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 Sir Laurence Olivier's name as the winner.
When the movie was released, Sir 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".
Sir Laurence Olivier was forty-one when this movie was released. Eileen Herlie, who played Hamlet's mother Gertrude, was thirty. 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 eleven years younger than her "son" when Hamlet was played by Olivier, she was seven years older than Burton.
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.
Ethel Barrymore, whose late younger brother John Barrymore was considered the great Hamlet of the twentieth century along with that of Sir John Gielgud, denounced Sir Laurence Olivier and his movie. Ironically, Olivier's Hamlet had been influenced by Barrymore, whose Hamlet he had seen in London.
This is the only movie version of "Hamlet" that entirely omits the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Sir Laurence Olivier was severely criticized for leaving them out of the movie, 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", et cetera) and gave them to Polonius.
Sir Laurence Olivier played the voice of Hamlet's father's ghost by recording the dialogue 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 movies, and turned down his request to play the Chorus in Henry V (1944). Gielgud later played the Ghost in Hamlet (1964) and ITV Sunday Night Theatre: Hamlet (1970).
Because they wanted to aim at a wider public in this movie 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 supporting character of Ophelia Frump in The Addams Family (1964), played by Carolyn Jones in a dual role with Morticia Addams, is a specific spoof of Jean Simmons' Ophelia from this movie version of Hamlet.
Initially, Sir 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 (1951). By casting himself in the lead, however, he was able to secure the necessary financing.
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.
In retrospect, many cinephiles believe that The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) would have been the rightful winner of the Best Picture Oscar. At the time, however, John Huston's win for Best Director was considered an upset, as Sir Laurence Olivier was primed to be a triple crown winner, having captured two statuettes for his performance and his production.
With this movie, then three time Best Actor Oscar nominee Sir Laurence Olivier became the first Best Actor nominee to be nominated for Best Director, as well as the first Best Actor nominee to direct a Best Picture nominee (and winner). He also became the first Best Actor nominee to win the the Best Actor Academy Award for the first time from his fourth nomination.
Two of the five Best Picture nominees were from Great Britain, this movie and The Red Shoes (1948), a preview of things to come during the "British Invasion" that began in 1963, wherein British-made movies began to dominate the Academy Awards for much of the next decade.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The final scene to be filmed was the famous shot of Sir 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.
The scene of Ophelia drowning shows her floating down the river with flowers strewn over her dress and around her body, rendering the scene thus reminiscent of the 1851-2 painting "Ophelia" by Sir John Everett Millais.