We Are Actors, We Are the Opposite of People:
Adapting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

The substance of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead grows out of an awareness that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves are nothing more than functions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, relatively minor characters doomed to die for the sake of a story that is more Hamlet’s than their own. It is a painfully isolated existence in which they have no power over their own futures, forced instead to live within the confines of the theatrical construct they’re a part of. Given the play’s thematic dependence on the presence of the theatre itself, translating the play to film must also be an exercise in translating this central idea. If the play explores the existences of individual theatrical characters, then the movie must explore the existence of characters within film. Since Stoppard himself wrote and directed the film version, this transition is realized with great success, staying faithful to most of the play’s dialogue and general plot, but making essential changes to retain the play’s underlying ideas.


As with any film adaptation of a play, the setting is where the most noticeable (though in many cases least telling) differences lie. The film opens with a shot of a rocky trail along a cliff, a massive formation that the tiny Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ride along silently. The play’s production notes specify that the first scene should take place “in a place without any visible character” (677), a choice that immediately sets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern apart from everything but each other, immediately conveying a feeling of remoteness. Unable to achieve this same effect in film through the same means, Stoppard chose to go the oppose direction of minimalism, creating a landscape of places that exist on a massive scale, so large and sprawling as to suggest emptiness themselves. The forest the coin scene takes place in, for instance, is enormous and silent, covered in leaves and completely flat. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem to be the only living things there, completely removed from established, well-traveled roads and completely out of earshot of other human beings.

Yet, theatre finds them here, plunging them into motion with the arrival of the traveling actors, and after a brief scene they find themselves underneath the curtains of the tragedians’ stage, suddenly transported to the royal palace to which they have been summoned. Suddenly, the film has departed from the realm of reality completely, and neither Rosencrantz nor Guildenstern has done anything to prompt this change of place, establishing that they are at the mercy of some outside force that directs their travels. This setting, appropriately, could be directly out of any film version of “Hamlet,” featuring the cavernous elegant rooms common to modern Hollywood imaginings of royal homes. Most of the rooms the duo walks through are unfurnished and incredibly large, and when words are spoken above a whisper they echo loudly throughout the room. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become small figures wandering meekly through a maze of rooms. At one point, they exit a room, go down a flight of stairs, and find themselves back in the same room. Guildenstern remarks, “Look, I am run in circles,” but the two think little of it. The only other primary setting in the film, the boat, seems at first to be an exception to this rule in that it’s a small space, but it actually does retain the feeling of isolation amidst an expansive backdrop simply because it’s floating on the ocean.

Character Portrayals:

The portrayals of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are interesting, but they don’t pose much of a deviation from the original text. Tim Roth’s Guildenstern is the more dominant of the two, complete with condescending looks and occasional sarcasm, and definitely the more talkative, a trend established clearly within the original text. As far as dialogue goes in general, in fact, the film is remarkably similar to the original play. Gary Oldman as Rosencrantz is charming and likeable, rather innocent in both his view of the world and his willingness not to question things. Whereas Roth wears a consistently sour, discontented expression, Oldman typically looks cheerful and complacent, unconcerned with their situation and more interested in exploring the moment than discerning where it leads to. As in the play, the two easily confuse themselves for one another, and while it’s easy enough to tell them apart on paper where their names are clearly visible, at moments the two seem almost as if they’re one character, only fractured, repeating statements that one of them has said before, adopting each others’ ways of speaking, gesturing, and moving.

Iain Glen portrays Hamlet accurately in his madness and general demeanor, but flatly. This is not the tortured and violent Hamlet that Mel Gibson gives us, but rather a cookie-cutter version of the same character entirely more appropriate for a play in which he is the less important character rather than the other way around.

Richard Dreyfuss depicts The Player as exactly what he is, a complex and vigorous spectacle, joking and yet simultaneously morbid, a character who is impossible to pin down because he could feasibly take on any role in the story.

