Reel Streaming: What a Piece of Work is a Good Hamlet Spinoff!
Updated: 4 days ago
One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 82
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
The Australian composer Brett Dean’s Hamlet had its world premiere at England’s Glyndebourne Festival in June, 2017 to rave reviews. This Friday, May 13, five years and a pandemic lockdown later, the opera makes its stateside premiere at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera.
Set in a manor house in contemporary dress (with the performers wearing a smattering of Kabuki-white makeup), the opera’s libretto reportedly uses only a portion of the play’s text and takes a lot of inspiration from the First Quarto of Hamlet (in Shakespearean scholarship, that refers to an earlier, shorter version of the text or possibly an unauthorized printed edition pirated from a theatrical performance). Whatever its source material, the opera sounds both contemporary and conceptual to me.
For those of us who don’t plan on attending this MET premiere (or whose opera tastes lean more towards traditional takes on such standards as La Traviata, Carmen and La bohème), there are a number of cinematic versions of the Shakespeare’s endlessly powerful, popular and influential play out there just waiting to be streamed.
Naturally, there’s a lot to consider when pondering which film to sink your teeth into. Like the Bard’s Macbeth (which I looked at in the Feb. 14 issue of The Insider), dozens of filmed versions of Hamlet have been produced by filmmakers around the world since the dawn of cinema. There were no fewer than a half-dozen feature-length versions of Hamlet produced by 1920—including Sarah Bernhardt’s cross-dressed variation in 1900—and that’s just the silent era! Since then, actors ranging from Laurence Olivier, Maximillian Schell and Nicol Williamson to Kenneth Branagh, Mel Gibson and Ethan Hawke have let loose their antic dispositions onscreen in a number of Hamlet adaptations, various time periods notwithstanding.
The truth is that listing all or even some of the film versions of Hamlet isn’t really all that imaginative or challenging in the era of Wikipedia. So instead, I’ve tracked down eight films that aren’t straight adaptations of the text but rather are inspired by Hamlet. Or they at least took their lead from the Hamlet’s story of a vengeful young man seeking revenge against the uncle who has murdered his father, seized his father’s throne, and then married his mother. Or as we call it in my household, “Tuesday.”
None of them are more conceptual than Dean’s opera appears to be, so why not? And so, from this point forth, my thoughts be bloody…or be nothing worth!
The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
One of a handful of underappreciated film noirs from the Japanese master, this one stars the great Toshiro Mifune as a young man advancing in a corrupt postwar Japanese company in order to expose the men responsible for his father’s death. It also doubles as a strong critique of corporate greed and corruption.
Strange Brew (1983)
Directed by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas
This Canadian comedy features the popular SCTV characters Bob and Doug McKenzie, portrayed by director-co-writers Moranis and Thomas. Nutty and at times surreal, the film finds the two brothers getting jobs on the bottling line of the Elsinore Brewery, only to discover that there is something rotten in the state of it! The distinguished Max von Sydow co-stars as the evil Brewmeister Smith.
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)
Directed by Tom Stoppard
Playwright Stoppard steps behind the camera for his one and only directing effort, based on his 1966 absurdist play by the same name. Shakespeare’s play serves as a backdrop as Hamlet’s courtiers take center stage and ponder the existential crises that accompany being the playwright’s best-known tertiary characters. Gary Oldman and Tim Roth star as the winsome twosome.
Let the Devil Wear Black (1999)
Directed by Stacy Title
This modern-day take on the tale is set in Los Angeles and follows a grad student with a history of mental illness who launches an investigation into his wealthy father’s death. He begins to suspect that his mother and uncle may have been involved, and then the whole affair plays out like an L.A noir thriller. The title is inspired by one of Hamlet’s most ironic bits of dialogue, “Let the devil wear black, for I’ll have a suit of sables.”
The Banquet (2006)
Directed by Feng Xiaogang
This loose adaptation of Hamlet and Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts is set in the “Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms” era in 10th century China. A colorful, martial-arts-flavored period drama, it stars the acclaimed actress Zhang Ziyi as one member of a group of royals determined to vanquish their enemies over the course of the titular lavish meal.
Directed by Claire McCarthy
Daisy Ridley hung up her light saber between her second and third Stars Wars movies to take on the role of Hamlet’s tragic girlfriend in a romantic drama that follows the story from her point of view. Fine production design and solid performances from Ridley and co-stars Naomi Watts and Clive Owen are the highlights in this adaptation of the 2008 young-adult novel by Lisa Klein.
The Northman (2022)
Directed by Robert Eggers
The third film from filmmaker Eggers following his lauded horror entries The Witch and The Lighthouse, The Northman is inspired by the medieval Norse legend of Amleth, a figure who served as the direct inspiration for Hamlet in Shakespeare’s great tragedy. And like Shakespeare’s agitated protagonist, Eggers’ Amleth, a warrior prince portrayed by a very pumped up Alexander Skarsgård, has vengeance on his mind.
Johnny Hamlet (1968)
Directed by Enzo Castellari
Alright, I broke my own rule--Johnny Hamlet is a relatively straight-ahead adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. But it’s brought to life in the old West as depicted by Italian low-budget genre master Castellari. That’s right, it’s a Spaghetti Western version of Hamlet that’s also known by the not-nearly-as-cool title That Dirty Story in the West.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.