Of all of William Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet has received the most on-screen adaptations. There have been over 50 film versions produced since the advent of cinema, dating as far back as 1900. The role of the brooding Danish prince has been filled by everyone from Lawrence Olivier to a black turtleneck-clad Ethan Hawke.
Hamlet, as the title suggests, traditionally centres around Hamlet, the medieval prince of Denmark who is thrust into the spotlight when his father dies. Suspecting that his uncle Claudius and mother Gertrude, now lovers, may have plotted to murder the king, he spends most of the play waffling over what do do about it. It’s a story about a young man’s difficult coming of age that’s inextricably woven into our cultural fabric. Even if you slept through English class, you can quote snippets of the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. Less ubiquitous, however, are references to poor Ophelia, Hamlet’s love interest who spends much of the play offscreen, only to be ghosted, and driven very publicly insane before her suicide.
In many ways, Ophelia’s story has always been one that resonated: Dr. Mary Pipher’s seminal 1994 book Reviving Ophelia: Saving The Selves Of Adolescent Girls, used her as a foil to explore the idea of the overlooked teenage girl. Onstage and in film, the role of Ophelia has been an important one, providing meaty opportunities for the likes of Kate Winslet and Helena Bonham Carter. She’s been a frequent subject of Victorian paintings, parsed by hundreds of academic texts, and inspired countless characters in pop culture. But we still don’t really know her beyond what she represents in the context of a male-dominated play.
It’s that narrative that writer Semi Chellas (Mad Men, The Romanoffs), wanted to challenge in Ophelia, the latest adaptation of the famed tragedy, directed by Claire McCarthy. Adapted from Lisa Klein’s 2006 novel by the same name, the film stars Daisy Ridley as an Ophelia for the 21st century: far from being a passive player in someone else’s story, she’s assertive, intelligent and sure of what she wants. Likewise, Naomi Watts’ Queen Gertrude, a character long relegated to the category of bad moms, gets the kind of redemptive arc only a female lens can provide. Having been stuck in an unhappy marriage to Hamlet’s father, her sexual attraction and love for Claudius (Clive Owen) is told with layered, empathetic understanding that complicates our understanding of the original story. Rounding off the cast are Tom Felton as Laertes, Devon Terrell as Horatio, Dominic Mafham as Polonius, and George McKay as Hamlet — in this case a mere footnote.
So, how does one go about finding those kernels of Ophelia and Gertrude’s personalities within Hamlet’s mansplain-y whining? Ahead, Semi Chellas tells Refinery29 about the daunting task of re-writing Shakespeare, the secret language she discovered within the original text, and what literary figures she might want to tackle next.
Refinery29: Ophelia’s a side-character in Hamlet, and you don’t really think all that much about her after she dies. Your version of Ophelia is very different.
Semi Chellas: “I loved the idea of coming in from the side on this famous story that everybody might know, and just blowing it up and telling it in a totally new way. It’s a story of someone who’s in love with a handsome prince, that same story that we all get imprinted with, but also she has her own agenda. The Ophelia that Daisy Ridley inhabits so beautifully is a woman who thinks for herself, has got a good head on her shoulders — she’s the opposite in some ways of the traditional Hamlet who is gun-shy, and debating what to do, and very inactive. She takes charge.”
What was the process of digging for Ophelia’s story within Shakespeare’s work?
I’m a research nerd. It’s part of my process to swim so much in the research for something that I have to come up for air by writing a script. And there’s probably more writing about Hamlet than anything else I’ve ever touched on. I re-read the play, and the whole world started coming alive, and I was like, Okay, I’ve got this figured out, I’ve got an outline, I’ve done all my research, and I sat down. And then, I suddenly went Wait — I have to write around what Shakespeare wrote?! I have to re-write scenes that you know by heart, even if you don’t think you do. They’re in our language! So, that was pretty daunting.”
There’s something very contemporary about the idea that the stories we’ve been told for so long sideline women, and that we can now reclaim them.
“It’s literally like, What if we made this person the main character in her own life? What would the story look like from that point of view? It’s not even so much changing it as just saying: What if it mattered more? And Ophelia’s not even royal — she’s a lady in waiting, she’s an outsider. It’s taking this character who’s in the margins — literally most of the things she says in the play are offstage — and putting her centerstage.”
It really makes you think about whose stories get told and why, and who it is that we deem important.
“Even within this story, you have Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, who has a juicy part in the play but again, she is moved from sort of marginal character right into the centerstage of the movie. Naomi Watts inhabited her so beautifully, and when you tell her from her perspective, it turns out there’s a very different set of reasons behind [her actions] from what you might think coming out of Shakespeare.”
Her character is particularly interesting because in the play, she’s the villain. She’s the unfeeling mother who abandons her son for sex. But in the movie, you frame her as a woman who’s in an unhappy marriage, and has been deprived of sexual satisfaction for such a long time — of course she’s going to take it when she gets it!
“Isn’t she allowed to be sexually fulfilled? What’s wrong with that? She falls in love with Clive Owen, for god’s sake, the sexiest man on the screen. Maybe there’s a reason that unfolded that way, and before we judge, we need to look at what’s happening. Her son has been the center of her world, and he’s coming of age, he’s starting to reject her, and obviously, he’s fallen in love with a young woman. [Gertrude] is struggling with a different kind of coming-of-age of her own. And I think that’s an interesting story that doesn’t often get told. She’s been cast as the villain, and has been thrown around in productions, and treated very badly.
“Some of the best productions of Shakespeare that I’ve seen in my life have brought me into re-thinking of how radical Shakespeare was when he was writing, and so much of the discussion that we’re bringing out in this movie is really contained within it. It’s not the cliche version, there’s something very vibrant about these stories he’s telling. And for Ophelia, it’s a young woman who’s like, ‘I haven’t been born into these advantages and I know what I want — what’s the best way to get it?’” That’s something that never goes out of fashion.”
Was there anything in the original text that surprised you this time around, or that you found particularly subversive?
“The one thing I thought was really cool is that Ophelia in the play has this song about all the flowers, and you learn in English [class], ‘Oh this flower means this, and this flower means that.’ But the truth is that what she’s doing with the herbs and flowers when she tells the story really bears on a lot of non-conventional knowledge of plant life and nature. And I went down a total rabbit hole [and found out] it was the women in those times who kept this knowledge of what plants healed, what plants would help ailments, and they had their own world — Ophelia’s drawing on that when she sings the song of the flowers basically [speaking] in a kind of code that might only be understood by some of the wiser women. She’s accusing people of murder, and she’s doing it in this beautiful language of the flowers.”
Has this experience made you want to free other forgotten literary figures from obscurity?
“Well, I just re-read Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, two centuries-old stories of women who go against the grain of society, and with both of them I was like, What they would [these stories] look like told now through the lens of the last few years?”
What do you hope young women take away from the film?
“I hope that young women will watch it and feel like you don’t have to know or care about Shakespeare —it’s a story that you can just get if you’ve ever been a teenage girl trying to sort out how to balance the biggest crush with the life you’re leading and coming of age, and realising that the adults around you may not be what you thought. That part of the story could be told in any time, and I hope that that’s the part of the story that people connect with. It’s such a formative moment in any woman’s life, and another important moment is the one that Queen Gertrude is going through, as she faces her son growing up and this coming of age in her own way. I really hope that people see that in both cases, these women think for themselves and take control of their lives.”
OPHELIA is out in US cinemas now (UK release TBC)