What if Hamlet was a hipster douchebag?
That appears to be the question at the heart of the 2000 film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s most famous play. In this adaptation, a young Ethan Hawke plays a Hamlet who is no longer a melancholy prince but who is instead a film student with a petulant attitude.
As you probably already guessed, this is one of those modern day adaptations of Shakespeare. Denmark is now a Manhattan-based corporation. Elsinore is a hotel. Hamlet ponders life while wandering around a Blockbuster and, at one point, the ghost of his father stands in front of a Pepsi machine. While Shakespeare’s dialogue remains unchanged, everyone delivers their lives while wearing modern clothing. It’s one of those things that would seem rather brave and experimental if not for the fact that modern day versions of Shakespeare have gone from being daring to being a cliché.
At the film’s start, the former CEO of the Denmark Corporation has mysteriously died and his brother, Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan), has not only taken over the company but he’s also married the widow, Gertrude (Diane Venora). Hamlet comes home from film school, convinced that there has been a murder and his suspicions are eventually confirmed by the ghost of his father (Sam Shepard). Meanwhile, poor Ophelia (Julia Stiles) takes pictures of flowers while her brother, Laertes (Liev Schreiber), glowers in the background. Polonius (Bill Murray) offers up pointless advice while Fortinbras (Casey Affleck) is reimagined as a corporate investor and Rosencrantz (Steve Zahn) wears a hockey jersey. Hamlet spends a lot of time filming himself talking and the Mousetrap is no longer a player but instead an incredibly over-the-top short film that will probably remind you of the killer video from The Ring.
I guess a huge part of this film’s appeal was meant to be that it featured a lot of people who you wouldn’t necessarily think of as being Shakespearean actors. Some of them did a surprisingly good job. For instance, Kyle MacLachlan was wonderully villainous as Claudius and Steve Zahn was the perfect Rosencrantz. Others, like Diane Venora and Liev Schreiber, were adequate without being particularly interesting. But then you get to Bill Murray as Polonius and you start to realize that quirkiness can only take things so far. Murray does a pretty good job handling Shakespeare’s dialogue but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s totally miscast as the misguided and foolish Polonius. One could easily imagine Murray in the role of Osiric. Though it may initially seem a stretch, one could even imagine him playing Claudius. But he’s simply not right for the role of Polonius. Murray’s screen presence is just too naturally snarky for him to be convincing as a character who alternates between being a “tedious, old fool” and an obsequious ass kisser.
Considering that he spends a large deal of the movie wearing a snow cap while wandering around downtown Manhattan, Ethan Hawke does a surprisingly good job as Hamlet. Or, I should say, he does a good job as this film’s version of Hamlet. Here, Hamlet is neither the indecisive avenger nor the Oedipal madman of previous adaptations. Instead, he’s portrayed as being rather petulant and self-absorbed, which doesn’t necessarily go against anything that one might find within Shakespeare’s original text. Hawke’s not necessarily a likable Hamlet but his interpretation is still a credible one.
At one point, while Hamlet thinks about revenge, we see that he’s watching Laurence Olivier’s version of Hamlet on television. There’s Olivier talking to Yorick’s skull while Hawke watches. It’s a scene that is somehow both annoying and amusing at the same time. On the one hand, it feels rather cutesy and more than a little pretentious. At the same time, it’s so over-the-top in its pretension that you can’t help but kind of smile at the sight of it. To me, that scene epitomizes the film as a whole. It’s incredibly silly but it’s so unapologetic that it’s easy to forgive.