Shakespeare’s original version of “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” was brought to life on the big screen by Franco Zeffirelli in a contemporary style to appease modern viewers. Just as any book is reiterated in movie form, modifications are made. In Hamlet, the director emphasizes what he or she deems significant and removes sections in order to make the motion picture more appealing to the viewers, all while shortening the storyline and inserting modern affects. Zeffirelli’s film keeps the overall plot and theme intact, but changes scenes and characters considerably.
In the beginning of the original Shakespeare play, the opening scene is dialogue between the guards, outside the king’s castle, about the ghost of the recently deceased king appearing on the watchtower. Instead, the movie opens with the king’s funeral. Since the first scene is eliminated from the motion picture, the viewer does not see him in his armor which signifies Denmark preparing for war with Fortinbras’ army. Eradication of the war aspect of the play also excludes Fortinbras completely. Fortinbras’ character holds numerous functions. Fortinbras, who is attempting to reclaim Norway’s lost land, serves as an important foil to Prince Hamlet, who is also seeking revenge for his murdered father. He is the character that fuels political tension with Denmark. Both Fortinbras and Hamlet are Princes. After Claudius and Hamlet fates are suffered in the play, Fortinbras succeeds the throne. Without his character, the question of who will be crowned is unanswered. Zeffirelli removes this subplot to focus on the main idea of Hamlet’s revenge on Claudius to keep from slowing down the story line, but he also loses a meaningful portion of the play.
The director not only modifies scenes, he also significantly alters the soliloquy and attitude of Hamlet, the main character. In the play he is portrayed as indecisive about his revenge and claims himself to be “pigeon-livered and lack gall to make oppression bitter” (2.2.537-538) for not being able to retaliate on Claudius. In his soliloquy in act two, scene two he is talking down to himself. “Yet I, A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my
cause, And can say nothing—no not for a king, Upon whose property and most dear life. A damned defeat was made. Am I a coward?” (2.2.525-530) The movie removes this soliloquy, so the audience is oblivious of Hamlets uncertainty. Instead, the movie focuses on Hamlet’s erratic qualities and presents him as more aggressive and bold than in the play. On another occasion, Hamlet goes to meet his mother, Gertrude, to confront his her of her involvement with his fathers death. In the play, he has a short soliloquy concentrating on his discussion. He pledges to not hurt her, saying, “I will speak daggers to her, but use none.” While in the film he is very physical and almost sexual towards Gertrude. Zeffirelli alters his demeanor to add drama and presence to the main character to capture the viewer’s attention.
In the play, Hamlet goes to meet his mother about her involvement in his father's death and ends up killing Polonius. Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, senses Hamlet's outrage for her behavior and fears he might murder her. This is shown in lines 22-33 of Act III scene IV as she cries for the help of Polonius who is hiding behind the curtain. "What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me? Help, ho!" In the movie, Gertrude has an extremely worried expression on her face and as she calls for help there is motion behind a giant
tapestry. This enrages Hamlet even more because someone has overheard his
suspicions. "How now? A rat? Dead for ducat, dead!" (line 25) Hamlet
angrily walks to the tapestry and surges his sword into a precise spot fatally
wounding Polonius. "O, I am slain." (line 26) Similar to the play, in
the movie the death of Polonius is shown as Hamlet removes his sword from the
tapestry and loud crash is heard as his body crumbles to the floor.
The language in the play is noticeably different than what is read in the play. Some of the plays old English dialogue is simplified or removed for the sake of interpretation.