Laurence Olivier’s Film Adaptation of William Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’

The year is 1948, and the Academy Awards have gathered the best of the best from around the world to celebrate the greatest achievements of the film industry. The five nominees for Best Picture included Johnny Belinda, The Res Shoes, The Snake Pit, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and a foreign adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The two forerunners of the night, Jonny Belinda and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, both got their fair share of awards from the Golden Globes, but the night would see the first foreign film winner of Best Picture. Hamlet deserved to win the Oscar that night, because it encompassed the five qualifications of a great movie; acting excellence, cinematic experience, believable mise-en-scene, interesting and intriguing images, and compelling story.

  • With a lead like Laurence Olivier the acting of Hamlet is of the highest caliber of naturalistic, believable, and emotionally drawing. Olivier has many accolades for his acting. He was “the greatest actor in the English language” and the last actor to hold the title, which dates all the way back to Richard Burbage the original Hamlet. Laurence Olivier’s performance was outstanding and for many audiences at that time shockingly realistic. Even today the performance holds up as believable even steeped in one of the more complicated and challenging roles of Shakespeare.

With a legacy of acting behind the at the time 40-something Olivier, he brought to the role of Hamlet all the necessary qualifications. Olivier’s expertise in Shakespearian performances helped him modernize the language of Shakespeare, which for many viewers is the most difficult part of any performance. Olivier knew how to make each word not only sound like it could be a spoken line of dialogue, but more importantly something that would sound natural from a person of the time.

His portrayal of Hamlet has also been marked as one of the most iconic. The role of Hamlet is one of a depressed 18-year old who is charged to get revenge for the death of his father. While the character is 18, the challenge of playing Hamlet is too great for any 18-year old, so the role is mostly taken up by older men who can play all the diverse characteristics. Laurence Olivier does a splendid job not only portraying the melancholy and overdramatic teenage side of Hamlet while also bringing out the complex and calculated side of the character. Olivier brought out the perfect mix of the inner turmoil while also crafting Hamlet into a strong and purpose driven character. This performance was only backed up by the excellence of the other characters under the direction of Olivier who was able to create a unified production.

Hamlet won Olivier the Oscar for Best Actor, but the other acting awards were split between three other films (TAADB). Supporting Actor went to Walter Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Best Actress went to Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda and Supporting Actress went to a film not nominated for Best Picture, Key Largo (TAADB).

Another aspect of the film that showcases it’s Best Picture worthiness come from the creativeness and inventiveness of it’s filming− its images and its effects− which, due to Olivier’s interpretation, Hamlet had plenty of. Of all the Shakespearean adaptations done up to the filming of Hamlet Olivier’s demanded a full cinematic experience.

This was a movie adaptation of a play written in the 17th century, performed for the people of the 20th century and therefore demanded innovation to appeal to its audience. One way Olivier sought innovation was through the virtue in hybridity. Hamlet works not only as a filmed play, and yet not entirely as a film. It is a play-infused film whose goal was to bring both mediums to the production table losing neither in the process. This allowed the creation of a cinematic recreation of the play, a technique that while very common now had never been done before. This gave the film an experimental aspect and outlook.

To create this infusion Olivier focused less on acting and more on directing and editing to create a more fluid transition of a play to film. When Patrick Cook talks about Olivier’s innovation to both capture audiences and effect movies in the future in his book Cinematic Hamlet, he claims:

The co-presence of theatrical and cinematic techniques did not merely successfully mediate the sometimes conflicting expectations of a 1948 audience willing to experience the novelty of seeing both Shakespeare and a movie at the same time; it also provided an influential schooling for future filmmakers, who could see the residuals of the older art form juxtaposed with more truly cinematic transformations. (Cook, 24)

Not only was the movie inventive enough to maintain both its theatrical origins, but portrayed classic aspects of film, in a familiar and consistent way to the audiences of the time. Cook continues his discussion of the movie by describing all the amazing imagery Olivier creates in each of the most cinematic scenes. This discussion goes on for about 36 pages, which just speaks to the amazing use of framing transitioning and editing techniques that Hamlet employs.

By far, the most discussed cinematic aspect of the film comes from the way the sets are shot. The film opens and within the first five minutes of the credits sequence the audience is exposed to three versions of the set. The first is a birds-eye view of a model of Elsinore castle; the model may be the most outdated part of the film. Then a dissolve leads to a close up of the top of a parapet which then dissolves to show only the empty platform. Not only does every shot contain deep focus that allows for visual images to be detailed and complex, but the transitions between the images make the audience feel like they have been fluidly transported about the twisting maze of the castle. The use of filmic techniques, usually unavailable to theatre, are sprinkled all throughout the film and add more drama and sophistication to film.

HAMLET Film Still

The special effects of the film also add to its cinematic grandeur. When Shakespeare added the ghost of Hamlet Sr. to the beginning of the play it was to create a sense of spectacle, which Olivier plays upon in a way that not only works with all of film’s strengths, but that continues to hold up to today’s standards of movies. Olivier’s Ghost is still seen as impressive and, while not terrifying like a jump scare, spooky and creepy enough to cause unease.

The semi-transparent figure of the Ghost was done through a dark background lighting with an overlaid image that was bright and foggy. This effect was amplified by the tremor and drawl that comes from the voice of Hamlet Sr. accompanied by throbbing sounds likening to that of a beating heart. The shots also seem to shift quicker speeding up the momentum of the scene. More than just post-production effects amplify the scene though. In time the camera focus and angles effect how the audience views the specter. Low angles paint the ghost in an intimidating light, the in-and-out shifting of focus causes disorientation and unease. The new-take on an old play that brought the ancient techniques of theatre to the, at the time, newer ever-changing world of film called for great inventiveness.

