For the past month, I've been listening to Peter Saccio's "Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies" (36 lectures presented by the Teaching Company). Saccio, a professor of Shakespearean Studies at Dartmouth, does a wonderful job of bringing the Bard, his work, and his times to life. This has been one of my favorite Teaching Company programs, and I heartily recommend it.
Listening to these lectures motivated me to seek out and watch a number of film adaptations of Shakespeare's tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, MacBeth, Julius Caesar, and Romeo and Juliet. I had read all of these (except Othello) when I was student in the 1960s and early 1970s, but hadn't gone near them since. Thus, I was able to approach them both with a "fresh eye" and also nearly forty years of "life experience" that I (obviously) didn't have as a student.
Let's start with the Hamlets (I watched three versions).
Hamlet (1948), starring Laurence Olivier. This won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor. I had a lukewarm reaction to it. There are two reasons. First, the entire Hamlet play is four hours long, but this version was abridged to just over two hours, so I felt like I was missing something. Second, it was essentially a film version of an austere stage play, and felt cold and remote. Plus, I felt Olivier's performance was unconvincing (he was 41 at the time). I'd give the film **1/2 (out of four).
Hamlet (1990), abridged and directed by Franco Zeffirelli, and starring Mel Gibson, Glenn Close, Helen Bonham Carter, and Alan Bates. Mel Gibson brings a freshness and energy to the role of Hamlet; I thought he was quite believable in the part (at that time he made this picture, Gibson was the world's top box office attraction and the "sexiest man on the planet"). I also liked Glenn Close as Gertrude. Her bedroom confrontation scene with Gibson after the murder of Polonius is absolutely riveting. I'd give it ***.
Hamlet (1996) complete and unabridged, screenplay and directed by Kenneth Branagh, and starring Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Kate Winslet, Charlton Heston, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, and many more. This version is stunning. It is four hours long (with an intermission) and is on a scale comparable to Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. The color, light, costumes, and detail are outstanding (it's filmed in 70mm TechniColor — a huge plus).
Branagh has set the play in a mid-19th century Denmark (he used Blenheim Palace for the exteriors), and you really get the sense that the characters (especially Claudius and Polonius) are running a country. And for the first time, I got a sense of the larger context of Hamlet. Branagh had lived and breathed Hamlet (and Shakespeare) for years, and it shows in his imaginative screenplay. There are also many well-choreographed tracking shots.
This was the best DVD I've seen this year, and I recommend it to all. Indeed, I watched the entire film again (yes, all four hours) with the Director's Commentary on. Most edifying. I'd give it a well-earned ****.
Here a few quick comments on the other films I watched.
Othello (1995) starring Laurence Fishburne (in the title role) and Kenneth Branagh (as Iago). A delightful production. ***1/2
MacBeth (1971) directed by Roman Polanski. This version still holds up well today. Polanski made this soon after his wife, Sharon Tate, had been murdered by the Charles Manson family. I'm sure the second witches scene in which MacBeth has something akin to an acid trip had some therapeutic value for him. I saw this version when it first came out when I was a student at Stanford in 1972. It seemed like half the people in Mem Aud recited MacBeth's final soliloquy along with him ("To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time . . ." ***
King Lear (1974) starring James Earl Jones, Raul Julia, and Paul Sorvino. This was a video tape-to-DVD production of a live performance in Central Park (New York) in 1974. The audio and video quality aren't great, but the enthusiastic audience give this production a certain warmth. **1/2
Julius Caesar (1953) starring Marlon Brando, James Mason, and John Gielgud. I felt that (a young) John Gielgud as Cassius stole the show. And Brando (as Marc Anthony) is interesting to watch as well. ***
Romeo and Juliet (1968) directed by Franco Zeffirelli. I first saw this in 1969, and I remember there wasn't a dry eye in the house at the end (it was a great "date movie"). Zeffirelli's version holds up well today. This won Oscars for Best Cinematography and Costumes and nominations for Best Picture and Director. ***1/2
Also: Last year during my Akira Kurosawa Marathon, I saw his adaptations of MacBeth (Throne of Blood, 1957) and King Lear (Ran, 1985), and I'd give each of them ***1/2.
Question: What other Shakespeare film adaptations would you recommend (or avoid)?