within the text on to the screen by applying a simplistic visual for great dramatic effect.

The use of cinematography, when adapting a text to the screen, is essential when conveying any character but it was particularly vital in conveying the psychological fragility of Hamlet’s mind-set. His character is constantly indecisive, lacking morality yet also projecting a sense of obsessiveness with the motion of the camera throughout the film reflecting this.  Samuel Crowl, deconstructing the play through a cinematic lens, wrote, “Hamlet’s turmoil is further incorporated in the restlessness of Olivier’s camera. The camera is in constant motion: tracking, panning, rising (or lowering) on a crane…”[5] By manipulating the use of a camera in order to signify a character’s physical movement and emotions is evidence that cinema does provide adequate resources in order to amplify the chaos and action that surrounds them, in some ways more effective than the literary text as we are only visualising the sequences in our mind.

The use of sound was also an integral factor as well as a motif in some ways throughout Olivier’s production with the recurring use of the voiceover. This was extremely to use at the time of film’s distribution in which Olivier was able to incorporate technical codes within a Shakespearean play as it can emphasise the emotion and the interiority of a character allowing us to delve deeper within a soliloquy when the camera is not actually focused on the character we are hearing it from. Specifically, the soliloquy within Act 3, scene 1, the camera sharply focuses on the ocean surrounding the castle connoting that all of his emotions are merging into one another are completely battering his mind. The camera at this point is also slowly zooming out until the back of Hamlet’s head enters the frame until there is a dramatic crescendo from the film’s score as the camera then zooms rapidly into the back of his head as the shot quickly fades to the black. This effect is used to state to the audience that we are about to enter the clouded and corrupted mind of Hamlet with the visual effect of smoke engulfing the screen emphasising the element of not being able to predict what happens next or what action Hamlet will take, as the shot then cross-dissolves into the shot of his face before he delivers the iconic opening line, “To be, or not to be, that is the question:”.[6]

By applying cinematic conventions such as the use of cinematography, editing and sound, when adapting a literary text to the screen, it can bring an entirely new sense of depth to the narrative. With the inclusion of such elements, it can alter the way we interpret the physical text as a whole, it no longer has to be read chronologically as most plays do within their linear narratives but with the use of flashback’s we are able to respond between the events that occur both within the past and the present, again further developing the psychology and subjectivity of the play overall.

Jack J. Jorgens stated that, “The meaning of action is coloured by it settings…the way lines, shapes, colours and textures are arranged affects our response, as do music and non-verbal sounds, montage, and the structuring of the action beat by beat, scene by scene.”[7] A film adaptation must accomplish the action that the author creates on the page in order for it to both accurate but with feasible execution.  Olivier had an innate interest in creating a Hamlet that focused on the individual and being able to fully explore the character’s mental state. Throughout the film, it is clear that Olivier wanted to use the technology that cinema had to offer at the time and one of the qualities of adapting a literary text, that is initially performed onstage, is that it is able to provide stylistic advances and improvements to already iconic scenes.

At the time it was hugely effective for Olivier to perform Hamlet’s soliloquies as a voiceover as it obviously shows the character not physically speaking which then allows the audience to focus on the lines of the dialogue itself as well as the actor’s facial expressions and body language that corresponds with the dialogue. Even by cutting to shots of significance such as a character or location that is uttered within a piece of dialogue can bring a whole new dimension to a literary adaptation, as the audience is actively being told where to look whereas reading the text only allows us to use our own intuition or imagination. Again this enforces the idea that the cinema does have adequate resources by manipulating sound and cinematography to enhance or even reinvent scenes from a literary text.

However, Neil Taylor somewhat counter argues the positives regarding the notion that cinematic productions of Hamlet are not always aesthetically successful, especially when it comes to key characters from texts being adapted to the screen. He wrote that, “A stage Hamlet will be visible even when he is not speaking, whereas all film directors are committed to some extent to establishing shots and reaction shots, which almost always involve cutting away from Hamlet at the end of his speeches and thereby rendering him invisible.”[8] It is clear that a cinematic adaptation of a play as opposed to a theatrical one, does indeed come with, at times, controversial handlings of the literary text itself but the use of cutting to various other shots, whether it be an extreme-long shots or close-ups within a significant scene can be used for dramatic effect. By cutting away from Hamlet at the end of his speeches, it can appear as if the production is rendering him to be invisible, however I feel it has an everlasting presence upon the production as a whole  not just the end of a scene he is particularly in.  It is as if the character is constantly looming over the entire film, becoming a visually ominous presence in himself, dominating a majority of scenes he is in.

Nearly fifty years afterwards, Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Hamlet (1996) was adapted to the silver screen and with it being the longest of the play’s reinterpretations. The running length of the film was 242 minutes which was extremely long even within modern-day standards of filmmaking, however, it resulted in a much more extensive adaptation instead of bearing the restrictions that Olivier faced within his production of having to cut to lengthy pieces of the play’s dialogue.

