- Cinematic Hamlet: The Films of Olivier, Zeffirelli, Branagh, and Almereyda by Patrick J. Cook
Patrick Cook’s Cinematic Hamlet is a contribution to the growing field of film studies dedicated to film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays in general and Hamlet in particular. Beginning with the premise that today more people are introduced to Shakespeare through film than through theatre (21), Cook chooses four cinematic adaptations of Hamlet (by Laurence Olivier, Franco Zeffirelli, Kenneth Branagh, and Michael Almereyda) to illustrate how the play has been successfully transformed into accomplished film texts. Dedicating the entire book to analyses of these four cinematic Hamlets, Cook proposes to establish “a new approach to Shakespeare on film” (9), focusing on the medium-specific properties and techniques of the cinema. With this emphasis on the filmmaker’s craft, so often overlooked in studies that favor thematic analyses of film adaptations, Cook proceeds “to explicate the adaptational procedures of four filmmakers” (ibid.).
In the book’s Introduction, Cook lays out his methodology, borrowing theoretical paradigms and analytical categories from several important scholars. With reference to philosopher Colin McGinn, Cook makes a distinction between “looking into” and “looking at” a work of art: the former refers to the spectator’s immersion into the fictional world of the film, the latter concerns the activity of looking closely at the medium’s techniques and the filmmaker’s craft in order to understand how movies create their content (10). As Cook notes, looking at these films critically is a challenge, since all four cinematic Hamlets are examples of the classic Hollywood narrative, which, according to Kristin Thompson, is distinguished by a fundamentally realistic style and a psychological appeal—techniques that invite spectators to become immersed in their fictional worlds. All versions except Branagh’s substantially shorten the original source in order to fit the “global Hollywood” commercial paradigm. Finally, from Stefan Scharff, Cook borrows a theory of grammar, understood to govern relationships among shots in a sequence, and syntax, the system by which such sequences are organized into larger structural units. This allows him to discuss how the plot segmentation and shot-by-shot organization of the four cinematic Hamlets compare to the play Shakespeare wrote for the stage.
Each of the next four chapters focuses on one of these four important filmmakers’ adaptations of Hamlet. “Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet: The Triumph of the Cinesthetic” is dedicated to Olivier’s 1948 [End Page 145] Hamlet, treated as the foundational cinematic version of the play-text against which all subsequent adaptations will and should be evaluated. Olivier’s Hamlet starts as a hybrid of the two major modes of representation, theatrical and cinematic, but, as the film progresses, the director’s use of the camera and editing, lighting and variable framing, as well as the segmentation and organization of the original source, all reveal how the play has been fitted to its new medium to become a cinematic “essay in Hamlet” (24).
Cook follows his discussion of Olivier’s version with “Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet: Modernizing Medievalism,” a chapter dedicated to the 1990 adaptation starring Mel Gibson. Although in many ways the film is a systematic response to Olivier’s adaptation, Zeffirelli manages to achieve a new level of cinematic achievement by “engaging visual artistry and creative segmentation” (66) as exemplified already in the opening credits of the film where, before even a single word is spoken, much has been revealed. Zeffirelli achieves this simply by cutting more than half of Shakespeare’s words, using the camera to tilt and track up and down the scenery and orchestral music to hint at the funeral that precedes the play’s action.
In “Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet: The Challenges of the Full-Length Screenplay,” Cook compares each scene of each act of Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Branagh’s 1996 full-text cinematic adaptation. Apart from being the longest of the four, Branagh’s adaptation is also the widest based on his choice of the 70mm, high-resolution film gauge that opens the film to a more...