One of the William Shakespeare purists who criticized this shorn-down version of the play was Ethel Barrymore, who complained that it wasn't as faithful as the stage version produced on Broadway in 1922, in which her brother John Barrymore played Hamlet. Ethel Barrymore was the presenter of the Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards that year and was visibly shaken when she read out Laurence Olivier's name as the winner.
Laurence Olivier was 41 when "Hamlet" was released. Eileen Herlie, who played Hamlet's mother Gertrude, was 30. Herlie also played Gertrude on Broadway in 1964 with Richard Burton's Hamlet (1964), which was filmed and shown in a limited release. Whereas she was 11 years younger than her "son" when Hamlet was played by Olivier, she was seven years older than Burton.
When the movie was released Laurence Olivier said it had been filmed in black and white for artistic reasons. The true reason, as he later admitted, was that "I was in the middle of a furious row with Technicolor".
This is the only major film version of "Hamlet" that entirely omits the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Laurence Olivier was severely criticized for leaving them out of the film, as they provide many opportunities for Hamlet to behave in a sarcastically humorous way toward them, and many felt that Olivier probably would have played these moments brilliantly. However, Olivier did retain a few of Guildenstern's lines ("put your discourse into some frame", etc.) and gave them to Polonius.
Greatly influenced by the inventive camera effects that Orson Welles and Gregg Toland pioneered in Citizen Kane (1941), and by the psychological reinterpretations of the play that were being floated at the time.
Laurence Olivier played the voice of Hamlet's father's ghost himself by recording the dialog and playing it back at a reduced speed, giving it a macabre quality. The role is often erroneously reported as being performed by Sir John Gielgud, perhaps because it does sound vaguely like him, but it has been said that Olivier actually disliked working with Gielgud in William Shakespeare films, and turned down his request to play the Chorus in Henry V (1944). If Gielgud had played the Ghost in Hamlet (1948), it would have been the first of three appearances (so to speak) as the character: Gielgud played the Ghost in Hamlet (1964) and ITV Sunday Night Theatre: Hamlet (1970).
Because they wanted to aim at a wider public in Hamlet (1948) than they had in Henry V (1944), Sir Laurence Olivier and text adaptor Alan Dent modernized and/or clarified several obscure phrases in the play: "The cock, that is the trumpet to the morn" became "The cock, that is the herald to the morn", "recks not his own rede" became "minds not his own creed", "In the same figure, like the King that's dead" became "in the same figure, like the dead King Hamlet", and "It may be, very like" became "It may be, very likely", among others.
The play probably opened no later than 1601 in London, with William Shakespeare himself playing the part of the Ghost and Richard Burbage playing Hamlet. It was first published in 1602 with the title "The Tragical History of Hamlet Prince of Denmark," but that version was probably based on reports of speeches as delivered on stage, and bears little resemblance to modern versions. Modern texts are based more on the second version published in 1604 and a version published in 1623, each containing lines not in the other's text.
Initially, Laurence Olivier was not keen on producing "Hamlet". Although he wanted to repeat the success of Henry V (1944), he found that the Danish play was the only really viable choice, as Orson Welles had just done Macbeth (1948) and was prepping Othello (1952). By casting himself in the lead, however, he was able to secure the necessary financing.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
The final scene to be filmed was the famous shot of Laurence Olivier jumping off a high tower onto Claudius and killing him, because it was considered to be so dangerous that it was feared that Olivier would injure himself too badly performing the stunt to film any other scenes. Olivier emerged uninjured from the leap, but the stuntman doubling as Claudius was knocked out from the impact and lost two teeth.