Comparing The Opening Sections Of Kenneth Branagh's And Franco Zeffirelli's Film Versions Of Hamlet
Comparing the Opening Sections of Kenneth Branagh's and Franco Zeffirelli's Film Versions of Hamlet
So exactly why is it that Hamlet is still so popular with our modern
day audiences when it was written for the naïve audiences of the 17th
century? Personally I believe this is because Hamlet deals with many
fresh issues including corruption, love and the supernatural, which
still appeal to contemporary audiences. These issues are also present
in many films made recently e.g. 'The Exorcist,' 'The Others' and
'Sixth Sense' all these films are also popular. Shakespeare's Hamlet
is a play filled with revenge, ambition and faithlessness. It was
written in the 17th century though Shakespeare set it long before his
own time. Hamlet is significant as the first of Shakespeare's four
great tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. People are
still entertained by ordinary passions and ambitions with which a
modern day audience can still identify and relate to. Hamlet is
Shakespeare's longest play due to the fact that it has to deal with
the complex and complicated moral dilemma the viewers find Hamlet
facing, whether to avenge the death of his father or not. There are
many interpretations of Shakespeare's Hamlet, some say the Lion King
is based on Hamlet and though there may not be a direct and obvious
link there are many similarities, like the murder of the king for the
uncle to take the throne. I've looked at two very diverse directors,
who both interpret Hamlet's issues and moral dilemmas very
differently. I have focused on Kenneth Branagh's and Franco
Zeffirelli's versions of the play and analysed the obvious and hidden
differences. We see Branagh is very true to Shakespeare's opening yet
Zeffirelli's makes up his own beginning and uses text from other parts
of the play.
At the very beginning of Branagh's version the viewers see the words
'William Shakespeare's' in a Bold, prominent red, which stands out
against the black background. I think Branagh has used red because red
has connotations with blood, murder and killing, and black with death
and misery. Then we see the title 'Hamlet' which all together reads
'William Shakespeare's Hamlet'. This is a clever way to introduce the
play and is quite dramatic with good impact, it also suggests his
version will stay very true and close to Shakespeare's true text. The
camera pans from right to left across the word 'Hamlet'. This is
unusual as we read left to right; this gives the beginning an
interesting start. The word is engraved in a stone plinth, which looks
like the bottom of a gravestone, in what seems like a traditional old
English font typical to the era of the play. I think Branagh has done
this purposely to quickly set the mood of the play. As the camera
lifts off the word Hamlet we see there is blue lighting across the
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You have to give Kenneth Branagh props for his sheer audacity. When he set out to deliver a whole new Hamlet, he promised to deliver the end-all-be-all, throw-out-your-other-versions take on Shakespeare's beloved play. So how'd he do?
What's the Same
This bad boy presents the whole text unabridged. Yep, all 4,042 lines. Most versions of Shakespeare's longest play drop at least a few lines or even a few scenes to keep the running time down. Not so for Branagh. He keeps every "dost thou" and "pray forsooth" right where it should be. The result? Four hours of movie.
So the words are all the same. But that doesn't mean it's your great-grandma's Shakespeare. No, Branagh—like every other fancypants person on the planet—has an opinion about this play, and it definitely comes through in his adaptation.
Branagh seems to stress the hidden secrets and other goodies lurking just below the surface. In his mind, the court's corruption has been papered over with pretty pictures, and people are doing their best to ignore it. So we (here in the audience) focus on all the prettiness of the surfaces themselves and slowly become aware of what's really going down. For example, the main hallway is decorated with mirrors that lead to hidden rooms, and the sets have all sorts of filigrees and sculpted edges that stress their appearance. Sometimes it's pretty heavy handed, too. Dressing screen, anyone?
This version stands out from the rest because it's not all gloom and doom. Everything is bright here: people wear colorful outfits, confetti falls from the ceiling, and the party never ends. (Considering that the old king just died and Fortinbras is marching on the palace, that's probably a mistake. Just sayin'.) Only Hamlet wears black, serving the role of the honest man in the room to remind everyone of the way things really are. Very passive-aggressive, Hammie.
Branagh also ups the epic factor here—and why not, when you're working on the silver screen? Denmark here looks a lot like Russia in the early 20th century, when the royal family under Nicholas II lived large and spent heavily. (Those jeweled Faberge Easter eggs? Those were Nicholas's.) Everything here is big and bold: the palace, the parties, even the train that brings Rosencrantz and Guildenstern a'calling.
And the way Branagh shoots it is no exception. Just take a look at the ghost, played by noted Very Large Man Brian Blessed. Every time he speaks, the ground shakes, and his voice promises unholy damnation to anyone who hears it. He's scary, in the same way that King Kong is scary. You're not sure if he's going to yell at Hamlet or swallow him whole. That's called raising the stakes.
What's Up to Date
Branagh likes casting big stars in his movies, to help the audience better identify with the text. That's why you see people like Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger or Robin Williams as Osric. These are small roles that big shots like them normally never play, but it adds a bit of gravitas and whimsy to the whole project. (He also cast Kate Winslet as Ophelia, who wasn't a huge star then but became one a year later with Titanic; way to predict the future, Ken.)
Add that to a "you'd better pack a lunch" running time and you get a Hamlet that's been supersized and modernized for an audience that likes all things big and bold. Branagh's Hamlet wants to show us how important the play is by making it as huge as possible, while still keeping the faith with the original text. In fact, he respects the play so much that he doesn't change a single word.
Shmoopers, it's Hamlet—arguably the most important play, you know, ever. So it should be no surprise that if you're on the lookout for silver screen adaptations, you've got about a zillion to choose from.
There's Laurence Olivier's 1948 version, in good old-fashioned black and white. This version nabbed the Best Picture Oscar, and Olivier himself snapped up a Best Actor statuette.
Then 1969 rolled around and Tony Richardson tried his hand at a version that played up all the nasty head games in a major way. Starring Nicol Williamson, this take was shot entirely in close-up, so get ready for a lot of sweaty pores.
Next up, we've got the ever-awesome Captain Picard, trying his hand at the role of Claudius in the BBC's 1980 adaptation. If Patrick Stewart is in it, well then you know it's gotta be good.
In 1990, Franco Zeffirelli of Romeo and Juliet fame got in on the Hamlet game. Mel Gibson starred in this version, back when he was a big star who didn't get into shady scrapes at traffic stops.
Ten years later came Michael Almereyda's Hamlet, starring the ever angsty Ethan Hawke. This version is set in modern-day New York, which means he gives the whole "To be or not to be" speech in the "Action" section of a video store. Oh the irony.
The Royal Shakespeare company tried their hand at Hamlet in 2009, when David Tennant (of Doctor Who fame) teamed up with Patrick Stewart (here he is again) to do a modern version for the BBC. This version digs heavily into the paranoia theme, with cameras posted all over Elsinore, and Big Brother watching all the time.
And finally, there's the gory, violent, sometimes awesome, sometimes terrifying television show called Sons of Anarchy. While it's not exactly a faithful adaptation, the show parallels many plot points of the original play, while setting the characters in a motorcycle gang, rather than royal Denmark. A bold choice? Yep. But it totally works.
So, Shmoopers, which movie takes the cake? Shmoop amongst yourselves.