Tender is the Night, and Hamlet (Two Literary Films)

Turner Classic Movies has come through again with the recent cable premiere of a fascinating movie I didn’t even know existed: a 1962 film treatment of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night starring Jason Robards as psychiatrist Dick Diver and Jennifer Jones as his tragic patient and wife Nicole Diver.

It’s a glamour production all the way, opening with a champagne splash of bad music as the camera sweeps across the sunny vistas of the French Riviera, where most of the action between the enigmatic hero and his skittish lover takes place. Tender is the Night is Fitzgerald’s “other Gatsby”; it’s just as romantic and just as scenic, with just a shade off the sparkle, and like The Great Gatsby it presents F. Scott Fitzgerald’s nearly brutal self-portrait (Jay Gatsby the foolish millionaire, Dick Diver the decadent gigolo) as well as a cutting portrait of his wife Zelda (the impossible Daisy Buchanan, of course, and the literally insane Nicole Diver).

So this is another doomed romance, and I recommend it for the elegant dialogue, the occasional poignant Fitzgerald touch (as when Dick and Nicole’s Scottie-look-alike young daughter becomes ill after drinking whisky they’d thoughtlessly left on a table) and the powerful, surprising resolution. But I wish the acting were better; Jennifer Jones shows the dramatic range of a Barbie doll in a role with infinite possibility, and Jason Robards has no fire. I’d love to see what, say, Vivien Leigh and Humphrey Bogart could have done with these roles.

Tender is the Night was directed by Hollywood journeyman Henry King, who also directed major Hemingway films like The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea.

While we’re talking literary film on cable, I have to mention a Michael Almereyda version of Hamlet from 2000 that’s making the rounds again. I’ve written about this film before, and after another viewing I like it no less. It’s a modern-day treatment of the classic play set in corporate midtown Manhattan but with Shakespeare’s original dialogue intact. Ethan Hawke plays the melancholy prince as a bitter, vulnerable slacker, which sounds about right to me, and Julia Stiles nearly steals the show as a moody Ophelia with an apartment in the East Village. Kyle MacLachlan, Diane Verona and Bill Murray are also good, and this is probably my second-favorite film version of Hamlet, just a notch below Laurence Olivier’s canonical treatment (and I’ve seen quite a few). If you only watch one Shakespeare movie a year, make this the one.

11 Responses

  1. great discussionThanks for a
    great discussion

    Thanks for a thoughtful analysis/appreciation and some good recommendations.

    What’s the opinion here of Shakespeare (and opera for that matter) performed in modern or other staging? I have mixed feelings. It can cause a disconnect, such as when Italian opera is sung in English and the words and music don’t quite work together, or succeed brilliantly, as did the production of Macbeth on the Boston Common a few years ago – set in a fictional banana republic in the 1930s.

  2. Dan, in general I’m all for
    Dan, in general I’m all for good modern interpretations of Shakespeare and other classics. This film version of Hamlet shows how the technique can succeed: the language is preserved (to do otherwise would make it a different play) and the setting change mainly acts as a subtraction of distracting elements. Hamlet is a person like you or me, not a dandy in tights … I think this has the effect of allowing us to feel closer to the character, and to experience the drama more directly. That’s what I think, anyway.

  3. I remember seeing the 2000
    I remember seeing the 2000 Hamlet right when it hit theaters, and I hadn’t really heard a peep about it since. I liked it quite a bit, even when it misses the mark, because it approached the play as a malleable thing. Hamlet is the proto-moody slacker. In fact, if Ethan Hawke’s character from Reality Bites were to suddenly wake up as a Danish prince, he’d probably behave much like him. Also refreshing was to see Hamlet played by an actor who could actually pass for early-mid twenties.

    (And watching Hawke deliver the “to be or not to be” speech while wandering through Blockbuster Video is worth the price of admission on its own.)

    What’s interesting, though, is that as canonical as Olivier’s Hamlet is, it employs a very similar strategy. Olivier had the guts to mangle Shakespeare’s text, rearranging certain sequences, striking out entire exchanges of dialogue, recasting sotto voce asides as voice-overs and montages. (This was even more the case on Henry V, where the whole prologue is taken from a DIFFERENT PLAY.) The fact that both films have become prototypes for how to film Shakespeare obscures how radical they were. Being a theatrical wunderkind, it’s amazing that Olivier was one of the first to recognize film as a fundamentally different medium, one with different rhythms, different mythologies, where the tricks of the stage don’t necessarily work. And that if you’re going to take the trouble to adapt a theatrical production into a film, you have to be prepared to take a knife to it. Even if it is the Greatest Play in the English Language.

