With murder, ghosts, sword-fights, and generally morbid themes, Hamlet seemed like ideal viewing for Halloween. So, armed with four video tapes, a copy of Shakespeare's script, and plenty of popcorn and chips, I prepared to take on three film versions of Hamlet in one day. The experience of seeing three different film interpretations of Hamlet in short successive order was certainly unique. I must admit that it gave me a different perspective on the well-known play.

I watched the films in chronological order, with Laurence Olivier's version coming first, followed by Franco Zeffirelli's version (starring Mel Gibson), and concluding with Kenneth Branagh's interpretation. Although I had seen the Zeffirelli film before, the other two were new to me. With Branagh's film clocking in at about four hours long, and the Zeffirelli and Olivier versions at approximately three hours and two hours respectively, this made for quite a full day.

The way in which the directors handled the Bard's material is quite different for each production. Olivier and Zeffirelli both opted for cutting the script quite extensively, most likely to accommodate film-going audiences, who would tire of the constant soliloquies for which Shakespeare is known. Branagh, on the other hand, decided to film the entire play for the most part unchanged. Although a few of the scenes are switched, the entire script is used. Olivier, in his editing, removes the minor characters Rozencrantz and Guildenstern, and also removes the sub-plot involving Fortinbras. Several of the scenes are rearranged, and, except for the most famous ones, many of the soliloquies are shortened or eliminated. In it's flow of action, and arrangement of scenes, it seems that Zeffirelli took quite a bit of inspiration from Olivier's classic. The scenes that were removed mirror the classic film almost exactly, as does the order of the remaining scenes. Zeffirelli also omits Fortinbras, but retains Rozencrantz and Guildenstern.

I actually enjoyed Olivier's performance much more than I had expected. His reserved morose Hamlet is really quite powerful. I was especially impressed with his interpretation of the famous "To be, or not to be..." speech. Olivier has Hamlet sitting on some ocean overlook, holding a dagger and contemplating suicide. He almost does it, until he begins to think about life after death. "Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all." Although the speech is obviously about death, I had never before thought of Hamlet actually attempting suicide, though now I can't see how Shakepeare could have meant it any other way. It was quite impressive.

In Zeffirelli's version, Mel Gibson's interpretation of Hamlet was quite different. Gibson was much more dynamic and active as Hamlet. He spoke Hamlet's lines the way I had always imagined them to be spoken. He was loud, dramatic, and given to outbursts. Quite a contrast to Olivier's silent morbidity. In fact, I believe this is one of the reasons I liked Olivier's Hamlet so much. Although Gibson's Hamlet was who I had imagined him to be, Olivier's Hamlet was a real person who, though he didn't fit my preconception, yet was so real I couldn't help but accept him.

Branagh's Hamlet, on the other hand, was a bit difficult for me to relate to. He was, in fact, so void of personality that I had a difficult time even remembering what he was like. One thing that Branagh did, however, was to examine the aspect of Hamlet's cowardliness, or at least self assessment of cowardliness. Branagh's Hamlet is quite upset with his inability to go through with his wish for vengeance. This is definitely in keeping with Shakespeare's original idea, as the script has Hamlet deriding himself several times about this very issue. All in all, I found Branagh's version rather unmemorable.

The one shining star in Branagh's dull interpretation comes, surprisingly, in the form of a very minor character. Charlton Heston plays a brief cameo as the Lead Tragedian, and he does so with a power and presence that only he could give. His part was small, but his presence was lasting. I found myself getting upset at Polonius for interrupting Heston in his speech.

The other very unique thing about Branagh's interpretation is the setting. Whereas Olivier opted for a very traditional Shakespearian time period, and Zeffirelli followed suit with a slightly older late medieval setting, Branagh chose to perform Hamlet against the background of Denmark in the late 19th century. Although the language seems a bit out of place in such a setting, the effect is interesting. Even so, the one thing that upset me about this setting was the fight at the end. Being an amateur fencer, I noticed that the duel at the end of the movie is not fought at all by the rules of fencing, in spite of Osric's (Robin Williams) supposed expertise.