Best Film Adaptations of Hamlet

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  • William Shakespeare’s Hamlet has been translated to film over 30 times, which is easy to understand, given the power of the Bard’s story. I’ve only seen four versions myself, but I thought I’d rank them anyways. I should also note that all four of these films get a passing grade from me, and that the difference from the first to the last is a matter of degrees, not whole levels.
  • 1. Hamlet (1990) Mel Gibson just seems to understand the pathos inherent in Hamlet more than any of the others in this group. Director Franco Zeffirelli creates a wonderfully dark vision of Elsinore, and overall, this one is brooding without falling into total depression.
  • 2. Hamlet (2000) I thought this 21st century adaptation (set in New York among the business world elite) was going to be the best by far, until it started to unravel in the last half-hour. Hawke gives an impassioned performance, but it’s his supporting cast and the multimedia approaches to some of the most famous soliloquies that make this so interesting. Unfortunately, Julia Stiles is gratingly bad, and the truncated ending is a disaster. Still, it has guts and a vision that works more often than not.
  • 3. Hamlet (1996) Branagh’s version is the truest to the play. Unabridged, it gets to all of the subplots that are ignored in the other versions. It has grandiose sets, understands the rhythm of the dialogue, and has the great Julie Christie as Gertrude. It also has Branagh’s slightly over the top performance, and more frustratingly, casts cameos that detract badly from the flow of the story (Billy Crystal and Robin Williams are the most glaring examples).
  • 4. Hamlet (1948) Laurence Olivier was his generation’s Shakespearian adapter (much like Branagh is for this one). He got to this one a little too late (age 41). Moreover, as the director, he chose to make it a play, not a movie. This never, ever works: there are things that plays can do that movies never will be able to, and vice-versa. Stodgy and sluggish at points, this is only saved by Olivier’s strength as an actor.

This list reminds me of bertie's Shakespeare on Film list, which I think you'd enjoy. Coincidentally, I've also only seen these four Hamlets. While I might not rank them the same, I agree with your comments almost completely! I don't remember Julia Stiles being terrible in the modern adaptation, and I thought Jack Lemmon, as much as I admire him in general, was the most glaring example of a bad cameo in Branagh's version. Otherwise, I can't really think of anything else I would write differently if this were my list.