90s Nostalgia Pedagogy Part 2: Michael Almereyda's Hamlet

This blog is second in a series on 90s Shakespeare adaptations. To read the first blog in this series see ‘Nostalgia Pedagogy and 90s Shakespeare Adaptations; ‘Othello’ and Tim Blake Nelson’s ‘O’. 
 
Hamlet as the late Harold Bloom described it ‘gave its audience a new Shakespeare’ (Bloom, The Invention of the Human 1998, 383). Michael Almereyda’s 2000 adaptation of the play arguably gave its audience a new Hamlet. The film is also representative of the differences in reception by critics/audiences/academics, particularly in relationship to Shakespeare adaptations of the late 20th century. One example of this is the Franco Zeffirelli adaptation from 1990 (starring Mel Gibson and Glen Close) which picked up two Academy Award nominations but received mixed reviews from critics and audiences, and few scholarly citations. This is not to say that online reviews are always accurate. It is to say that as teachers of digitally literate students, the way films are represented online is of interest. Both scholarly and popular criticism about the website RottenTomatoes.com have emphasised the influence of online reviews in the digital age. Tamara Shepherd points out that the Rotten Tomatoes website is ‘one of the most heavily trafficked sites on the Internet, with 60-120 million page views per day’ which makes it an important player in the creation of contemporary cultural capital (Shepherd, ‘Rotten Tomatoes in the Field of Popular Cultural Production’ Canadian Journal of Film Studies, 18.2 (2009): 26-44). As of 1 November 2019 Rotten Tomatoes’ online engagement seems to be climbing. The aggregated reviews from critic and audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes are part of what scholars in the field call ‘electronic word-of-mouth (eWOM)’ and have an impact on both box office sales and reception (Kim, Yoon, Choi ‘The effects of eWOM volume and valence on product sales – an empirical examination of the movie industry’ International Journal of Advertising 38.3 (2019):471-488) . Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000) shares with its adaptive counterpart from 1990 mixed reviews from critics and viewers online. That being said, Almereyda’s adaptation has produced a large body of scholarship specifically dedicated to unpacking the film on its own terms. It seems for Shakespeare scholars this adaptation is a particularly inventive one. This blog is meant to spark an interest in the film from a pedagogical perspective rather than a critical one. What mixed reviews online mean to contemporary teenagers is important to note. I myself wonder what students today make of Almereyda’s Hamlet. Do they feel it is outdated? Can they push through the density of Shakespeare’s original language and recognise themselves in Hamlet’s teen-ness? Do they agree with the way the film is characterised in online reviews? How does their engagement with online reviews influence and/or impact their relationship to viewing and critiquing the film? The film itself is concerned with the onset of the digital. In some ways its critical ambivalence on the internet is a reflection of the film’s own tonal ambivalence regarding technology. One thing is certain, Almereyda’s Hamlet is a product of the 90s teen Shakespeare boom. Both internal and external to its canonical context it takes a unique approach to Shakespeare’s original and offers up a wealth of potential for classroom teaching. 
 
The film is set in a sterile New York City high-rise called ‘Hotel Elsinore’ owned by the ‘Denmark Corporation’. Almereyda uses original lines from the play throughout the entirety of the film but chops and changes scenes and soliloquies to fit a tight 1hr 52 minute run time. This is a huge adaptive leap in comparison to the Kenneth Branagh adaptation from 1996 which comes in at 4 hours and 2 minutes. However, Almereyda’s cuts and re-fashionings of the original play’s language allow for the film to stand on its own as a unique adaptation. To think of Almereyda’s film as Hamlet is perhaps misleading. Instead as Hamlet (2000) it can serve as a useful teaching tool for students to explore the qualities unique to adaptation as a genre, an artistic pursuit in its own right, and potentially as a way to think about Shakespeare’s own adaptive process as a master genre-bender and adaptor of pre-existing stories. 
 
 A thirty-year-old Ethan Hawke plays a young, brooding teen version of Hamlet, who opens the film with parts of lines from the Act Two Scene Two soliloquy ‘What a piece of work is a man!’ (2.2.286; Cambridge University Press 2019). This Hamlet delivers lines from the soliloquy not before Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as he does in the original, but for himself on his computer and video-camera screen. Hawke’s Hamlet is a brooding teenager who crafts and screens his own ‘vlogs’ or video-logs. Hamlet’s status as a teen in this version is underpinned by qualities both central to and beyond the film. One of these qualities is located in the contemporary moment by opening the film with Hamlet as a vlogger. Vlogging, particularly on YouTube, is one of the most popular sources of content for teenagers today. In its late 20th century context, Fedderson and J. Michael Richardson argue ‘Hawke was chosen precisely because his characters in previous films represent the Generation X version of the brooding alienated young man’ (‘Hamlet 9/11: Sound, Noise, and Fury in Almereyda’s Hamlet’ College Literature 31.4 (2004) 157-158). Fedderson and Richardson are referring here to Hawke’s role in the distinctly ‘90s’ film Reality Bites (1994) in which he plays a greasy ‘Slacker’ who wants to live in American society without buying into consumer capitalist ideals about work and relationships. I would also like to further the argument for Hamlet’s teen-dom in Almereyda’s rendition by drawing a comparison between what Fedderson and Richardson call his ‘Peruvian knit ski cap’ (155) and one of literature’s most famous teenagers – Holden Caulfield from J.D Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951). 
 
