Worst Best Picture: Is Hamlet Better or Worse Than Crash?


Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1948 winner Hamlet. Is it better than Crash?

It’s Hamlet. It’s Laurence Olivier, one of the greatest actors of all time, as Hamlet, one of the greatest characters of all time, in Hamlet, one of the greatest stories of all time. How is it such a weird mess?

First things first, if you don’t like Hamlet the play, I can’t help you. I read it for the first time in high school thanks to a teacher who loved it deeply, and I loved it immediately. I’ve read a fair amount of Shakespeare and while I’m not going to pretend to be some scholar of the classics, I do like what I’ve read. I think As You Like It is really funny. I think Othello is a brutal story. Shakespeare is good, there, I said it, I’ll state that rare opinion.

Hamlet is considered one of the great stories in English because it’s so adaptable. You can view any story through Hamlet if you try hard enough. There’s politics, there’s trickery, there’s love and sex, there’s family, there’s comedy, there’s drama, there’s everything you need. It’s complicated, but at the most basic level it’s the story of what we do when we have to do something, but can’t decide what that should be. It’s also a thousand other things, and what’s most important about it to you can’t be an incorrect reading. That’s why it endures.

Olivier’s Hamlet (he wrote, directed, and starred in it, so this is entirely on him) is about the indecision of Hamlet after his father’s death. His mother, Queen Gertrude, has married the late king’s brother and Hamlet is filled with a variety of emotions about what is clearly a series of disasters in his life. I’m not going to retell Hamlet here. If you haven’t read it, though, don’t see the movie first.

The problem most people have with this version is that it cuts out major parts of the story. The characters of Fortinbras, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern are removed entirely. Olivier defended his choice by saying that it wouldn’t be possible to make a watchable film with their relatively minor scenes intact, but I would argue that at just shy of three hours, he didn’t make one without them, so why bother cutting anything? What different would the extra hour really make?

Whether or not you think the removal of those three characters impacts the story, Olivier’s other change is more severe. He plays up the “love story” of Hamlet and his mother to a degree that’s, frankly, a little hard to watch. There is certainly precedent for this in the text; Hamlet is distraught and doesn’t really understand his relationship with any person in his life after his father’s death, least of all his mother. However, in the movie, it’s drastic. They share scenes that feel overwrought to the point of actual romance rather than the tension of a forbidden love-like feeling. Subtext, this ain’t. It’s direct, and that’s definitely not what The Bard meant. In the scene where he kills Polonius and has to confront Gertrude, he delivers every line into her mouth and they are inches away from kissing for 10 full minutes. It’s crazy.

I know you can’t “be wrong” about an interpretation, but I don’t agree with Olivier’s choice. I also don’t think we need a film version of Hamlet in the first place, but even if we do, we don’t need this one. Hamlet needs to be multifaceted as a story, and Olivier is only interested in one (to me) small piece of the original text, and his movie is not what I want to see when I think of Hamlet.

The Best Part: Hamlet is not the story of a man who wants to have sex with his mother and can’t decide if he should kill his stepfather, or at the very least it is not that in that order, but if it has to be that to Olivier he has certainly succeeded in making what he wanted to make. There’s a perverseness to their scenes that reminds me of the best parts of other strange movies with that theme (like the really, really weird The House of Yes with Parker Posey) and while I don’t like the script’s choice to include them, the scenes themselves are well acted.

The Worst Part: Most people will say it’s all the cuts, but I think it’s the pacing. Plainly stated, this movie is boring as hell. Almost nothing on the list is as boring as Hamlet, and I’m a person that loves the original story and isn’t bored by Shakespeare. It’s gross at times and overdone at others, but the connective bits between those two mistakes are all slow and plodding, so it’s hard to say which part is the worst.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? While it’s a crime to try to change the Mona Lisa, this is still Hamlet. The worst Hamlet is better than the best Crash, though Crash is easier for a modern audience to watch. I can’t recommend you spend three hours of your life watching this version of Hamlet, but it’s more boring than terrible, which I guess makes it better than Crash.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | Hamlet

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.


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