By: Alex Phuong (Two Beers) –
“To be… or not to be?” That is the question.
Within the history of theater, many would argue that William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the greatest play of all time. Its profound exploration of life and death has captivated audiences ever since the early 17th century. It even lead to a celebrated film adaptation in 1948, which starred Laurence Olivier and won the Best Picture Oscar that year. There have always been problems with Shakespearean adaptations, though, mainly because…
1. Modern day audiences sometimes have a hard time understanding Shakespeare’s poetic and rhetorical language
2. Sometimes the plays are so long that filmmakers have to remove certain elements just to make the finished film’s running time reasonable.
In spite of those two key issues, Kenneth Branagh was bold enough to adapt, direct, and star in his 1996 version of Hamlet while also remaining faithful to the original source material. The final result is a Shakespeare adaptation of EPIC proportions!
This film features an all-star cast that includes Julie Christie as Gertrude and Kate Winslet as Ophelia. A fun fact is that Kate Winslet was actually working on the set of this film when James Cameron asked her to play Rose in Titanic (1997). The film also features beautiful production design, sumptuous costumes, and an Oscar-nominated screenplay. Part of the reason why this film received its screenplay nomination was because Branagh was bold enough to film every single line of the original play. And of course, Kenneth Branagh is definitely the star of this film since he plays Hamlet himself.
Even though the production design is gorgeous and received an Academy Award nomination, it is actually not that faithful to Shakespeare’s historical time period. That is because the original play was published in the early 1600s, but the overall look of the film is like a Nineteenth Century period drama. A possible reason for this was the popularity of period pieces made in the 1990s, such as Sense and Sensibility in 1995. Coincidentally, Kate Winslet played Marianne Dashwood in that beloved Jane Austen adaptation, and Patrick Doyle composed the original score for both of those films. Even with that minor historical inaccuracy, Hamlet is still a wonderful film that is simply a sight to behold.
When it comes to Shakespeare adaptations, it can really be a hit or a miss. A hit might be the Franco Zeffirelli version of Romeo and Juliet (1968), and a miss could be the 2004 version of The Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino. Because of the complexity of Shakespeare’s language, film studios are oftentimes very hesitant to allow filmmakers to produce such film adaptations. Thankfully, Kenneth Branagh was very wise when it came to his knowledge of filmmaking, which was probably why Hamlet resonated with audiences even with its four-hour running time.
Hamlet (1996) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time the film mention ears and hearing (which are real motifs from Shakespeare’s original play)
Take a Drink: every time there are moments of deception and misogyny (which help reiterate the theme of the subjective nature of reality)
Enjoy your Favorite Drink: as you watch Kenneth Branagh perform the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy that is ultimately one of the most iconic scenes in literary history