One of Shakespeare’s most famous plays; Hamlet has been adapted to film at least 43 times1. Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet is the most recent adaptation; he describes his film as ‘an attempt at Hamlet’ and ‘a patchwork of ideas’. Looking at how this patchwork comes together to form a Hamlet for the modern world is what this essay will concentrate on. In particular, the directors mise-en-scene, textual adjustments and how these affect the overall authenticity of the performance. In the Hamlet play text 1.
1, it is unclear what the conflict is or whether there is any conflict at all and Hamlet does not appear until the play’s second scene where he is sullen, the reason for this mood only becomes clear at the end of the scene. In Michael Almereyda’s film, he uses the introduction to explain that Hamlet is suspicious of his fathers’ death, justifying his mood from the outset. The first line of the play, ‘who’s there? ‘2 spoken by Bernardo, immediately highlights the theme of mystery in the play.
This scene involves three soldiers Francisco, Barnardo and Marcellus and Hamlets close friend, Horatio, all of whom see the ghost of Hamlets father. These first words are prose, spoken by ordinary men which according to Brooke express a theme of ‘normality’3 as opposed to ‘sick- mindedness’4 quickly followed by the ‘abnormal’5 and the ‘ominous’6 particularly the movement of the text through ‘struck twelve’, ‘bitter cold’, into ‘sick at heart’7 this indicates the feeling of fear, unnaturalness and a theme of mystery.
The tone of the characters is calm, reaffirming normality, but what they speak of is unnatural and ominous. The ghost of King Hamlet had haunted the soldiers guarding Elsinore castle for two nights. On the third night, Horatio joined the watch; when the ghost appeared, however, it did not speak. Horatio surmises that the spirit represents a bad omen of Denmark’s future. By removing this scene and using it later in the film as a flashback when Hamlets friends report the first ghost sighting Almereyda succeeds in placing the emphasis on Hamlet as an anguished young man rather than the mysterious ghost.
The film begins with passages that appear on the screen informing the audience of the events up to that point, the year and the location, followed by a bombardment of images, firstly low angle camera shots of New York city skyscrapers bearing large neon advertisements. Secondly, of Hamlet walking through this oppressive scene followed by a close up of the hotels highly polished sign bearing the name ‘Hotel Elsinore’. The film then cuts to a close up of Hamlet viewing flash cut images on a monitor and by way of a voice over Hamlet recites the following lines ‘I have of late, for reasons I know not, lost all my mirth(2.2. 294)8 Amereyda merges these lines with the following speech also from.
2. 2, ‘What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god, the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust’ (2. 2. 301)9. This scene immediately highlights the division between thought and action. The voice over is accompanied by a close up of Hamlet holding a glass of water and executing a conjuring trick it is ‘backed by a cross mix of Morcheeba, orchestral music by Niels Gade and intercut images’10.
These images of recent history, the bombing of Bosnia and renaissance art provide an insight into Hamlets mind. It gives the impression of a man struggling from within between the real and the ideal. In using this speech, Almereyda recreates the theme of mystery, lost by cutting 1. 1. It is, however the mystery of Hamlet, not the omnipresent ghost. It shows a man in despair, who questions the world and displays sorrow. This scene becomes a press conference in the film showing Hamlet recording the press and scanning his camera across the room before training in on Claudius and Gertrude.
Ophelia is present, in her hand she holds a parcel wrapped in gold paper bearing the penciled image of a waterfall. Ophelia is associated with water throughout the film; this is significant to how she finally meets her death. Across this image, she writes 3. 30 while trying to attract Hamlets attention. Her attempts to persuade her brother to pass the message to Hamlet meet with disapproving glances. This demonstrates her lack of power and the controlling influence of her father and brother, something many young people may identify with in modern society.