“There’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
I am an extremely cliched English student when it comes to Shakespeare. Hamlet is, indeed, my favourite play of the Bard’s, unless it is The Tempest. One of the two, anyway.
Thing is, I’m fairly sure that my opinion of Hamlet has been formed by the Tenth Doctor.
So today I re-watched the RSC film of Hamlet starring David Tennant (I wasn’t procrastinating, I actually have a class on Hamlet‘s performance history this week), and, while it is by no means a perfect adaptation (what Shakespeare play is, anyway?), there are, yes, good things about it. Tennant for the most part is a good Hamlet if not a great one; a human one, I might say, his madness tending towards the Jim Carrey end of the spectrum rather than the Lear end, full of a bubbling manic anger spilling over into rage and folly and mockery. Sometimes it’s scary; sometimes it’s just silly, a little over-the-top and obvious.
I’m not a huge fan of the breaking of the fourth wall; both Hamlet and Polonius at times talk directly to the camera, and while I appreciate the intention behind this it only serves as a rather intrusive reminder of the story’s origins. I read somewhere that a Shakespeare film should feel like a film, not like a film of the play, and this is correct, I think. They are different media, after all, and what works on stage does not necessarily carry successfully over to film.
And while Patrick Stewart is rather efficiently good as Claudius the Evil King, his turn as the Ghost is underwhelming to say the least, overdone and melodramatic. At one point he appears with smoke drifting around him, which just makes him look like he’s on fire. Again, this feels like something that worked in the stage version from which this is adapted rather than something worked out for film.
The main thing about this Hamlet, though, is how long it is. It’s three hours, which is not actually that long compared to live versions (the uncut play can run for up to four hours), but on film it drags. Of course, it’s a play in part about procrastination, but it’s not conducive to concentration when you find yourself staring into the middle distance wondering if you can be bothered to make another cup of tea instead of paying attention to what’s happening in the rotten state of Denmark. This is unfair to the source material, I feel – although, to be fair to the RSC team, there are moments in this adaptation in which the strange, still music of Shakespeare’s language is allowed to ring untampered-with. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Probably the key attribute of Tennant’s Hamlet is accessibility. It’s probably not the greatest or most meaningful Hamlet out there, but it is eminently watchable; the familiar shadow of the Tenth Doctor (because let’s face it, that’s the reason most people are watching this) gives Shakespeare’s occasionally snarled and unfamiliar verse a clarity of diction and meaning that makes the play eminently understandable. I mean, it’s perfectly possible that the text has been ruthlessly cut – I’m not familiar enough with the original to say – but I do think that Hamlet becomes relatable and close and somehow familiar in this adaptation. Which, for a five-hundred-year-old play, is not to be sneezed at.