    I absolutely detested the Kenneth Branagh Hamlet, made just a few years before Almereyda’s. To put it bluntly, unlike Olivier and Almereyda, Branagh has no balls, and he’s terrified of cutting a single line or rearranging a single scene. The result is a laborious four-hour yawner whose only virtue is to allow prime nap time for high school English students whose teachers figure they can kill a week of classtime by showing it in installments. Branagh clearly has a genuine passion for Shakespeare, but he seems to see himself as a caretaker of his legacy, rather than a contributor to it. Hamlet is 407 years old, and it still has a lot of life left in it. But it needs fresh blood and new perspectives to survive as a living narrative, rather than a museum piece.

    That said, I don’t think an operatic libretto should ever be translated. This is because I’m a huge, huge snob.

  4. I like the 1996 modern-day
    I like the 1996 modern-day film, Romeo & Juliet. One of my favorite parts is M. Emmett Walsh as the Apothecary. When Romeo goes to him to buy poison, Walsh comes to the door with a shotgun, but they still speak the Shakespearian verse – I love it!

  5. To suck or not to suckI guess
    To suck or not to suck

    I guess I’ll be contrary and come out and say that I HATE that version of Hamlet. I’d have to watch it again to be able to get into particulars (and I’m not going to do that), since I watched it nearly six years ago back when I was in the middle of some weird Shakespeare film-watching phase that was most likely part of some weird nerdy self-challenge. I can’t say that there’s a film version of Hamlet that I truly love, and while this one isn’t the worst (I’d have to give that honor to the one I saw with Derek Jacobi overacting and rolling around in misery while wearing tights), it’s still on my list of movies I am pissed at myself for watching. I really wanted to like it because I loved the premise, and Bill Murray as Polonius? Sure, I can deal with that. I got where Ethan Hawke was going with his moody slacker Hamlet, but his performance (and therefore the rest of the film) just left me cold. I guess I think that there’s definitely a happy medium between the overacting that most actors tend to bring to Hamlet and the underacting that Hawke did. Like, fine, don’t go over the top (please!) but do something other than be so irritating that I’m torn between wanting to punch you and turn your movie off and go do something else. Having read Hamlet roughly a bajillion times (give or take a few jillion), I find the prince to be basically a decent guy caught up in the middle of some seriously terrible circumstances who is rightfully angry and confused. And while I really truly do believe that most Hamlets could stand a little more quiet seething and less SERIOUS EMOTING, I thought that Hawke never quite broke through the filmy skin of his own Gen-X angst into something touchable and human. It was a shame, because I thought that film had some potential. I will say that I thought the bit with Ophelia in the Guggenheim was really good, though.

    Someday, someone will make a version of Hamlet that takes true risks with the most hallowed text in all of English but also manages to maintain the reasons why it’s the most hallowed text in all of English in the first place. Someday, but not yet.

  6. Well, I definitely share your
    Well, I definitely share your appreciation of this fine play. In terms of overplaying/underplaying, I think Hawke’s choice allows his character to be believable. That’s how people really act when they’re sad — they sit and stare into space for an hour, and then mumble something incomprehensible. That’s Hamlet the way it oughta be, in my opinion.

    One other notable Hamlet I’ve seen, in person, was Kevin Kline (at NY Shakespeare Festival). He was good, but really I’d say Hawke was better.

  7. First, I think Ethan Hawke
    First, I think Ethan Hawke sucks big time. Secondly, although I have never seen this movie (and do not want to) there is a way to portray angst with depth and connection and then there is Ethan Hawke’s way to portray angst which doesn’t involve any depth or connection. This is pretty much the basis for his entire career.

    That is all.

  8. PS: I hate Ethan Hawke. I
    PS: I hate Ethan Hawke. I would rather eat a raw tomato than watch him, nay, think about him.

  9. Thank you!The thing is, while
    Thank you!

    The thing is, while I agree that Hamlet should be less irritatingly melodramatic (and definitely sans platinum blonde soul patch which, for some reason, Kenneth Branagh felt was necessary), and I definitely got what Ethan Hawke was going for, I just don’t agree that he actually got there. In the end, it’s just too bad that they didn’t get a better actor.

  10. Apropos of nothing, I
    Apropos of nothing, I suppose, I always thought that the ruthless corporate world would be an excellent setting for a modern take on Macbeth.

  11. In A Perfect WorldEveryone
    In A Perfect World

    Everyone would finally notice that TITN is clearly the more delicious of Fitzgerald’s offerings, nay, of all offerings.

    Also, in this utopia, Julie Taymor would be captured, given an unlimited budget, and forced to make Shakespeare films for the rest of her natural life. Longer, even, if science were to permit it.

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