Some purists look down on movie adaptations of William Shakespeare's plays, as if serious artists hadn't made truly great works within the genre - think of Laurence Olivier's brooding "Richard III' or Orson Welles's explosive "Othello," for instance.
Sometimes the argument against Shakespearean cinema is more specific, centering on the scene-cutting and text-trimming that such films often indulge - as if most stage productions didn't do this too, and as if pictures like Olivier's reshuffled "Hamlet" and Welles's stitched-together "Falstaff" weren't excellent all the same.
This said, some adaptations are obviously more successful than others. The latest to arrive, a new "Hamlet" and "Love's Labour's Lost," drastically shorten the Bard's originals. They also do the kinds of chronological updating and geographical transplanting that invite charges of gimmickry and superficiality. But this is all they have in common. "Hamlet," by American experimentalist Michael Almereyda, is bold and beautiful. "Love's Labour's Lost," by British writer-director-actor Kenneth Branagh, is a mishmash.
The new Hamlet is the third of the past decade, following an ornate rendering by Franco Zeffirelli (with Mel Gibson as the melancholy Dane) and an equally lavish edition (with uncut text) by Branagh himself. To introduce Almereyda's version by describing its most conspicuous changes - the action is moved to modern-day Manhattan, the Ghost is spotted on a video-surveillance camera, and so on - is to make it sound tricky and artificial, when in fact it's the opposite. Metropolises like New York are the world's postindustrial power centers, after all, and if a restless ghost did show up with something to say, it's likely an alert security system would announce his arrival.
But more important than the trappings of this "Hamlet" is what Almereyda does with them. Earlier films he's directed ("Nadja," "The Eternal") have weighed down his highly inventive visual style with lackluster scripts. Even in severely shortened form, "Hamlet" provides him with transcendent dramatic material that's also ideally suited to his vision of our world as a dark, dreamlike domain where distinctions between reality and illusion are often impossible to grasp.
Add a well-chosen cast - Ethan Hawke as the tragic hero, Julia Stiles as Ophelia, the versatile Bill Murray as Polonius - and you have the most sensitive and audacious "Hamlet" since Ingmar Bergman unveiled his avant-garde stage version years ago.
Shakespeare helped put Branagh on the moviemaking map when his overrated "Henry V" reached the screen in 1989. Follow-ups like "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Hamlet" have done less for his career, and Love's Labour's Lost isn't very memorable, either.
Not that the new picture, about a King who decides to substitute philosophizing for partying, lacks color and liveliness. Moving the comedy to the 1930s era, Branagh telegraphs its basic story with "newsreels" full of background information - a useful "Shakespeare for Dummies" device - and energizes the action with quickly paced editing.
In a maneuver that makes Almereyda's innovations seem tame, he also spices the picture with frequent musical numbers. Shakespeare fans may groan, but George Gershwin and Cole Porter fans have every reason to cheer - unless they care about the context surrounding their favorite songs, in which case they'll groan, too, since Branagh has evidently thought more about the songs' rhythms than their meanings.
When he punches up the film's climax with a bouncy rendition of "There's No Business Like Show Business," one suspects he's trying to convince us we're being far more entertained than we actually are.
*'Hamlet,' rated R, contains violence. 'Love's Labour's Lost,' rated PG, contains a suggestive dance number.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society