Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet dominated the 21st Academy Awards with seven nominations and four wins. (Jean Negulesco’s Johnny Belinda was nominated in 12 categories — more than any other picture — but only won a single Oscar.)
It was the first time a non-Hollywood production won an Oscar for best picture, and it was the first time an Oscar for best actor was given to an actor who had directed himself. (Besides best picture and best actor, Hamlet also won Oscars for best costume design in a black and white picture and best art direction in a black and white picture.)
These accolades represented something of a vindication for Olivier, whose previous film, Henry V (1944), was nominated for best picture and best actor Oscars (among others), but only received a special Academy Award “for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer, and director in bringing Henry V to the screen,” which Olivier considered “a fob-off.”
Well, sometimes great works require big egos, and Hamlet is proof. It’s a dark, expressionistic psychodrama and a deeply satisfying cinematic achievement, which is no small feat for a film based on a play by William Shakespeare. While Shakespeare is an unassailable and towering figure in English literature, I don’t find most films based on his plays very satisfying. They either treat his texts with stodgy reverence or go off the deep end with ridiculous costumes and set pieces that seem designed to draw in viewers who find Shakespeare “boring.”
Olivier’s Technicolor production of Henry V played around with artifice, beginning by showing the inner workings of a stage play complete with shots of the actors backstage waiting for their cues and slowly became more realistic, culminating in the battle of Agincourt, which was filmed outdoors.
Hamlet, on the other hand, establishes its moody, black and white world with the opening shots and stays the course. Olivier’s camera moves in a lissome fashion around his fog-shrouded castle set, which is a hulking, brooding character unto itself, towering over a dark, roiling sea. The dialogue and the movement of the actors are treated as realistically as possible. Monologues are not delivered in a theatrical fashion toward the audience, but in voiceover as the actor silently broods.
Hamlet was mostly a success with the critics, but Shakespeare purists took umbrage at Olivier’s tinkering with the text, since he cut out roughly half the play, losing whole characters in the process.
There were numerous minor cuts, too, as the very first moments of the film demonstrate. Olivier’s Hamlet begins with the lines from Act 1, Scene 4, that precede the appearance of the ghost. They appear onscreen and are spoken by the narrator. Olivier excised certain lines, which I’ve shown below as crossed-out text:
So oft it chances in particular men
That for some vicious mole of nature in them—
As in their birth (wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin),
By the o’ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit
that [grown] too much o’erleavensthat these men,
The form of plausive manners—
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature’s livery or fortune’s star,
Their virtues else (be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo)
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault.
The demands of cinema are different from the demands of the stage, and I find these edits sensible and pleasing. However … and this is a big “however” … Oliver ends his prologue with the following line of spoken dialogue, which does not appear in text on screen, but is spoken by the same narrator, and could easily be mistaken for more of Shakespeare’s writing by the unschooled: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”
To me this seems like pandering, but I suppose it helps to have a “mission statement” for the more thick-headed among us in the audience.
And this is indeed the story of a young man crippled by indecision. By removing all of the political aspects of Hamlet (the character Fortinbras, for instance, is excised completely and is never mentioned), it becomes a character study. For 20th century audiences I think this was the enduring view of Hamlet, and the aspect people found most interesting. Modern audiences probably miss most of the political undertones of the play, which was written at the tail end of the 16th century, when the age of chivalry was dying and the age of global empire was beginning with the creation of the East India Company. Surely Shakespeare’s contemporaries saw aspects of their own time in the tale of a slain king, a usurper on the throne, and a young prince dealing poorly with political realities.
Even in its edited form, Olivier’s Hamlet runs for a little more than two and a half hours. There simply would have been no way to film the entire play and end up with a commercially successful film. (When Kenneth Branagh filmed a complete version of Hamlet in 1996 it clocked in at 242 minutes and was not widely released theatrically. The cut version was 150 minutes.)
If you can stomach an edited Bard, Olivier’s Hamlet stands as one of the best cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare. The cast are all good, including Jean Simmons as Ophelia, Basil Sydney as Claudia, Eileen Herlie as Gertrude, Norman Wooland as Horatio, Felix Aylmer as Polonius, and Terence Morgan as Laertes. But the real star is Olivier, both in front of and behind the camera.