 
Michael Almereyda, Hamlet (2000)
 
 
Ben Stiller, Reality Bites (1994)
 
The teen qualities of Hawke’s Hamlet help to elevate its concerns as a film for the new generation growing up in the 21st century. Mark Thornton Burnett argues that ‘By electing to adapt Hamlet, Almereyda seizes on opportunities to address peculiarly millennial apprehensions and anxieties’ (‘To Hear and See the Matter: Communicating Technology in Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000)’ Cinema Journal 42.3: (2003) 48) .The film also offers a dynamic Ophelia, played by the queen of 90s Shakespeare adaptations: Julia Stiles. While Ophelia is, as Amanda Kane Rooks argues: ‘arguably the most identifiable and resonant of all Shakespeare’s heroines’ she is often depicted in ways that ‘focus on her beauty, innocence, eroticized madness, and victim status’ (‘The New Ophelia in Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet’, Literature and Film Quarterly 42:2 (2014) 475). Almereyda manages to grant Ophelia an agency she does not have in other filmic versions. He does this through breaking up the surveillance scene in Act 3 Scene 1 and splicing Hamlet’s ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ lines to include two scenes. The surveillance scene where Ophelia gives Hamlet back his letters is mostly the same as Shakespeare’s version, but includes Ophelia wearing a wire in apt contemporary surveillance fashion. In this version, Hamlet and Ophelia seem to share more of a sexual relationship than an emotional one. The scene is then broken off and Hamlet’s lines are picked up later in the film. In this later scene we see Ophelia riding through the streets of New York City on her bicycle back to her apartment where she lives alone and seems to run her own photography studio. We then see her burn a photograph of Hamlet while the remainder of his lines from Act 3 Scene 1 are played over the loudspeaker of her answering machine. While Almereyda’s Ophelia ‘is notably infantalized by her father and brother’ (Rooks 477) in this scene the chic photographer quality of her Gen X character heightens her difference to other Ophelias. When she burns Hamlet’s image, it can be read as a symbolic erasure of his control and desire for her. Contrastingly, the 1990 Zefferelli and 1996 Branagh Ophelias, played by equally famous actresses at the time Helena Bonham Carter and Kate Winslet, do not acquire a moment of power like this. Almereyda’s decision to split the scene into two parts both changes the dynamic between Hamlet and Ophelia and breathes new life into the character for the 21st century.
 
Michael Almereyda, Hamlet (2000)
 
 
Michael Almereyda, Hamlet (2000)
 
 
Franco Zeffirelli, Hamlet (1990)
 
 
Kenneth Branagh, Hamlet (1996)
 
 
These moments of narrative transgression are what make Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000) unique. There are many instances of adaptation in the film that conjure up both the unique moment where the century turned to the 21st and Shakespeare’s work turned a digital corner. Using the film in the classroom can potentially provoke fruitful conversation about adaptation, representation and the digital age. Some questions that might be worth thinking about: does the film transcend its online presence and make something new, or is it another link in the chain of the 90s Shakespeare boom? How can we help our students become aware of how criticism functions in the digital age? What does this mean for us as teachers of Shakespeare?
 
Reading and Resources:
Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare : The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.
Burnett, Mark Thornton. “‘To Hear and See the Matter’: Communicating Technology in Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet.” Cinema Journal (2003): 48–69. 
Fedderson, Kim, and  J. Michael Richardson. “Hamlet 9/11: Sound, Noise, and Fury in Almereyda’s ‘Hamlet.’” College Literature 31.4 (2004): 150-170.
Kim, Kacy, Sukki Yoon, and Yung Kyun Choi. “The Effects of eWOM Volume and Valence on Product Sales - an Empirical Examination of the Movie Industry.” International Journal of Advertising 38.3 (2019): 471–488.
Rooks, A.K. “The ‘New’ Ophelia in Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet.” Literature-Film Quarterly 42.2 (2014): 475–485.
Shakespeare, William, and Heather Hirschfeld. (2019). Hamlet: Prince of Denmark (The New Cambridge Shakespeare) (P. Edwards, Ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Shepherd, Tamara. 'Rotten Tomatoes in the Field of Popular Cultural Production.' Canadian Journal of Film Studies 18.2 (2009): 26–44.