Comedy, Tragedy, and Two Inevitable Deaths:

More differences emerge in the way scenes are pieced together. Most notably, the presence of slapstick comedy is heightened and more readily accessible in the film than the play. The majority of the play's absurd, humorous moments flow from the dialogue itself, but given the visual nature of film Stoppard is able to use visual imagery to convey the same feeling. Rosencrantz, for instance, makes a sandwich just below the view of the camera early in, bringing it up to view moments later to reveal it as an elaborate, restaurant-style sandwich, complete with toothpick. This moment is the first in the film that clearly suggests to the viewer that we're not receiving a straight, serious play, and that instead things may be slightly off-kilter and unexpected. The normal rules of narrative consistency may not apply. It's a heads-up to the fact that Stoppard reserves the right to bend the rules to his own purposes, and when Rosencrantz can't even fit his mouth around the sandwich, the audience is given another message — that this film isn't concerned with taking itself seriously, at least not in a conventional way, and that moments of slapstick humor may show themselves. In this same vein, the early interaction with the players is more comically defined in the movie. The Player himself retains all the pomp and presence we might expect, but his descriptions of what the troop is capable of are interwoven with brief and amusing shots of them performing such scenes, including a ridiculous battle scene and a combination rape/sword fight. Due to Stoppard’s skill in translation, however, this doesn’t undercut the quietly foreboding elements of the film. While The Player might steal away a few laughs, his declaration that "blood is compulsory" to all of their work preserves its underlying ominous tone.

Rosencrantz in particular has other comparably humorous moments stemming from the curious, experimental nature given to him in the film version. His experiment in dropping a bowling pin and a feather from a ledge with the assumption that they’ll fall with equal velocity is downright funny, but also reminds the audience that Rosencrantz is continually trying to get a grasp of how the world he lives in operates, and continually failing. He is a creator, in a small sense, though his creations get him nowhere. He makes a stirrer for the kettle in Hamlet’s room using an apple-core pinwheel that Hamlet has himself constructed, a length of twine, and a spoon, though it ends up ruined on the floor almost immediately. Guildenstern himself destroys one of Rosencrantz’s creations, an unrealistically complex paper biplane, which operates in the same way the sandwich did – in any other film, it would be completely out of place, pegged as an absurd historical inaccuracy.

Rosencrantz’s successful paper airplane, however, not only flies throughout the castle but even returns to him as he’s lying down, pretending to die. The presence of paper might be passed over by the casual viewer, but at several points throughout the film (as early as the initial meeting with the players) sheets of paper covered in unknown words blow throughout the scenes or simply fall from the sky. It's impossible to know Stoppard's intentions with any certainty, but at the very least the floating leaflets of paper are a reminder that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exist within a landscape of an outside text. At any point, without warning, the pages of a piece of work (which, we might assume, is Hamlet itself) inject themselves into the film as naturally as leaves blown from trees, twirling into the backdrop or, in one case, onto Rosencrantz's face. (He brushes them aside as thoughtlessly as one might brush away a fly.) The paper airplane scene, wholly constructed for the film, further evokes a prior dialogue regarding the nature of wind. While discussing Hamlet’s comment that he is only mad “north by northeast,” the two attempt to discern which way the wind is blowing in the room they’re in. When Rosencrantz remarks that there is no wind, but only a small breeze, the wind roars into the room as if on cue, signaling again that an outside source is responsible for their actions and those of the world around them. It’s this same wind that carries Rosencrantz’s humble airplane away from him, finally circling back into his hands once again as he’s lying on a false deathbed. It is a graceful moment and yet a slightly depressing one; when Rosencrantz interacts with the text, the wind takes it where it’s supposed to go, even smoothly coming full circle, but its flight ends at a figurative death.

This is neither the first nor the last time that the viewer is reminded of the inevitability of death in the film, and may serve to make up for another difference between it and the original play. The tragedians have a distinct role within the play — they are from the “blood, love, and rhetoric” school, and the most striking lines The Player presents in the first act explain the significance of this:

PLAYER: They’re hardly divisible, sir — well, I can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and I can do you all three concurrent or consecutive, but I can’t do you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory — they’re all blood, you see. (Stoppard 699)

Particularly if one is seated within a theatre, it is difficult to miss the fact that what is being presented is a play within a play, and that the director of this play is commenting on drama itself. Stating that all such tragedies require blood suggests to a theatrical audience that violence will indeed show itself in the end. In a film, Stoppard no longer has the luxury of transferring a suggestion of blood from one play (the framed play) to the other (the actual play the audience is viewing.) As such, the paper airplane delicately hints at what’s to come. More obvious is the scene in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern watch the tragedians perform a scene from Hamlet, and The Player remarks that it’s a great and bloody piece, with “eight corpses, all told.” In the play, the line is “six corpses” (748) and is given little attention, but the movie includes Guildenstern correcting him with, “six,” only to be corrected himself. “Eight!” The Player responds, and at that moment, the two actors playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern mime hanging themselves, to applause from the boisterous crowd.

