10. Adrian Lester as Hamlet, in The Tragedy of Hamlet (2002)
I find it hard to look away from Lester’s Hamlet—either in his monologue above, or in the full filmed version of Peter Brook’s truncated, transposed version of the play. He is a thoughtful version of the Prince, magnetic and obsessed with his questioning of everything around him.
9. Mel Gibson as Hamlet, in Hamlet (1990)
Mel Gibson is a worse person that Kenneth Branagh, admittedly. But in the pantheon of Approved Best Hamlets, he makes a better, more natural one. Even with that awful haircut.
8. Andrew Scott as Hamlet, in Hamlet (2017)
Hot Priest, Hot Hamlet. (And a weird, thrilling, perfectly unhinged Hamlet too. The fingers!) Suffers a little in the rankings because I can’t watch a full version, but the clips have me convinced he’s worthy of the top ten.
7. Shahid Kapoor as Haider Meer in Haider (2014)
The third in Vishal Bhardwaj’s trilogy of Shakespeare adaptations drops Hamlet into violence-plagued Kashmir in 1995; Kapoor is a much less conflicted Hamlet than we’re used to (I suppose the conflicts of the setting are quite enough to be getting on with), he’s radical and compelling enough that I really don’t miss the agonizing. (I couldn’t find a clip with English subtitled, but this version is on Netflix—do yourself a favor and check it out.)
6. Asta Nielsen as Hamlet, in Hamlet: The Drama of Vengeance (1921)
Asta Nielsen is not just a woman playing Hamlet; the inspiration for this (silent!) interpretation of Hamlet comes explicitly from a railway engineer named Edward P. Vining, who in 1881 published a book called The Mystery of Hamlet: An Attempt to Solve an Old Problem. In it, he theorizes that Hamlet is a woman—and was always a woman, but raised outwardly as a man so she could inherit the crown. Shakespeare didn’t mean to write Hamlet as a woman, Vining assures us, but it just sorta happened because Hamlet ended up so weak and ineffectual and stuff. “Very possibly the poet half juggled with himself in the matter,” Vining writes. (I mean look, we’ve all been there: once in college I wrote a whole paper on how Caliban was a veiled representation of the Feminine Other and my professor’s comment on the bottom was “Isn’t it easier if he’s just a monster?” I got an A-, though.) Anyway, Nielsen caught wind of this, and loved it, and set up a production company to build the film from the ground up. The result is pretty astounding: moody and gorgeous. You don’t even miss the soliloquy. You can watch the whole thing here, or in English (but sans music) here.
5. Ethan Hawke as Hamlet in Hamlet, also known as Hamlet 2000 (2000)
It’s not that it’s good. I mean, look, Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy happens as a partial voice-over in a Blockbuster. But on the other hand, Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy happens as a partial voice-over in a Blockbuster. And in that hat. With The Crow: City of Angels playing on the television. Oh no, I love it. So, you see my dilemma here.
4. David Tennant as Hamlet, in Hamlet (2009)
There have been plenty of celebrity Hamlets over the years, and for my money, Tennant—in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2008 award-winning stage production, which was adapted into film the next year—is the biggest payoff. Tennant is sneakily good in everything, but you wouldn’t think he’d be an obvious Great Hamlet. You’d be wrong not to, though—his performance is moving and energetic and very funny. He’s not as deep as Hamlet sometimes is, but he’s about as engaging as possible. Robert McCrum, not for nothing, called him the greatest Hamlet of his generation, and I wouldn’t argue—at least not yet. The shirt’s also doing a lot of work.
3. Simba in The Lion King (1994)
You all knew The Lion King was (loosely) based on Hamlet, right? “When we first pitched the revised outline of the movie . . . someone in the room announced that its themes and relationships were similar to Hamlet,” director Rob Minkoff said. “Everyone responded favorably to the idea that we were doing something Shakespearean, so we continued to look for ways to model our film on that all-time classic.” It also once had a . . . very different, and very Hamlet-ish ending, with Scar crowing “Goodnight, sweet prince.”
2. Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, in Hamlet (1948)
The sterling Hamlet, against which all other performances are held. For me, it’s a bit stodgy, but even so it’s hard to beat it—after all, when Olivier won the Academy Award for best actor in a leading role, he became the first actor to direct himself to that honor. “Once you have played it, it will devour you and obsess you for the rest of your life,” Olivier wrote of the role later in life. “It has me. I think each day about it. I’ll never play him again, of course, but by God, I wish I could.” You can tell.
1. Innokenty Smoktunovsky as Hamlet, in Hamlet (1964)
Even in Russian, I can tell this Hamlet slaps—finally, a soliloquy completely bereft of actor-induced melodrama (except for those shoulders, which are truly divine in their outrageousness). Even Olivier said that Smoktunovsky was the best. The film itself is gorgeous; director Grigori Kosintsev wrote it with Boris Pasternak, which makes me more sorry than usual (I’m a Master and Margarita fan, okay) not to speak Russian.
Honorable Mention: The Skinhead Hamlet, by Richard Curtis (1981)