Olivier and Beyond: Film Adaptations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet


May 2023


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Adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays have a long and wide-ranging history. For over four hundred years, there have been many theatrical versions that have, more or less, followed the written “text” of the play using various venues, settings, and casts. Beyond the stage, there are novelizations and children’s stories, paintings and photographic tableaux, radio plays, and symphonies and operas all inspired by Shakespeare’s works. More to the point of this dissertation, filmmakers are especially fascinated with the works of Shakespeare. As long as there have been movies, there have been Shakespearean—loose, traditional, or far from traditional—film adaptations all over the world. Even television has been no stranger to Shakespeare with its filmed stage productions, adapted films versions, themed episodes, or entire seasons based on the plays. Scholarship treats just about every example mentioned above; however, I am interested in how filmed adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, beginning with Laurence Olivier’s 1948 version of Hamlet, exhibit a unique tension in the ways they mix innovation with preservation that can exert influence over subsequent versions and affect our understanding and enjoyment of the play. In other words, this dissertation investigates how adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays both embrace and resist alteration of their “original” source, in this case Olivier foundational Hamlet film—seeking sometimes to change the material yet wanting to return to or preserve some authentic founding “text” just as often. This dissertation argues that filmed adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays demonstrate the tension between tradition and innovation specifically because film as a medium asks different questions of the plays. For example, film emphasizes a type of “realism” that is different from theatrical illusion while also often elevating technological spectacle over language. Furthermore, film’s conventional running times also affect the plays’ structure, sometimes causing substantial cuts to the text. I contend that we can find similar traditional versus modern tension in most adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays; however, his most filmed play, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark will be the exclusive focus of my dissertation.



Literature, English