In William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the physical appearance of the actors helps to convey the emotional state of the characters to the audience. The neat and clean appearance of the main character, Hamlet, suggests that he is not insane, while his disheveled appearance represents his madness. The rationality of Hamlet’s actions is also depicted through his appearance, with his well-kept attire reflecting his inner spiritual state when he is grieving.
Laurence Olivier’s 1948 and Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 films are two of the most acclaimed film adaptations of Hamlet. Both directors use visual elements to deliver the plot of the tragedy to viewers, including the physical appearance of the actors. The versions have some similar and varying features in Hamlet’s appearance. Olivier’s black-and-white film emphasizes the importance of looks, with Hamlet wearing black clothes that denote his grief and suffering. Meanwhile, Branagh’s adaptation portrays Hamlet as a 19th-century aristocrat, with a neat and strict appearance that reflects his inner spiritual state.
Hamlet’s appearance in both versions reflects the development of the plot. In Olivier’s film, Hamlet’s madness is depicted through his disheveled appearance, with an untangled shirt and unbuttoned vest, and close-up scenes that show his suffering and genuine concern. In Branagh’s adaptation, Hamlet’s madness is portrayed through a less stiff appearance, with an unbuttoned black coat and a white shirt sticking out, and unbrushed hair that reflects a lack of rational decisions.
Both directors use visual elements to convey the message of the play to viewers. They substitute some verbal descriptions with visual presentation, with Olivier cutting out many lines from the Shakespearean text to emphasize Hamlet’s disheveled appearance on the screen. Meanwhile, Branagh eliminates descriptive parts of the text, substituting Ophelia’s words about Hamlet’s disheveled appearance with a scene that portrays Hamlet in madness. The difference in the portrayal of mad Hamlet between the two versions also leads to differences in viewers’ perception of Hamlet’s emotions and the plot of the tragedy.
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