Friday, November 20, 2009

John Marsden's Hamlet

As soon as I saw that John Marsden had written his own prose version of Hamlet, I knew I had to check it out. You know John Marsden, author of the hugely bestselling Tomorrow Series and The Ellie Chronicles? Yep, that John Marsden. The man knows how to write a good story, so bring him on board with one of the most known Shakespearean plays, and I had a hunch that good things were in store for readers.

I thought right.

I imagine a plot teaser isn't really necessary for this one, because Marsden sticks very close to the events as they happen in the play, just one reason why high school students everywhere will be cheering. Certainly, this retelling of the play will be the saving grace for many an English student who needs a little 21st century language to really get the Dane, in all of his half-crazed glory. I confess that it's been a while since I've read Hamlet, but I couldn't identify any grand departures from the original plot in Marsden's book. You get into the minds of the characters differently, of course, compared to the insights you get through the bard's poetry. I felt this especially with Horatio and Ophelia. I had greater understanding of their motivations and character though Marsden's book, though they were true to the way I remembered the characters in the play. He also succeeds in capturing the intense moodiness and sense of foreboding from the play. Even though most readers will know what's coming, you will feel tension from the first chapter.

Marsden's style seems made for telling this kind of intensely dramatic and bleak tale. His description is outstanding. Take this passage that comes just after Hamlet has climbed down after looking out over the land from the castle tower:

Against the rich green grass and the close horizon, the lowering clouds, pregnant with storm and snow, against the white windmill and the stone tower, Hamlet was all that moved. His white hair and white shirt held the eye; a line could be drawn between him and the windmill and the dark tower, the last two heavy and immovable, the other too light, too bright: nothing to hold it down to the earth. He slipped in the mud and rolled down the hill but was up again as he spun, flitting, flying. He was alive and hopeless.

There are many passages as good as that. The writing feels charged and direct, just the right fit for the story being told. Another impressive accomplishment is the way that Marsden weaves in lines from the play in such a convincingly seamless way that they feel a natural part of the dialogue. You'll recognize some of the more famous lines scattered throughout the text. There's a strong erotic element to the novel as well. It's pretty sexy, which might not work for everyone, but in my view, it didn't feel out of place in the novel.

I feel compelled to mention that the US cover is nothing to the cover on my copy, purchased in Canada, which is called Hamlet & Ophelia. Take a look:

That just says dark and brooding and rotten to me. Don't you think? I vote for this one rather than good ol' Yorrick. Either way, definitely read this book. Your English teacher might even ask you if she can borrow it.

Published in Canada by Harper Collins, and in the U.S. by Candlewick

1 comment :

Teresa Kravtin said...

Here, here! I totally agree. I really liked this retelling of Hamlet, sensuous overtones and all. I picked it up after I rejected a snarky teenager "gossip girl" like novel, and wasn't at all disappointed. I was thankful for the quality writing. Recommended.