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Comparing Film Adaptations


The late twentieth century marked a resurgence of Shakespeare on film. Directors and actors with styles as diverse as Kenneth Branagh, Baz Luhrmann and Mel Gibson strove to popularize "Hamlet" on the big screen, and students became used to seeing adaptations of Shakespeare arrive at their local Cineplex. The tradition in teaching has been to review the play by showing the entire movie. Viewing clips of the same Shakespeare scene in different film versions offers students the opportunity to engage in close critical analysis and to compare interpretations and visual styles. This technique also inspires students to value and create their own interpretations of Shakespeare. Though this lesson deals specifically with Hamlet and its themes, many of the strategies and approaches here may be used with most any of Shakespeare's plays that have been adapted to film.


Students will:
  • View two to three film adaptations of "Hamlet," Act 1, scene 1

  • View two to three film adaptations of "Hamlet," Act 2, scene 2

  • Note elements of sound, setting, language, and cinematography and their effects on the story

  • Develop an understanding of how different directors set subtly tone and a mood with their choices in presenting their opening scenes

  • Note the connections between the police state in "Hamlet" with those in Shakespeare's England

Estimated Time

This lesson should take two to four 45-minute class periods or parts of two separate 90-minute block periods.

The two parts of this lesson may be discontinuous. After Part 1, you may want to have students read on through Act 2 before moving to the second lesson. Alternatively, the two parts may be administered at any point during the teaching of "Hamlet".


- Branagh, Kenneth, dir. Columbia Tristar, 1996.
- Kline, Kevin and Kirk Browning, dirs. Educational Broadcasting, 1990.
- Scott, Campbell and Eric Simonson dirs.
Hallmark Home Entertainment, 2000
- Olivier, Laurence, dir. Samuel Goldwyn, 1948.
- Zefirelli, Franco, dir. Warner Bros. 1991. (For the first lesson, I recommend against using Zefirelli's version because he cuts Act one, Scene one.
  • A copy of "In Search of Shakespeare" (To order, visit Shop PBS)

  • A TV and DVD player or VCR

  • The attached handout


Part One

Though not mandatory, you may want students to come in having read "Hamlet" 1.1.

Begin by explaining that film directors all have their own personal visions for adapting the play to the movie screen. Talk about how the tone of most any work of literature is privileged in setting the tone for an overall vision. Film is no different. Discuss how each decision a director makes contributes to the overall effect of the scene on the whole.

Pass out the handout and assign students in groups to look closely at one of the four listed elements that the director had to make choices (Sound elements; Language and adherence to text; Physical elements, including use of props, costumes and physical setting; Camera choices). Though they should really focus on one aspect, if students notice something in another category, by all means, they should make note of it.

When you have reviewed the sheet adequately, play your first selection of "Hamlet" 1.1

As students watch the scene, you may want to note the major characters as they appear. To make sure the students are on the right track, you also may wish to stop at particular times in the video to ask about elements as they appear.

After playing the first clip, have each group report what they noticed, prompt them to think about the effect and/or importance of what they note. Have them make predictions about what they expect to happen. Ask them what the overall tone the director achieves in this scene? At this time make sure students are taking notes on the areas they haven't been assigned.

Play the second version of the same scene. Again review what each group noticed. Encourage groups to debate which version they liked better. Then, prompt them to justify their choice based on the elements you have been discussing.

As you debrief the versions you've viewed with the class, be sure to focus your questions on the elements that evoke a tone of the scene, both from individual characters and the actors playing them, and from the directorial voice behind the characters. Also, prompt students to describe the overall mood-atmospherics of each scene perhaps prompting them to list two-to-three adjectives to describe each version. Look for such words as "dark," "mysterious," or "foreboding."

Throughout "In Search of Shakespeare," host Michael Wood describes many examples of how Elizabethan was an authoritarian state. (Episode 1, 37:00-42:40; Episode 3, 02:00-04:00, 33:00-38:30). What parallels can you draw between this political and social climate and the depictions of Hamlet you've just viewed? Visit the Dossier on the "In Search of Shakespeare" Web site and read about authoritarian Elizabethan England.

Part Two

This lesson will follow up on the idea of the "police state" as developed in Act 2, Scene 2 of "Hamlet."

Again pass out a copy of the attached handout and assign students, in groups, to look closely at one of the four listed elements that the director had to make choices.

Play a version of Act 2, scene 2. Since the scene is relatively long, you may want to edit the versions you choose so they remain parallel. One place to edit is to go directly to the place when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter into discussion with Hamlet (line 240 in the Folger edition). You may wish to include the King's advice to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern before going to their encounter with "Hamlet," or you may just want to show the odd interrogation of Hamlet by Polonius in this scene. Show any of these parts or all of them, and your students should be able to see how various directors develop their own takes on the spying going on in Hamlet's Denmark.

Again after viewing the clip, question students for what they have noted on their sheets and otherwise. Again be careful to ask about the tone of the scene and what elements contribute to the creation of this atmosphere. What themes are beginning to become clear by this point in the play? Which themes does the director seem to be focusing on.

At this time, encourage students to fill in the areas of the graphic organizer they were not assigned.

Play the analogous section of a second version.

Again, discuss the elements and their relationship to the development of the tone and the resulting themes that emerge.

Finally play the additional versions you wish to show and, likewise discuss them.

When you have shown all of the clips, again debate the merits of each version, and have students support their contentions with specific references to their notes on the elements they observed and discussed.


  • Have students write a paragraph or short composition comparing the versions you viewed.

  • Have students write a reflection about which one they thought was the best depiction using specific examples they've assembled on their graphic organizers.

  • Collect the graphic organizer to evaluate for completeness and insights.

  • Assign class participation grades for student contributions to the discussion.

  • Have a student write what they think will happen in the subsequent scenes. You may open this up to the end of the play or limit of to what they think will happen immediately after the scene they viewed.

Extension Activities

1. Repeat this activity with other key scenes (Perhaps the gravediggers' scene).

2. Have students prepare their own "treatment" of 1.1 - either a live version or a video production of their own.

Online Resources

Folger Shakespeare Library:

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Full text versions of Shakespeare's plays):

The Internet Movie Database:

Absolute Shakespeare:

Shakespeare Internet Editions:

Masterpiece Theatre: Adapting Shakespeare:



Standard 1: Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.

Standard 2: Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.

Standard 3: Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).

Standard 4: Students use spoken, written and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information.

Standard 5: Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.

Standard 6: Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.

Standard 8: Students use a variety of technological and informational resources (libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.

Standard 11: Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.



Language Arts

Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process
Standard 2: Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing
Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media

World History

Standard 27: Understands how European society experienced political, economic, and cultural transformations in an age of global intercommunication between 1450 and 1750

About the Author

Tom Fitzgerald works, lives and plays in the mountains near Steamboat
Springs, Colorado. Originally from Buffalo, NY, he has been teaching
high school English for 11 years.


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