Shakespeare’s Hamlet Book/Film Splice

I’m pleased to continue this series of book and film comparisons with my all-time favourite Shakespeare play: Hamlet. Oh yes, we’re looking to the Bard and the Brannagh adaption for comparison!

I’ve seen it performed four times, from The Royal Shakespeare Company’s incredible portrayal through to a modern, stripped back version in a University somewhere (I can’t remember where). I’ve read it multiple times, studied it and now I even get to watch the film. Happy days. Or is it?

The plot:

Prince Hamlet is summoned home to Denmark from school in Germany to attend his father’s funeral, to find his mother already remarried. The Queen has wed Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius, the dead king’s brother who has had himself crowned King despite the fact that Hamlet was heir to the throne.

Hamlet’s father’s ghost visits the castle, saying he was murdered by Claudius. Hamlet vows revenge and feigns madness a while to observe the interactions in the castle, but finds himself more confused. He doesn’t know what to do.

He enlists the help of a troupe of players who perform a play that recreates the murder the Ghost described. As Hamlet had hoped, Claudius’ reaction to the staged murder reveals the King to be conscience-stricken and so Hamlet resolves to kill him.

Whilst procrastinating there are a load more deaths (directly by his hand and indirectly through actions) including Ophelia, who drowns while singing sad love songs bemoaning the fate of a spurned lover. Her brother, Laertes, returns to avenge his father’s death and witnesses Ophelia’s descent into madness and vows to punish Hamlet for her death as well.

Laertes plots with Claudius to kill Hamlet with a poisoned sword. There are mix ups, skullduggery and poisoned cups, and it all gets rather messy. Horatio accurately explains the events that have led to the bloodbath at Elsinore.

Quotes:

The most famous of all: “To be, or not to be: that is the question”. Hamlet quote (Act III, Sc. I).

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry”. Hamlet quote (Act I, Sc. III).

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks”. Hamlet quote (Act III, Sc. II).

“I will speak daggers to her, but use none”. Hamlet quote (Act III, Sc. II).

Book:

Surprisingly, the book, or rather, the play, which is believed to have been written between 1599 and 1601 weighs in at only 31,842 words. I loved this play above all of the other ones I’ve read, but even to me, I remember it seeming to last much longer than something of that many words. I suppose the initial read would have been in class or for homework, so it’s morphed into something much bigger over the course of time. In fact, it can be read in three hours.

So this time round, reading it for what must be the fourth or fifth time, it was a breeze. I even downloaded a manga cartoon version of it to flick through, just for the story again. So that’d be the fifth or sixth time. Go me.

What surprised me this time round, apart from the speed it took to hammer through it; was how many idioms and sayings were derived from this. I’ve used Shakespeare often in my day to day life and I didn’t even know it. Well, mostly. Sometime, I just like to seem swanky and snazzy (or a wanker to some).

But was it faster due to my reading prowess having been honed, or was it just that I enjoyed it so damn much?

The good stuff:

Look, if you’re reading Hamlet anyway, then it’s not going to be any surprise that it’s written in a certain way, with old language and of course, as a play. Well, der. Unless you read the manga version, of course. So with that said, it may be over four hundred years old, but Hamlet transcends the language changes and tells such a bloody good story. Seriously. And the character building throughout, and the angst that Hamlet suffers is tangible and meaty.

I mean, it’s Shakespeare, so of course it’s written well, but this is incredible. I urge you to go back and pick this up again. Lovers of words and literature, you’ll be pleased that you did. Then, when you do, you can start being snazzy and annoy people with sayings that are nearly half a millennium old. Go you!

The bad stuff:

If you’re not comfortable with it, then the ancient language could be an issue with you. Otherwise, it’s all good. Best play ever, for me, at least. If you haven’t read any Shakespeare and are going to only ever read one of his plays, then please let this be the one that you do.

Film:

True to the original, the 1996 film version of Hamlet lasts between 3 hours and 50 minutes and 4 hours and 20 minutes, depending on the version you have. It’s the only unabridged film version of the classic play, here updated to the 19th century.

Cast:

Names, names and more names! Prince Hamlet is Kenneth Branagh, Claudius is Derek Jacobi, with Gertrude played by Julie Christie. Polonius is Richard Briers and Ophelia is none other than Kate Winslet. Judi Dench, Billy Crystal and even Robin Williams are among the many glitterati that add their sparkle to this epically long film.

The good stuff:

It’s no mean feat that the film is unabridged. That’s some undertaking. That and the massive names that pop up (too numerous to list, but it’s a veritable universe of stars). It cost $18,000,000 twenty years ago. That’s the good stuff.

The bad stuff:

I’m not sure if it’s the purist in me, but I found this hard work to watch. Shakespeare seems so solid on paper, and like I said at the start of this, I’ve seen it four times played upon the boards. As a play, in its purity, how it was written to be portrayed. In a film, with a mishmash of recognisable faces; some American and some British? Not for me, no. Don’t get me wrong, I love films. I even like bad films. I can gorge on films for days on end, but this simply did not sit right with me, even with belief suspended as one does when watching any film that isn’t a documentary. I’m sorry Ken, you obviously undertook a mammoth task that was a success, but for me, you may as well not have. It seems audiences weren’t too enamored either, with an opening weekend of only $148,321. Oops.

Book versus Film:

Back once again to the sources of wisdom where I look at real people’s ratings on books and films. Namely, Goodreads for books, and IMDB for films. Goodreads for Hamlet is 3.99 out of 5. Let’s round that up to 8.0 out of 10, then. IMDB has the film adaptation at 7.8. So for the purposes of parity, that’s what the voting world of viewers and readers think and there isn’t much in it, to be fair.

Again, the decision is mine as I’m the sap that’s writing this having sent hours reading and watching the thing. If the film existed on its own, it would, in my opinion, be deemed as one of the biggest turkeys of all time. When in the first minute or two you find yourself squinting at the screen, trying to work out who is playing Marcellus, only to realise it’s Jack Lemmon; well, it doesn’t help with taking it seriously.

The book (or play), however, is the opposite entirely. A masterpiece, a gem, and an absolute classic. Yes, it’s my own view, but it is by far Shakespeare’s best play and wins hands down. Read the book, and avoid the film at all costs, I implore you. Unless you want to waste 4 hours of your life, when you could realistically read the play in an hour less.

Hamlet Book = 1 | Hamlet film = 0

What did you think of this article? Do you agree or disagree? We want your comments! By Prose Partner Paul Chambers. Follow him and interact on theprose.com where he is @pauldchambers

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Originally published at blog.theprose.com on April 13, 2016.

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