Welcome to “Like That? Watch This,” a regular feature in which Flavorwire suggests an older film that might be enjoyed by fans of a popular new release. This weekend, everyone was sharing the love for Joss Whedon’s modernized adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing; if you liked that film’s clever updating of the Bard’s classic (or if it hasn’t made its way to your town just yet), you might like Michael Almereyda’s 2000 adaptation of Hamlet.
The late ‘90s and early 2000s saw a mini-boom of Shakespeare updates at the multiplex — some merely swiping story elements and loose narratives, others transposing the Bard’s language into a modern setting. The impetus for the boomlet was the unexpected box office success of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet, which made over Shakespeare’s tragedy into tale of warring businesses and trigger-happy beach bums.
A new version of Hamlet, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, appeared later that year, but that wasn’t enough to prevent director Michael Almereyda (who’d made waves on the indie scene a few years earlier with his low-budget vampire tale Nadja) from developing his own riff on the story of the melancholy Dane. Whereas Branagh had proudly presented the entire text without cuts — running a butt-breaking 242 minutes — Almereyda took the Luhrmann approach, slashing sheaths of text, tossing out characters, scenes, and subplots by the handful. He even cast R+J’s Diane Venora as Gertrude, and used a newscaster (as Luhrmann had) to recite the closing dialogue.
But if the debt is clear, the results are more successful; Hamlet is a finer film than its better-known predecessor, confidently and efficiently tearing through Shakespeare’s tragedy, without any of the errant chaos and overcooked, “look, no hands” direction of Luhrmann’s flawed adaptation. In four lines of opening text, the reframing is done: the country of Denmark is now the “Denmark Corporation,” headquartered at the “Hotel Elsinore.” The company’s king and CEO (Sam Shepard) is dead, and his son Hamlet — reimagined by Ethan Hawke as a stubble-chinned film student in Bono glasses and a hipster stocking cap — has returned, with his mother (Venora) already remarried to his uncle (Kyle MacLachlan, all icy slickness).
Filling out the cast are Bill Murray (as Polonious), Liev Schreiber (as Laertes), Steve Zahn (as Rosencrantz), and, as Ophelia, Julia Stiles — who was sort of the go-to Shakespeare girl in this period, having fronted both the Taming of the Shrew-in-high-school comedy 10 Things I Hate About You and the Othello-in-high-school drama O the previous year (though the latter was held for release until ’01). This very contemporary cast handles the text with varying degrees of success, but most pull it off; Schrieber is perfection, Stiles nails Ophelia’s teenage-girl fragility (and tosses in a borderline-ADHD distractibility), and while Murray is somewhat harder to swallow, his underplaying of the “to thine ownself be true” speech is wise and effective.
But most of the weight rests on Hawke’s shoulders, and he carries it. He pulls off the rather neat trick of making the character entirely contemporary, yet giving the classical dialogue its full due. He makes the language fresh without tossing it off, and that’s important; too often, the gimmick of modern-dress Shakespeare is undone by the sheer visual incongruity of people in business suits speaking in 17th-century vernacular. Hawke (and those surrounding him) somehow make it play. Almereyda also nicely balances the character’s many monologues — some are done in voice-over, some aloud, the first even on videotape, in a grainy, lo-fi confessional (remember, this was the year after Blair Witch).
The filmmaker’s technological adjustments, in fact, provide the picture’s most interesting subtext. Hamlet is always running his camera, even at events otherwise documented (like the “our sometimes sister” scene, ingeniously played as a press conference). But it’s not just Hamlet’s own work — the confession-inducing play The Mousetrap is revised as an artsy student film — that creates the pervasive multimedia mood. The King first reveals himself as a ghostly vision on the building’s security videos, and Murray’s Polonius reports back to a surveillance camera. Ophelia is forced to wear a wire during an encounter with her former lover, so that both of their fathers may listen in. This Elsinore may be a hotel, but it is also a series of stages, in which one is either always watching, or always being watched.
But, truth be told, much of the fun of these modernized Shakespeare films is in tracing how the text has been adjusted and modernized. Almereyda’s staging is occasionally awkward — mostly when trying to create new scenes without new dialogue — and some of the exclusions are puzzling (Jeffrey Wright is brought in to play the Gravedigger, but there’s no scene with him, and no “alas, poor Yorick”). But most of the adjustments are crafty. Hamlet looks at old videos of himself and Ophelia during the “too, too solid flesh” monologue. Claudius’s “confession” comes in the back of his limousine (parked in front of The Lion King, a nice in-joke). Dispatches to and from the hero are sent via fax instead of messenger. “To be or not to be” is staged at a Blockbuster Video store — in the “ACTION” aisle, unsubtly enough. And Hamlet’s angry “get thee to a nunnery” dismissal is done, brilliantly, as a series of answering machine kiss-offs.
Luhrmann’s R+J solved the problem of swordplay by making “Sword” a handgun brand, but Hamlet, while not afraid of gunplay, doesn’t try to work up some kind of shoot-out to take the place of Hamlet and Laertes’ swordfight — instead, it still works as an organized fencing battle, that still being the sport of rich gentlemen. It’s a good fix, even if that bend towards traditional staging causes the film to lose some of its spontaneity on the march to that inevitable conclusion.
Then again, such things can’t really be avoided. Some purists always come out of the woodwork to bemoan these updates, to ask why these things can’t just be staged straight. But the fact of the matter is, these stories are so well known that a new film version is expected to offer up two specific pleasures: the quality of the acting, and the dexterity of the adaptation. They’re like covers of a hit song, where the lyrics and chords are beyond familiar, but we’re interested to see what this particular instrumentation and arrangement might lead to. It doesn’t always work — but when it does, as in Whedon’s Much Ado and Almereyda’s Hamlet, it allows us to see a very familiar work with fresh eyes.
Hamlet is currently streaming on Netflix.