While none of the five Best Picture noms won for Cinematography, editing, or special effects, Johnny Belinda was nominations for editing and cinematography (color) and The Red Shoes got a nomination in editing. These movies at the time may have been forerunners of excellence, but their techniques aged just as the films did. There is something to be said about the timelessness of a film, and the stylings and shots of Hamlet ring true from generation to generation.

Another important stylized aspect of Hamlet, is the detailed, captivating, and truthful world created through the mise-en-scen. Set, costumes, make-up, props, all work together towards drawing the viewer into the world of the film, and make a distinct and memorable version of Hamlet. The sets for this production are iconic. Many scholars remark on the particular detail Olivier went to in creating the film. Olivier wanted sets that were not only carefully constructed, but thoroughly thought out. The thrown room was massive and sparse to show elegance, but not frivolity and power without oppression. The Queen’s chamber was to be warm and inviting hinting at the Oedipal undertone Olivier wanted. The corridors and hallways were spliced together to create one seamless, unending set.

On top of the scenery stood richly costumed characters that complemented the stark set with their finery; the costumes showed wealth while the set worked as both setting and theme. Together these aspects create a large portion of Olivier’s vision. The unity of a production often distinguishes the great movies from the lesser films and Olivier made sure his film achieved greatness. Hamlet won the Oscar for Best Art Direction (Black and White) against rival Jonny Belinda as well as Best Costume Design (Black and White), so it was clear to the academy that this film creates a world of true excellence, beauty, and reality where a brother could kill brother, ghosts could walk at sunrise, and girls could go mad all over one throne.

While most would deem this next category as cinematography, a look deeper past the beauty of a scene to a captivating quality of images is more specific and important. Three memorable scenes- in a film of only memorable images- are the infamous bedroom scene, Ophelia’s death, and the final climactic duel scene.

Film Production Still of Hamlet

One strength from staged performances of Shakespeare is that a lot of the action and setting comes from spoken imagery, but film does not work this was. When Olivier went about creating the images of the film he had to create overt images with subconscious ideals. For instance, the bedroom scene with Hamlet and Gertrude uses costume, set, and blocking to draw the audience into a side of Hamlet that was uniquely established by Olivier. His interpretation of that scene comes with grand assertions of Freud’s Oedipal Complex by the casting and costuming of the young and beautiful mother of Hamlet, in a room that not only houses a large bed, but one that is shaped specifically to make the audience think about sex. There are numerous discussions about this scene, which speaks to how captivating and thoughtful the scene was. It has stuck with viewers, because of its wonderful use of a unified production to sweep the members of the audience up into the story.

The death of Ophelia is also a scene of gripping imagery. While many productions hold to the traditional speech only death of Ophelia, Olivier gave her a beautiful send off into the water; Olivier’s was the first version to show her death. The overgrown riverbank that seems to swallow Ophelia and her flowy wispy gown, water-like in construction and movement, creates the somber and hollow feeling Shakespeare intended, but in the only way film can, through image. The image is not only beautiful, but also full of subtext, because instead of watching Ophelia’s complete death the camera focuses on the crushed and broken flowers and petals as they flow downstream. There is no confusion as to what happens, but the visual allusion to the flowers creates a far more complex and thought-provoking image.

The last of the wonderfully intriguing images comes during the final climax where the kingdom watches nearly all of its royalty die. The splendor of Hamlet’s, Gertrude’s, Claudius’, and Laertes’ clothing and material objects does not save them from their bloodied and gruesome end. To die surrounded by such splendor is one of the greatest and most chilling tragedies. While it is impossible to say the other Best Picture, Nominees do not also have scenes of gripping imagery through intricate detailed production, the fact that Hamlet was so unified under Olivier’s vision, makes it the best candidate of uniquely intriguing images.

Lastly, a great movie, a movie worthy of being the best of the year must have a compelling story that is interesting, and emotional, and relevant to the audience, with strong writing. The story of Hamlet was not original when Shakespeare wrote it, and it has continued to find new iterations for new generations; the Lion King was one such retelling. What Shakespeare gave to this tale was a well written, interesting characters, and harrowing actions that cause audiences continually consume new versions. Shakespeare’s language may seem jarring and cumbersome, but there exist amazingly eloquent and expressive passages in Hamlet. Some critics decried Olivier for taking too much of the original play out, but his adaptation has still been regarded as fluid, with all the most necessary parts of the story and truly fleshed out character and actions.

  • What probably makes Hamlet such an intriguing story is its use of familial ties broken by betrayal. What could hurt you more than a stranger killing your father, maybe if it was your uncle who did it? So, while The Treasure of the Sierra Madre may have been more original, and Johnny Belinda was closer to the lives of the audience, the story of Hamlet was and forever will be so entertaining and emotional that audiences may never tire of watching.

Hamlet deserved to win Best Picture. The supreme talent of Laurence Olivier’s acting, directing, and vision on screen in a way that put Shakespeare movies once again at the forefront of viewing audiences reinvented Shakespeare films. The inventiveness of the film alone could have won Olivier the Oscar. The movie also uses a wonderful blend of set, costumes, props, and blocking to create images that speak to the viewers on a deeper level that hints at the subtext Olivier sees in the play. The camera work and ability to create a theatrical experience within the bounds of the play may have been one of this movie’s crowning achievements, but it absolutely sealed its fate as the Best Picture Winner in 1948.

Maranda Davis

Maranda is a Las Vegan writer and recent graduate of Texas Christian University. She has a degree in Theatre with a minor in TV, Film, and Digital Media Studies. Her passions are writing, theatre, and Youtube. While one day she hopes to write for TV and film, she currently is working on writing plays of many genres and styles.

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