The famous director Orson Wells said, “The essential is to excite the spectators. If that means playing Hamlet on a flying trapeze or in an aquarium, you do it.” It is evident in the two film versions of Hamlet by Frank Zeffirelli and Kenneth Branagh both directors are interpreting and portraying the same play in very different ways. The directorial differences are obvious in the camera shots, costumes, scenery, lighting and specific scenes. As Mr. Wells suggested the two directors excite the audience and make their own unique versions of the classic Shakespearean play Hamlet.
The disparities between the two plays outweigh any similarities that exist. The first and most obvious difference between the two films is the scenery and costumes. Branagh’s version is more modern than Zeffirelli’s. In Branagh’s the architecture is modern, there are sweeping staircases, electricity, and a train that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ride in on. Zeffirelli’s scenery and props are more appropriate for Shakespearean time period and illustrate a more traditional setting. The costumes are the same as the scenery; Branagh’s costumes are ornate and very modern, whereas Zeffirelli’s costumes are more fitting for the time period. The differences between the costumes and scenery are a stunning one that shocks the audience. When seeing Branagh’s film it is obvious how modern and the adaptation is and makes it seem less Shakespearean.
Another surprising difference is how accurate each film stayed to Shakespeare’s text. The difference is significant, Branagh’s film runs over 242 minutes while Zeffirelli’s truncated version is 129 minutes. Branagh stayed closer to the text of Shakespeare and did not cut out as many lines as Zeffirelli. In his essay “The Films of Hamlet” Neil Taylor writes, “Zeffirelli is by far the most radical re-shaper of the text. His 129 minute film contains only thirty-one percent of the lines”(Taylor 192). The result is Branagh’s very long version filled with lengthy pauses that is really a replication of Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Zeffirelli’s shorter and untraditional film that neglects much of the original text.
The camera shots and angles are also a dramatic difference between the two directors. Zeffirelli’s shots are shorter whereas Branagh’s are longer and more fixed. “Zeffirelli moves the camera very little but uses far more shots per minutes than any of the other directors-his average shot lasts less than six seconds”(Taylor 192). Zeffirelli’s camera shots between two characters goes back and forth and conveys the conversation and pace clearly. In most scenes Branagh’s lengthy and sweeping camera shots correspond with the pace and length of the movie. If Branagh used Zeffirelli’s technique it would be too jerky and difficult to watch the entire film.
The portrayal of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are yet another difference in the two films. In Branagh’s film, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern look different then one another, one is fat and short; one is thin and tall so they are easily recognizable. In Zeffirelli’s version, they look very similar and are difficult to tell apart. In Branagh’s version they are jester-like in appearance and speech, whereas in Zeffirelli’s version they are more like Hamlet and not as comical.
The ghost of King Hamlet looks and acts completely different in the films. In Branagh’s version, King Hamlet is frightening clad in a suit of armor with icy blue eyes, Prince Hamlet looks scared of him. It appears that Prince Hamlet’s motivation for revenge is simply fear of his father’s ghost. In Zeffirelli’s version King Hamlet is an endearing older man dressed in robes and Prince Hamlet’s love for his father is obvious. Mel Gibson in Zeffirelli’s version avenges the death of his father because of his love and admiration for him. The actions are the same, but the motivation in which both princes act is very different. As the relationships between father and son are different so are the relationships between mother and son. In Branagh’s version, Hamlet and Gertrude are more at odds with each other, his contempt for her is clear. There are not many intimate moments between the two and the depth of their relationship is vague. In Zeffirelli’s version the relationship between mother and son verges on incest on many occasions. The scene at Ophelia’s funeral illustrates the differences in the two relationships. In Branagh’s version, Gertrude pulls Laertes back and consoles him. In Zeffirelli’s version Gertrude comforts her son. The Oedipus complex is merely hinted at in Branagh’s version unlike Zeffirelli’s version where the Oedipal complex is very apparent and significant. A specific scene that further exemplifies the differences between Branagh and Zeffirelli’s version is the play scene. It is the same scene in subject matter but completely different in imagery and emotion.
