Among Olivier, Gibson, and Lawrence’s film adaptations of the famous “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy in Hamlet, I find Lawrence Olivier’s version to be the most effective. The setting of Olivier’s version illustrates Hamlet’s character much more accurately. Olivier’s Hamlet teeters at the edge of a cliff, overlooking the sea. Given the opportunity to experiment with the idea of taking a step forward and end his own life, Hamlet witnesses the waves washing up the shore and hears the tide roaring in the distance. Realizing that he will not be embraced by calm water that will bring him eternal serenity if he chooses to go forward and instead be swallowed by the surge of angry waves, he finally decides that death may not be an appealing escape after all. Although Hamlet is placed in a similar dilemma in Gibson’s and Branagh’s portrayals, where he too toys with the idea of committing suicide and eventually comes to dismiss the possibility, there is no explanation of what has prompted him to take a step back. Gibson’s Hamlet is placed in a crypt, where he is left in complete solitude.
The tranquility of his surroundings and the corpses’ lack of emotions seem to be exactly the kind of peace and quiet he longs for, and yet he is seen briskly walking away from the tombs that will grant him an escape without a plausible reason. Branagh’s Hamlet has a similar flaw. He is left alone in an empty ballroom in Elsinore castle, where he is seen to be gathering his thoughts. He displays a strong inclination towards the idea of leaving his life behind once and for all, as he draws a dagger at his own reflection in the mirror, and yet, all of a sudden, he comes to the conclusion that he should continue with his life, anyway. Considering Hamlet’s indecisive character, it is very unlikely for him to make up his mind so quickly, unless something in his surroundings has made him aware of the dangers of death, consequently hindering the allure of committing suicide. Out of the three versions, Olivier’s delivery is the only one in which the setting has reasonably explained Hamlet’s final decision, as the roaring tides and waves have explicitly spelt out the awaiting perils. Therefore, I find the setting in Olivier’s version the most effective.
Apart from the setting, I also find the sound effects in Lawrence Olivier’s delivery to be far superior to those in Gibson’s and Branagh’s portrayals. Leading up to Olivier’s soliloquy, the intense music played in the background successfully signifies the ascending crisis. I am engrossed immediately, as the suspenseful music has made me acutely aware of the importance of Hamlet’s decision and whether he chooses ‘to be’ will play a huge part in the unravelling of future events. In stark contrast to the sound effects in Olivier’s version, Gibson’s and Branagh’s representations have minimal sound effects that have brought emphasis to the soliloquy. Both have incorporated the sound of echoing footsteps as Hamlet comes into play, which has achieved nothing more than to stress that Hamlet is situated in a vast open space.
For this reason, I have followed Gibson’s and Branagh’s presentations passively, as I see a young man struggling to find a motive to continue living, and I see him weighing his options, pondering on whether it is worth suffering through the sorrows that life has inflicted upon him; however, I do not see why his internal conflicts are of interest to me. I do not feel the strong urge to stop him from making an impulsive decision, as there is nothing to indicate what he eventually decides to do will ever impact the course of the play. Therefore, I find the sound effects in Olivier’s version the most effective, as it is the only one that has succeeded in highlighting the significance of Hamlet’s soliloquy.
Unlike the two components mentioned above, I find Lawrence Olivier’s performance significantly better than the others; I consider Gibson’s dramatic delivery most effective. Throughout the soliloquy, Gibson adopts a vacant expression. His eyes wander from one corner of the crypt to the other, constantly shifting his focus from one object to another. In addition, his body sways slightly as he walks down the stairs leading into the crypt, suggesting he is hardly aware of where he is going. Such an absentmindedness displays Hamlet’s weak will impeccably, as his determination is clearly shown to have been sacrificed by his aimless nature. Unlike Gibson’s approach, Olivier’s and Branagh’s Hamlet does not suffer from the loss of focus. Olivier’s eyes are downcast, staring unwaveringly into the distance, while his brows are furrowed in deep concentration.
Similar to Olivier, Branagh glares intently at his own reflection and speaks with a firm tone when criticizing the human tendency of procrastination. Both Olivier and Branagh display qualities of a person with a strong will and uncompromising determination, which unfortunately do not apply to Hamlet. For this reason, I believe Olivier’s and Branagh’s deliveries have defied the purpose of the soliloquy, as a person with a persistent, resolute nature can hardly find himself in such a dilemma in the first place. Therefore, I find Gibson’s dramatic delivery most effective, as it captures Hamlet’s hesitancy and indecision perfectly, while Olivier’s overall performance has outranked Gibson and Branagh in terms of setting and sound effects.