The production allowed Branagh to enforce the film’s own sense of occasion with its all-star cast and budget to become a hugely marketable commodity in some respects as the film’s high production values, them being, again, the cast, the costumes and settings, the use of authentic visual effects and most notably being shot in 70 millimetre throughout. As in any film, the director has to be the force that orchestrates the entire production but as acclaimed theatre and film director Tony Richardson stated when quoted within Erskine’s study of video adaptations of texts, “The director in cinema is a real creative force, while in the theatre, he is just an interpreter of the text.”[9] Like a director, we the readers and viewers are still only interpreters, we ourselves visualise how a particular scene should be depicted within our own personal adaptation of the text. To deem a particular cinema production of Hamlet ‘successful’ is only due to the fact of whether or not it meets our own personal interpretations.

With regards to set design, another adequate resource of both stage and screen productions, was extravagant with the significance of mirrors used throughout a majority of scenes emphasizing the connotations of self-reflection. This mirroring aspect of the play implies that sense of vanity and delving deeper into one’s self which relates to delving deeper within a character’s interiority. Specifically within Branagh’s ‘to be or not to be’ monologue, the scene is delivered with a shot of Hamlet walking towards a mirror with us only seeing his reflection through an over the shoulder perspective. Choosing the construct the scene in this way highlights the director’s interpretation of Hamlet’s fragmentary psychological mind set, we do not see his full physical self, implying again that the character is multidimensional.

There will be more and more cinematic adaptations of the play produced as years go by in order to establish the works of Shakespeare to completely new audiences and readers, with that generation no doubt creating yet another film director to inject his own sense of reinvention or interpretation within a future production of Hamlet. Film itself, as a medium will always be contested when dealing with literary adaptations as each filmmaker offers a unique take on particular characters, their psychologies, their motives or ideals in order to further interpret and enhance the overall arcs of the main characters and the messages we get from the text overall. As we know the character Hamlet as well as other characters such as Gertrude, Claudius and Ophelia will be portrayed differently in future reworks of the play as Erskine wrote, “The character of Hamlet is multidimensional, so each generation is free to invent its own Hamlet. The oedipal Hamlet…is far different from the impudent Hamlet played by Nicol Williamson…or the brutally misogynist Hamlet of Kenneth Branagh in 1996. All of these interpretations have validity, and not one of them is necessarily ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.”[10]

Overall, the cinematic medium does have adequate resources when adapting a literary text as each filmmaker that reinterprets Hamlet, offers audiences a fresh perspective on how a character should be played, how they should dress, how they should be framed onscreen or even what historical period the play should occur. Conventions within cinema such as the significance of sound, cinematography, editing, visual as well as mise en scene are able to heighten scenes in a way that the text only leaves to the reader’s imagination, as contemporary filmmaking is advancing in such a way that they can actually physically execute scenes that feature elements of the supernatural.

Aesthetically, these codes of conventions within film can enhance a character such as the hugely complex character that is Hamlet by using visual effects to emphasise the psychological fragility that he possesses, the choice of cinematography in a way that alters how we view the character, whether it be through an Extreme Close-Up shot or the fragmentary perspective of seeing a character through his reflection. Again, the cinema does has adequate resources to adapt a literary text as they are also able to incorporate technological advances such as camerawork and visual effects to prove that a text otherwise known to be performed on stage, can be masterfully accomplished on a cinematic level.

 

 

 

 

Bibliography:

Crowl, Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The relationship between text and film (London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2014), p.41

Erskine, Video Versions: Film adaptations of Plays on Video, (ed. by Thomas L. Erskine, James Michael Welsh, John C. Tibbets, Tony Williams (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000), p.9

Jorgens, Realising Shakespeare on Film (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), p.31

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2008)

 

Filmography:

Hamlet, dir.by Laurence Olivier (Universal Pictures, 1948)

Hamlet, dir.by Kenneth Branagh (Columbia Pictures, 1996)

[1] Hamlet, dir.by Laurence Olivier (Universal Pictures, 1948)

[2] Hamlet, dir.by Kenneth Branagh (Columbia Pictures, 1996)

[3] Neil Taylor, “The Films of Hamlet” in Shakespeare and the Moving Image: the plays on film and television, ed. by Anthony Davies and Stanley Wells (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press), pp.180 – 196 (p.181).

[4] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2008), i. 3.

[5] Samuel Crowl, Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The relationship between text and film (London : Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2014), p.41

[6] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2008), iii. 1. 143.9

[7] Jack J. Jorgens, Realising Shakespeare on Film (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), p.31

[8] Neil Taylor, “The Films of Hamlet” in Shakespeare and the Moving Image: the plays on film and television, ed. by Anthony Davies and Stanley Wells (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press), pp.180 – 196 (p.181).

 

[9] Thomas L. Erskine, Video Versions: Film adaptations of Plays on Video, (ed. by Thomas L. Erskine, James Michael Welsh, John C. Tibbets, Tony Williams (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000), p.9

[10] Thomas L. Erskine, Video Versions: Film adaptations of Plays on Video, (ed. by Thomas L. Erskine, James Michael Welsh, John C. Tibbets, Tony Williams (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000), p.9

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