A Hamlet Story

If you read a story (or see a film) and then somebody says, “Did you know that was based on Hamlet?” then what you’ll do is run it back over in your brain and spot all the spots where it wasn’t. Take for example Lion King, which I saw without even considering a Hamlet connection. Where’s the Ophelia character? Polonius? The relationship between Gertrude and Claudius? Some of them are stretched – are Timon and Poomba *really* supposed to be Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? Or is this a case where they said “Uncle kills father, son avenges” and then just made up the rest?
However – what if somebody tells you to read story X, because it’s based on Hamlet. Then you’ve got a whole different ball game. Such is the case with The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. This is not my review of that book, which will come when I finish it. Think of this as the intro material that would have padded my review when I finally did get around to it.
If you know you’re reading a Hamlet story, then every plot device, every new character, you find yourself saying “Who is that supposed to be? What’s happening here?” A grandfather? There’s no grandfather in Hamlet, he must not be relevant. Oh look a random hippie chick? That’s weird. Wonder if she’ll be Ophelia. It’s like a mystery story. When the dad dies – because we all know the dad dies, I hope – you get to sit there and wonder “How did he die? Did the brother do it? Will we learn that the brother did it? What’s the wife’s relationship to the brother?”
Hamlet shows us the dynamics of just about every family relationship – husbands and wives, fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, brothers (Claudius and King Hamlet), sisters (Laertes and Ophelia). It would be difficult to tell a family drama/tragedy and not be able to say “Oh, yeah, a little bit like Hamlet.” Rivalry between brothers? A son with an absent father figure and mother issues? Family members who don’t want the daughter to go with the man she chooses? All there.
We already know that this is done ad nauseam with Romeo and Juliet – every “they can’t be together, oh the tragedy!” love story ever written has made the comparison.
But are there others? Does anybody ever write an Othello story, or a Macbeth story?

11 thoughts on “A Hamlet Story

  1. I usually see this done (adapting a Shakestory) in film. Both Othello and Macbeth have been reinterpreted. Macbeth always seems to become a mob movie (Joe Macbeth, Men of Respect). Interestingly, what you seem to find appealing (the mystery of linking the works) always makes me cringe, especially when the correlations are so obvious: this guy is Hamlet, this one is Ophelia, and here's how they're doing the nunnery scene. I feel like, "Yeah, I already know this story." And I think I feel kind of cheated. In this kind of adaptation (or really any kind of adaptation), I really want to see something different. Here's the Hamlet story, but this time, the Hamlet character kills his uncle in the first act. I like to see a familiar story go in a different direction. And all too often, that doesn't happen.

  2. An adaptation can turn as far as it wants and still claim its inspiration as heritage, but adaptations can never be the "same" story.
    Lion King isn't really a good example because it's not so much a Hamlet story as it is a hero's journey/coming of age story (It's more like Star Wars). It just shares a common plot point with Hamlet. Now, if the makers of Lion King deliberately set out to write their story with Hamlet in mind, then maybe it could be claim its ancestry with Hamlet. But I don't think they did.

    An interesting adaptation to look at would be Kurosawa'a The Bad Sleep Well, which shares some of the plot points and themes of Hamlet, but Kurosawa does very different things with the story. I guess we could call it a "loose" adaptation.

    An even bigger question to consider is how Shakes himself adapted the source material for his Hamlet. How did he change the plot, etc? Should we consider Shakes' Hamlet as an adaptation? If so, does that have any bearing on adaptations of Shakes' Hamlet?

    Interesting stuff. Thanks for this post. I don't get to talk about Shakes stuff enough.

  3. Even if the Lion King makers did start with Hamlet, there's so little there in the final product that I don't think it even counts as an adaptation. One small plot thread that in itself even varies from Shakes (i.e. the ghost of Simba's father doesn't even call for revenge) isn't enough for me to make it an adaptation. So that still begs your original question, "how much needs to be there for it to be an adaptation?"

  4. But Ed, how far can it turn from the original story and still be the story? What key elements have to be there before we can say yes this is a Hamlet story, or no it's not?

    In a way we're saying the same thing — by wondering "who is Ophelia?" and "how does the king die?" I'm not saying that I assume those things will proceed apace, filling in the blanks in a template. The mystery starts with *if* that will happen. Will the hippie chick be an Ophelia character? Was Hamlet's father poisoned? The story could suddenly take a turn, the son could kill the uncle, and I'd never see it coming.

  5. Though I can't definitively link to proof, multiple references cite that the original author – Thomas Disch – did have Hamlet in mind as his inspiration. The filmmakers apparently confirm this, presumably in some sort of voiceover, in the Platinum Edition DVD (which I do not have, and also why I cannot link it). Unless it's mentioned in the original treatment I wouldn't consider it proof, but it's something.

  6. Putting Bacon aside for the moment (even though it is Groundhog's Day), Kenneth Rothwell has the clearest, most useful classification system for this sort of thing. Adaptation and Derivatives are the two main categories, and that terminology helps enormously in talking about different appearances of Shakespeare in everything from stage to film to television and beyond!


    I've pondered the "how far can you go and still have it be Shakespeare" question a bit here:


    Thanks, Shakespeare Geek, for another thrilling conversation on your blog!


  7. "…how much needs to be there for it to be an adaptation?"

    Enough for them to be able to market it and get a "Shakespeare connection" (or something) which lends more credibility, and, as you've both pointed out, many times is very little more than an ancillary connection at best.

    Shakespeare is Kevin Bacon 🙂

  8. Thanks kj. Really informative. I'm going to look for the book.
    But it does still leave some things up for debate, no? And people trying to sell an idea can sometimes suffer from a lack of discretionary tactics, shall we say? 🙂

  9. I just stumbled upon this blog by accident but am thrilled to have done so – especially on this topic. I'm a novelist (HarperCollins publishes me) and I just turned in a manuscript: Othello, as a novel, from Iago's point of view. The point of view is the only reinterpretation. The second half of the novel is almost beat for beat what happens in the play.
    And yet it's not at all Othello, because nothing is Othello except Othello. It is not even "an Othello story." It's "a story with Othello's plot." Academic categorizations aside, on a FEELING level, even the exact story of Othello is not Shakespeare because, well, it's not Shakespeare. Any more than any production of Othello today is the original production of Othello.
    I LOVE experiencing "Shakespeare-based" stories but at the end of the day, they're not Shakespeare. If you compare A Thousand Acres to King Lear, King Lear is a better King Lear, and A Thousand Acres is a better modern novel. Sorry to sound tautological…

  10. Welcome Nicole! Somewhere kicking around here we've got an Othello story – I think it was Alexi's original idea – linking Othello to Merchant of Venice.

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