Only Dracula and Sherlock Holmes have appeared in more movies than Hamlet. Shakespeare’s most famous play has been adapted for the screen more than fifty times, in many languages. Because Hamlet is so long, movie versions are usually heavily cut, but there are five widely-available adaptations of Hamlet which use most or all of Shakespeare’s original text:
Director: Laurence Olivier
Notable cast: Laurence Olivier
Olivier is widely considered the greatest Shakespearean actor and director of the twentieth century, and his movie adaptation of Hamlet is still regarded as one of the most successful. Olivier cut Fortinbras entirely and focused on Hamlet’s psychological turmoil. The movie won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Actor.
Director: Tony Richardson
Notable cast: Nicol Williamson, Marianne Faithfull, Anthony Hopkins
Richardson’s movie was based on his stage production of Hamlet, and it has a more theatrical feel than the other adaptations. It focuses more on Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia than the other versions. The movie was a critical and commercial failure, and it’s probably the least popular movie adaptation of Hamlet.
Director: Franco Zeffirelli
Notable cast: Mel Gibson, Glenn Close, Helena Bonham-Carter
Zeffirelli heavily cut Shakespeare’s text and cast Gibson, who was best known at the time for the Lethal Weapon series, to highlight Hamlet’s inability to be an “action hero.” Zeffirelli’s version gives more screentime to the female characters than most adaptations, and Bonham-Carter’s Ophelia is one of the best movie versions of the role.
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Notable cast: Kenneth Branagh, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie
Branagh’s Hamlet uses Shakespeare’s full text, and even adds in several flashbacks that don’t appear in the original play. The result is a running time of nearly four hours. Critics admired Branagh’s performance in the title role, and this adaptation is probably the most faithful to Shakespeare’s play.
Director: Michael Almereyda
Notable cast: Ethan Hawke, Julia Stiles, Bill Murray, Kyle MacLachlan
Almereyda’s adaptation is the only one to move Hamlet’s action into a modern-day setting. Claudius is CEO of the Denmark Corporation, and his nephew Hamlet is a video artist. The text is heavily cut, but Almereyda’s movie translates Shakespeare’s play cleverly into a modern setting, and the result is respected by film critics and students of Shakespeare alike.