Films offer directors and actors a chance to take their ideas either to a totally unrealistic setting and space, or to make the piece entirely real. Both Michael Almereyda and Franco Zeffirelli accomplish the later with their heavily realistic films in the modern day and in a medieval castle. Their actors are able to speak to themselves and each other privately, intimately, and are ultimately devoid of screen “tricks.” The audience can accept everything about the world the characters inhabit because it is so complete.
Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum lie Branagh’s and Olivier’s versions. Both Hamlets reside in a world that is an in-between place. It might be in another dimension in time, but is not viewed as “of this world.” Olivier’s Elsinore is covered in mist, and makes great use of voiceover so that the whole play almost seems to take place inside Hamlet’s Freudian-influenced mind. Branagh’s epic film seems to be set just shy of the turn of the 20th century, yet the lavish, rich decor and colors set it apart from reality.
Even just watching the same speech as imagined by these actors and directors is incredibly different. Obviously I could go on and on, but I invite you to preview these films and discuss how they can help us as teachers (or students) relate to the text in a different way. Where would you have set Hamlet? What would the world look like? How would you discuss the play with your students after having seen some or all of these films? Tomorrow I will be offering my “discussion pieces” of Hamlet in film.