Death and Non-Being:

The final scenes of the film epitomize the divergence between theatre and film. As in the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wake up in the dark, inexplicably aboard a ship bound for England. Here, however, we are treated to a full, action-packed sequence as the pirates attack, featuring cannon balls ripping through the cabin walls and Hamlet boarding the pirate vessel with a strangely satisfied look on his face. Once Hamlet exits the boat, fittingly, the pirates are no longer a factor, and the action focuses on Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the tragedians. The pirates, after all, are a function of Hamlet’s story, and when he disappears, they do as well. The powerlessness of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to do anything but play their part reaches a tense high-point, and when Rosencrantz suggests that perhaps he should throw himself over the side of the boat, Guildenstern points out that perhaps that’s what he was meant to do from the beginning. This, unsurprisingly, diffuses Rosencrantz’s thought. Similarly, Guildenstern’s one true attempt at actualizing himself as something more than a player himself is equally futile; in a moment of anger and passion he stabs The Player, who falls into the ship, but his death is nothing more than a piece of acting, and the knife is fake. The most striking deviation Stoppard takes in the film comes now, in the moment of their actual execution, and its subtle implications are highly illuminating, especially when taken in light of an exchange that takes place just minutes before:

ROSENCRANTZ: Do you think Death could possibly be a boat?
GUILDENSTERN: No, no, no... Death is "not." Death isn't. Take my meaning? Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can't not be on a boat.
ROSENCRANTZ: I've frequently not been on boats.
GUILDENSTERN: No, no... What you've been is not on boats.

In the original text, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not hanged. Based on Hamlet, we know that this is their fate, but the play treats it much more eloquently: The lights go down at the exact moment we know the end is coming, and the two unfortunate men are left completely alone in the darkness, discussing the inevitability of their demise. A few of Guildenstern’s last lines display the depth of their isolation and frustration: “Our names shouted in a certain dawn…a message…a summons…There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said – no. But somehow we missed it.” (Stoppard 789) Shortly thereafter, he simply vanishes. For two people who are nothing more than characters trapped in the fate laid out for them by Shakespeare, death truly is a straightforward disappearing act, as quick and easy in this case as being removed from the page. Disappearance from the world is the epitome of isolation, the destiny handed out to them from the moment they begin to exist. The film treats this scene differently, showing their last few lines of dialogue while they’re putting on their nooses, having given in to the inevitability of their downfall. Guildenstern asks, “Was it all for this? Who are we that so much should converge on our little deaths? Who are we?” True to the play, the Player answers: “You are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. That’s enough.” Instead of a disappearance, we actually see the hanging happen, and though the exact moment of death is not shown, the effect is still different. Because the audience is watching a movie and because the setting is not a minimally crafted stage set, we are grounded in a visual experience, one in which seeing a literal death is more appropriate than implying one through the usage of stage lighting. In the final scenes of the film, the action has become increasingly more “movie-like,” from the presence of special effects used during the pirate attack to the lack of sudden changes in place. The Player finally asserts his true role as the King and executioner, and we are presented with a vision of their deaths that is the stuff of a myriad of Hollywood creations. The role of the death scene is reversed given the medium, then — in the play, leaving out a literal death scene heightens our awareness of their lack of individual humanity and isn’t necessary for the audience to feel and understand the loneliness of their death, but the film’s inclusion of this scene works as a culmination of their poor fortune.

Final Remarks:

The ways in which Stoppard implemented aspects of the play into the film adaptation of it, despite diverging from his original text, are what recreates the work anew and facilitates its success on the screen. The decisions were made with the careful eye of the writer he was, leaving things intact where they still worked and changing things in other places to translate the play’s thematic elements to film. A commentary on theatre and characterization that only works in the theatre is useless as a film, but a commentary on these things that can transcend that divide stands as a remarkable creation.

Works Cited

"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead". Dir. Tom Stoppard. Videocassette. 1990.

Stoppard, Tom. "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." Nine Plays of the Modern Theatre. New York: Grove P, 1981. 674-790.