October 25, 2011

Humanities Day 2011: From stage to screen: Cinematic interpretations of Hamlet

English and Comparative Literature Professor David Bevington discussed the variety of film interpretations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

His presentation, “Murder Most Foul: Hamlet in Recent Film Productions” examined different film interpretations of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Each interpretation, Bevington said, was distinct in its own way.

“There’s a great variety and colorfulness about these films,” Bevington said. “They’re quite wonderful.”

Bevington examined several adaptations, ranging from a 1920s silent movie starring Asta Nielson to Michael Almeyereda’s 2000 film starring Ethan Hawke as a modern day Hamlet striving to avenge his father’s murder in New York City.

Each rendition has its own set of quirks, strengths, and weaknesses, Bevington said.

Richard Burton’s 1964 production of Hamlet, for example, enjoyed outstanding success on Broadway. However, when director Bill Colleran transferred the stage production to a theatrical release, the filming was “so terrible,” Bevington said, that “[Colleran] demanded that all copies be destroyed.”

Bevington contrasted this with Almeyerada’s modern version of the film, which he said was unsuccessful at the box office but cleverly used modern mediums to express Shakespeare.

Interpretations of Hamlet have also received reputations for their lengths, Bevington said. He noted that the BBC’s 1980 Hamlet, Prince of Denmark was remembered mostly for its three-and-a-half hour length, while Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 version of the play—the first unabridged version on film—was over four hours long.

The Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the University’s English and Comparative Literature Departments, Bevington also serves as the chair of Undergraduate Theater and Performance Studies and has taught at the U of C for over 40 years. He recently updated his 29-volume edition of the complete works of Shakespeare, and published the book Murder Most Foul: Hamlet through the Ages, A History of Hamlet.