When you think of Hamlet, you think of the “To Be or Not to Be” speech. Everyone knows of it; everyone can quote at least the first two lines. Scholars and casual readers alike point to it for evidence of Hamlet’s feigned madness (if you go the route of having Hamlet aware of Claudius and Polonius); its position within the play perfectly highlights Hamlet’s changing behavior. Great Speeches are Great Speeches because they fit within some larger context; they occur at the precise moments when they’re needed.
It does not behoove one to tamper with such iconic moments in literature—and that is precisely what Franco Zeffirelli does in his 1990 version of Hamlet. Recklessly butchering the text, Zeffirelli slashes lines and moves scenes at will. Hamlet is Hamlet because of the question and progression of madness or not-madness, cowardice or action. To change the plot flow destroys the character.
Granted, the world knows Hamlet is difficult to pull off. There wouldn’t be thousands of articles and books and study guides if it wasn’t. I don’t require every Hamlet to be executed with Kenneth Branagh’s completeness and scope—but it should at least follow the material on which it’s based!
Mel Gibson’s portrayal of Hamlet doesn’t help matters. Playing the title character as sure of himself, the subtly and nuance—the psychological underpinning of the role—is stripped away, leaving us with a shell of some archaic action-hero. A prime example of where the main character’s portrayal seems to bring down the rest of the cast, the normally brilliant Helena Bonham Carter is forgettable as Ophelia; Glenn Close’s Gertrude is overwrought. Zeffirelli’s choice to have Gertrude’s and Hamlet’s relationship awkwardly overshadowed with incestuous implications further removes his version from the text. The obviousness of his intentions reduces the shades of gray an actor of Close’s caliber could have brought to the role.
Destroyed by a senseless script, “accessible” hero, and emotionless core, Zeffirelli managed to cut out the drama from one of the world’s most dramatized plays. Creating a hero that remains unlikeable in an adaptation that is practically unrecognizable, Zeffirelli’s Hamlet is an insult to the viewer and to Shakespeare.