81 Days With Oscar And Me

Every Academy Award-Winning Movie, Back to Back, Starting With the First

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September 9th, 2009 · No Comments · 1948, Adaptation, Black and White, Drama, Hamlet, Laurence Olivier, Shakespeare, Two Cities Films

Hamlet I suppose it goes without saying that “W. Shakespeare” wrote Hamlet, making this the third Oscar-winning movie adaptation in a row – and a grand total of 14 out of 21 films (so far) that are adaptations!

It’s hard to watch Hamlet without occasionally grimacing from the sheer ponderousness of it all. No weightier matter, save the Bible, was ever penned by the hand of man. Having had to endure many Shakespearean productions, put up by every would-be thespian from high school to university, I approached this production with trepidation. I knew I was in for furrowed brows, shouted lines followed by whispered lines, gay laughter, ribald jokes, and all the grand sweep of life from the lowest lows to the highest highs. All in one production. With English accents. And Elizabethan syntax and grammar.

Oh joy. Methinks my mind wilt be taxed over much.

Girding my loins, I plunge into this nearly three-hour movie based on one of history’s most well-known characters. And the tale begins thus:

“This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”

The movie opens precisely as Shakespeare intended his play to open – The night watchmen’s changing of the guard in the chill hours of the morning. Barnardo, Horatio, and Marcellus encounter a ghost that looks a lot like the King of Denmark. An armor-clad visage appears out of the mist. Horatio speaks to it.

However, whereas up to this point Olivier has been word-for-word in his adaptation, here he diverges from the script. When Horatio speaks to the ghost, Olivier combines the first and second appearance of the ghost and uses, mostly, the dialogue from the second time the ghost appears, not the first. A curious departure. But one that speeds up the telling of the tale by eliminating what, on screen, would be repetitive or superfluous.

Act 1, Scene I of the play is reproduced on screen with painstaking faithfulness to the original, with the exception noted above, and the last line of the scene, which Olivier altered to be the famous, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” which doesn’t appear in the play until the end of Act 1, Scene 4.

Hamlet is chock-full of some of the most famous lines ever to be uttered. For example (from Act 1, Scene 2, spoken as a voice-over in Hamlet’s head):

Oh, that this too, too sallied flesh would melt.
Frailty, thy name is woman.

Olivier departs again from the original play and cuts the last part of Act 1, Scene 2, ending with his voice-over and the line, “But break, my heart, for I most hold my tongue.”

Cut To: Act 1, Scene 3 (skipping 14 pages of text from the end of Act 1, Scene 2) and picking up with Laertes talking to Ophelia.

Enter Polonius who will speak more famous words: “Neither a borrower now a lender be…this above all: to thine own self be true.”

I can’t hear those words without thinking of the episode of Gilligan’s Island when the castaways stage their own version of Hamlet, a musical version no less. So the phrase, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” was set to music, the tune of which I’ve forgotten. Mercifully so.

Olivier deletes the rest of that scene but instead of cutting to the opening of Act 1, Scene 4 he drops back Act 1, Scene 2 picking up immediately following his voice-over and the final line, “But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.” Enter Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo. The three discuss the recent sighting of the ghost of the king.

Olivier makes deep edits to that scene, jumping to the final lines:

My father’s spirit in arms. All is not well.
I doubt some foul play. Would the night were come!
Til then sit still, my soul. Foul deeds will rise,
Through all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes.

In the play, what would next have been the start of Act 1, Scene 3 is skipped over (because it was the scene just prior this one) and the movie jumps to Act 1, Scene 4: Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus and the appearance of the king’s ghost.

Olivier’s editing of the Bard’s text breaks up the narrative and adds more urgency, a greater speed in the telling.

Which is good. Because this is a difficult movie to follow due to the archaic language and accents.

I had no idea the Academy had such high-brow tastes. To nominate this movie took guts. But to choose it as the Best Picture over The Treasure of Sierra Madre (starring Humphrey Bogart) and The Snake Pit (starring Olivia de Havilland) took cojones the size of basketballs.

Still, there are truly classic lines in this movie, the stuff that became parts of other movie and book titles, and even part of contemporary English language, such as:

Murder most foul…

There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Brevity is the soul of wit.

Get thee to a nunnery.

To be, or not to be. That is the question –
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing them, end them. To die, to sleep –

It’s interesting to note another change Olivier made to this production. The line “Get thee to a nunnery” occurs, in Shakespeare’s play, after the famous “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. But in his movie, it takes place before the famous lines.

I love this line (spoken by Polonius following the “nunnery” statement): Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.

Olivier enters the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy with Polonius’ words of “madness” still ringing in our ears. It’s a good placement, making Hamlet’s words even more powerful, and mad.

To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub!
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil…

The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all…

I will speak daggers to her. But use none.
I must be cruel, only to be kind.

Brilliant stuff. Some of the finest words ever penned in the English language.

Still, how did this movie get named Best Picture? It is an interesting, lively movie of Shakespeare’s famous play, ay. Yet, with literary foundation such as the words of Shakespeare, how could it not be a noteworthy movie? But Best Picture?

What watching this movie enabled me to see is that even Shakespeare’s words can be edited, truncated, even rearranged if need be to make a better movie.

If Shakespeare can be thus modified, why should I complain if my own words taste the red pen?

Nominated for seven Academy Awards, Hamlet took home four: Best Picture, Best Actor (Laurence Olivier), Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction.

Here’s the cast:
Laurence Olivier (1907-1989)…………..Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Jean Simmons (1929- )……………………Ophelia, Polonius’s Daughter
Eileen Herlie (1918-2008)………………..Gertrude, The Queen
Basil Sydney (1894-1968)………………..Claudius, The King
Norman Wooland (1910-1989)………….Horatio, Hamlet’s friend
Peter Cushing (1913-1994)………………Osric

The staging of this movie is clever, albeit sparse. It looks like a filmed staged play. But this is a Criterion Collection DVD, which means it’s been remastered and created from as pristine a negative as possible. Hamlet was made for Criterion. The whispers and screams and archaic language make following it tedious. Thank heavens this transfer wasn’t made from inferior stock. A fuzzy soundtrack or grainy picture would have rendered it unwatchable.

Can I recommend Hamlet? As an entertaining movie, nay. But as a faithful adaptation of Shakespeare’s legendary play, aye. It’s likely as close as we’ll ever get to how the Bard intended his immortal tragedy to be staged.


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