In Branagh’s version the lighting is bright and the perspective is vertically slanted. When Hamlet gives a speech in the beginning of the scene the camera comes up behind him taking an extreme long shot that shows the audience around him giving the perspective that Hamlet is one man taking on this large audience of people. His black clothing sets him apart from the colorful background of the audience.
Throughout the scene the most obvious aspect is the quick camera work. The camera constantly pans to the difference faces of the King, Queen, Hamlet, Ophelia, Horatio, Laertes and the audience. This perspective constantly keeps eyes moving and attention diverted. The camera work shows the anxiety and the tension in the room. Everyone is constantly looking all around the room to see everyone else’s reaction and the camera follows their glances with such speed it mimics the human eye. Horatio is the most obvious onlooker with binoculars that let him survey the entire room. The binoculars that he looks through impersonate the job of the camera and speak to the curiosity of the viewers.
When the play is going on there are a number of close-ups of the actors that focus the attention on them even if it is for brief moments. While the actors are acting out the part of the King and Queen, Claudius and Gertrude are observed in two shot’s that mirror the image that the actors are representing.
In the middle of the play, Claudius rises declaring that the play is over, the lights go on by his request and the audience is seen through a high angle shot that shows them scurrying out of the theater like mice. In Zeffirelli’s version the scene and emotions are much less intense. The camera moves less frequently making it more relaxed than Branagh’s version. The angle is leveled and at a direct view unlike Branagh’s which is stilted and viewed mostly from above. Zeffirelli’s view is less visually climactic but it makes the events more surprising to the viewer. Branagh’s vertical view foreshadows the events.
The setting is dark and intimate and seems more like an informal gathering then a theatrical experience. Gibson is less crazed then Branagh and does not show as much anxiety. While Branagh anticipates the King and Queens reaction, Gibson is more patient. The reaction of the King is so much more than it is Branagh’s version. The King is obviously upset in Branagh’s version but it appears that he is angrier at Hamlet’s mocking of him then guilty. In Zeffirelli’s version the King walks toward the actors in the scene with an outstretched arm like he is grasping the past, which shows his guilt.
The actors are not as significant in Zeffirelli’s version, the actor’s are merely a backdrop that evokes emotion but the main concentration is on the audience. In Branagh’s version there is a close relationship between the acting King and Queen and the real King and Queen, the bond is absent in Zeffirelli’s version. Horatio sits in the audience in Zeffirelli’s version; his positioning in the scene is not as significant as it is in Branagh’s version. In Branagh’s version there is the constant feeling that everyone is always looking at someone else to see their reaction, in Zeffirelli’s version that perpetual staring is not present. The play is curtailed when the King asks for light and the people are seen flooding out of the theatrical arena with the same intensity as in Branagh’s version. The audience waits for the play to reveal itself and seem unsuspicious whereas in Branagh’s version the audience is on the edge of their seat as if they are aware all aware of what is to come.
The discrepancies in this scene makes them unique and lends a different emotion to the two versions. The important thing to note when watching the varying scenes is that whatever the directorial difference might be the essence remains clear to the viewer.
The differences between Franco Zeffirelli’s and Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet is apparent. It is impossible not to see the disparities and interesting to see the unique ways that each director views essentially the same scenes. There are many versions of Hamlet and one might ask why so many are necessary. As long as there are director’s who have unique visions it doesn’t matter how many versions of something there are because each version is new and different in its own way. If one version were made of everything there would be no range or creative interpretation that is so essential to art. Zeffirelli and Branagh made their own version of Hamlet, one is not better or worse then the other, they should be appreciated and judged for the distinct differences between them and not scrutinized for their similarities. There is an essential similarity between different film versions, but the true directorial vision stems from the differences.