The recent release of Haider, a Vishal Bharadwaj movie which happens to be a loose adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet, seems to generate a lot of debates these days. This tempted me to revisit two earlier Hamlet adaptations - one by Franco Zeffirelli in 1990 starring Mel Gibson in the lead role and the other by Michael Almereyda in 2000 starring Ethan Hawke. They had taken some liberties with the plot, action, characters and dialogues of the original play. However, the Zeffirelli version remains closer to the original in comparison both in its treatment and setting, while Almereyda has entirely modernized the play, experimenting with plot reconstruction and fully altered setting. Zeffirelli sticks to the claustrophobic stone castles, ship and meadows that are demanded in the play and sets the film in the time-space limits of the original, while Almereyda’s Hamlet is set in the 2000 New York, with the characters transformed to CEOs in the corporate world and students in the film school. Thus, the depiction and interpretation of the famous scenes of the play take entirely different dimensions in both the versions.
The ‘nunnery scene’ in Zeffirelli’s Hamlet varies slightly from the original. The lines “get thee to a nunnery” are deleted from the scene in which Hamlet meets Ophelia in the basement, pried on by the King and Queen at the behest and company of Polonius. The fact that the entire passage that starts with “get thee to a nunnery” is skipped may shock the audience as they find out that the rest of the dialogue, including the curses on Polonius that follows, are kept intact.
However, the fact that Hamlet utters it wholly in the ‘mousetrap’ scene comes as another surprise. The director might have deliberately displaced the passage to make it more dramatic, as Hamlet is shown fighting with his feelings towards Ophelia while watching the play within the play, even placing his head on her lap. In the Almereyda version, Ophelia is suspected by Hamlet as he comes across the wires that are attached to her by her father, presumably to make use of the surveillance camera that are ubiquitous in the entire movie. Hamlet has reason to suspect her, and his words “are you honest?” suffice for the long sentences that are sheared from the original and creates a very modernistic “get thee to a nunnery” gesture as he abandons her, taking her for a spy working against him with others.
The ‘mouse-trap scene’ involves the staging of a play within a play, and Zeffirelli promptly makes a play within the movie to create the original effect. However, the aforementioned displaced dialogue by Hamlet makes it a convoluted scene, with an expressively high-decibel spectacle, made complex deliberately. The dumb show that portrays the killing of King Hamlet is watched by all, and the reaction of the king and the queen and the revelation regarding the crime are all spiced with the nunnery dialogue rendered in its passionate heights. In the Almereyda version, the mousetrap happens to be a movie that Hamlet makes in the film school comportment. The entire movie creates the mousetrap effect as the director creates many movies within the movie, including the blockbuster action scenes and the surveillance cameras that pervade the scenes. However, the staging of the mousetrap is fragmentary in this version and the film survives Hamlet’s death. The reaction of Gertrude, exhibiting guilt, overshadows Claudius’s shock and discomfort in this version.
The ‘closet scene’ in Zeffirelli’s adaptation remains truthful to the original as much as possible. However, some Freudian implications are achieved through the close-up shots where Hamlet confronts Gertrude with regard to the comparisons of King Hamlet and Claudius. Even as Gertrude shows her grief and shock with Hamlet’s revelation about the King’s murder, she takes it “the very coinage” of his brain, as she is blinded by her sins that she fails to see the ghost of her husband. In the passionate exchange of words, the film depicts Hamlet pushing Gertrude to the bed and their expressions of distress and pain are shot in such a way that it reminds the audience of a sexual union, though fragmentarily. In the Almereyda version, Gertrude is not someone who goes through the games of fate unwittingly. She is depicted as a woman suffering from alcoholism, and after the scene in which she has to confront Hamlet’s accusations, she drops him at the airport, kisses him goodbye and resorts to drinking. She is depicted as a woman who falls for her passion and the element of guilt and deliberate denial are poignantly depicted in this version than the hapless nature of a woman’s frailty, though led by animalistic passion, in the original.
The ‘mad scene’ in the Zeffirelli version is replete with the cinematic implications that add much more to the Freudian intent. Ophelia is seen as sitting on top of the queen’s throne with her feet up. In her demented state of mind, she hands over flowers to all present, including the King, Queen and Laertes. She maintains most of the singing in the original, though the director shuffles the use of song for his purposes of special effects. The scene where she leaves the castle with her “good night sweet ladies” is cut to her sitting over a bridge on the lake and Gertrude’s narration of her death is used as a voice-over, which creates an illusion of time-space, to good effect.
However, Almereyda’s Ophelia does not sing, and she contemplates suicide on the lake in her dejected state of mind, but is found dead, mysteriously, in the Guggenheim fountain, in shallow waters. The mad scene also opens simultaneous with an art exhibition at the Guggenheim. And Gertrude’s reaction is rather of embarrassment than pain and shock in this version.
The ‘grave-digger scene’ though edited considerably, leaving out all the dialogues between the diggers, maintains the scene where Hamlet talks to Yorick’s skull in Zeffirelli’s version. Laertes does not jump into the grave, though the confrontation between him and Hamlet is done on the graveyard itself. Mel Gibson’s passionate delivery of the dialogue, “Forty thousand brothers/ Could not with all their quantity of love/Make up my sum” revives the emotions and rage from the original. In Almereyda’s version, the grave-digger scene is conspicuously absent, and there had been a considerable amount of criticism against this and the hurried and unnatural sword-fight in the end and the sudden use of guns, all deviating from the modernistic depiction which was maintained all through the movie.
Which among the two versions is to be preferred is not really a good question, as both have their reasons to be what they are. I appreciate the way Almereyda cleverly juxtaposes the different modern gadgets and electronic possibilities to tell the story of Hamlet to the present generation. And he has also succeeded in that to a great extent, with the help of an excellent cast with Ethan Hawke as Prince Hamlet, Kyle Mac Lachlan as Claudius, Diane Venora as Gertrude, Bill Murray as Polonius and Julia Stiles as Ophelia. However, those who have read the original Hamlet of Shakespeare and seen a few adaptations that stick to the time-space elements as much as possible and expect a similar experience may not be much impressed by the Almereyda version's too many subversions. Most of the emotional and psychological conflicts and the cathartic effect they might expect from a Hamlet adaptation might be missing there, perhaps due to the casual way in which the dialogues are delivered, and the presence of a lot of clever attempts of adaptation to the modern time that the director tries hard to bring in. The strong-point of the movie is perhaps its daring attempt to spot a Hamlet story in fully modern setting and to tell it using modern narrative methods.
Zeffirelli’s Hamlet, though it was cut down to just two and a half hours, and did manage with just the punch lines, might be the one much closer to the original, if you are looking for that. The soulful performances by Mel Gibson as Hamlet, Alan Bates as Claudius, Glenn Close as Gertrude, Helena Bonham-Carter as Ophelia and Ian Holm as Polonius and their impeccable dialogue delivery and costumes can be sufficient enough to lift the audience to lofty levels of introspection the way Shakespeare plays do. The subversions are mostly limited to some scene and dialogue reversions, and it does not affect the general tone and tempo of the movie, and rather makes it accessible to the present-generation with its balanced treatment of the plot, scene-setting, dialogue and action.