Joining the Houghton Library in honor of the quatercentenary of Shakespeare's death, the Harvard Film Archive offers three of the most innovative screen adaptations of the Bard's most endearing play, Hamlet, with text composed by Argentine filmmaker Matías Piñeiro, himself one of today’s great and most active screen adapters of Shakespeare in films such as Viola (2013) and The Princess of France (2014), which showed recently at the Harvard Film Archive.
Shakespeare: His Collected Works will be on exhibit in the Edison and Newman Room of Harvard’s Houghton Library from January 19 through April 23. On view will be important early editions, including the iconic First Folio owned by Harry Elkins Widener; creative respondents to Shakespeare from his eighteenth-century editor and critic Samuel Johnson through the modernist poet e.e. cummings; theatrical memorabilia highlighting the careers of great Shakespearean actors and actresses; and an arresting array of visual materials that trace the development of Shakespearean stagecraft over four centuries. For more information, visit the website.Special thanks: Gabriele Antinolfi, Laura Argento—Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia-Cineteca Nazionale (Rome). Film descriptions by Matías Piñeiro.
Directed by Laurence Olivier. With Laurence Olivier, Eileen Herlie, Basil Sydney
UK 1948, 35mm, b/w, 153 min
Here stands the quintessential film version of this play. For many people the image of Shakespeare in film is inseparable from Laurence Olivier’s performance in this “Two Cities” post-World War II production. But this canonical positioning shouldn’t blind us to the risky decisions that Olivier proudly made as the director of this film. His love for theater prevented him from hiding the origins of his material. He actually enhanced the immanent presence of the stage, the strange feeling of watching a play through cinema.
The freedom with which Olivier edited the text—cutting many verses while maintaining others, as well as the complete disposing of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s characters—introduced a new idea of fidelity in film adaptations. It is the oppressive presence of the décor, the beautiful echoing of the verses, the extension of the shots and the ghostly camera movements that make Olivier’s version so original and so far removed from the weakened, conventional TV-drama mise-en-scène of Shakespeare films to follow.
Please join curators Dale Stinchcomb and Peter Accardo for a guided tour of the exhibition, Shakespeare: His Collected Works at 6pm in the Edison & Newman Room, Houghton Library.
Directed by Grigori Kozintsev. With Innokenty Smoktunovsky, Mikhail Nazvanov, Elza Radzinya
1964 Soviet Union, 35mm, b/w, 140 min. Russian with English subtitles
Kozintsev bears the burden of carrying Olivier’s version on his back. Instead of avoiding that pressure, he faces the fact and produces a series of inversions and new winnings that recuperate some aspects of Shakespeare’s text while introducing further innovations. The strongest decision in this adaptation is its turn toward nature, with the sun, the sea and the wind affecting the performances, as they perhaps would have under Elizabethan-era conditions, yet reinforcing a distinctly Romantic tone. Jonas Gricius’ low camera angles and lighting effects accentuate this dominant mood that Dmitri Shostakovich then counterpoints with his modernist score. Crowds take part in the action and, most importantly, politics re-enter. The State of Denmark is rotting, and the story of Hamlet is a symptom of that decadence. But the greatest provocation in this version relies on its linguistic aspect: Shakespeare’s English is translated into Russian. With this transformation, Kozintsev seems to say, “This text also belongs to us.” The different accentuations and sounds provide a new perspective in the spectator’s appreciation of the text. For non-Russian speakers, subtitles make the words visible, while the emphasis on the text’s musicality adds an unusual layer of abstraction to the Shakespearean adaptation.
Directed by Carmelo Bene. With Carmelo Bene, Lydia Mancinelli, Alfiero Vincenti
Italy 1973, 35mm, color, 68 min. Italian with English subtitles
The very title of the film liberates it from any responsibility to the original text. Bene assumes that we all know Hamlet’s story, so he feels no need to repeat it to us. Preferring to violate expectations by producing a neo-cubic collage of the figures and phantoms from the play that haunt him, Bene renders an illuminating version of Shakespeare’s most famous play through psychoanalysis, nudity, anachronistic cultural references, experimental theater and colored, multilayer montage. His kaleidoscopic mise-en-scène returns to Olivier’s in its theatricality and to Kozintsev’s in its concern with politics, but this film is filtered through a highly disturbed conscience. Bene aims to subvert Hamlet in an anti-naturalist detour until there is not much left of the original. Condensing and rewriting the five acts into an hour-long, Italian-speaking featurette, he expands the Oedipus conflict and heightens the acting style. For further provocation, he transforms the famous “To be or not to be” monologue into a brief “To have or not to have” line. Adaptation in Bene’s world is ultimately a vital device for Bacchanalian destruction. Print courtesy of CSC-Cineteca Nazionale.