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Versions of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ give teen readers something to ponder

Inspired by three performances that I saw at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland this summer, I recently read a number of young adult novels based on Shakespeare’s plays. Now, with a chill in the air, three noteworthy adaptations of “Hamlet” seem particularly suited to this season of ghost stories.

One look at Australian author John Marsden’s bibliography, and it’s easy to conclude that he is the perfect candidate for turning Shakespeare’s play into a novel. Two of his titles in particular, the epistolary thriller “Letters from the Inside” and the action-packed page turner “Tomorrow When the War Began,” demonstrate Marsden’s ability to create tension, scare the reader, use ambiguity to heighten suspense and give equal energy and weight to plot and character. In the stunning opening chapter of Marsden’s newest novel, “Hamlet,” the author is at his best. From the first line, in which Horatio asks, “Do you believe in ghosts?” to the eerily evasive responses that Hamlet offers, Marsden creates an atmosphere of deep unease that persists throughout the book. He tells us to expect unanswered questions. Expect failures of communication. Expect to feel annoyed, especially with Hamlet. At the same time, Marsden injects this centuries-old story with the breath of the modern teenager. After Horatio asks his question for the fourth time, Hamlet says, “My bum’s getting sore. Let’s play football.”

I was totally engaged in Marsden’s narrative, which dips into the minds of almost every character, until I met Ophelia. The first time she appears on the page, we are inside Horatio’s head. When we finally encounter Ophelia on her own, she appears to have only one dimension, that of a lustful teen. By calling attention to the sexualized female, Marsden offers an interpretation of her relationship with Hamlet, but one I found to be in rather poor taste. I was disappointed by the depiction of a desperate, dependent, one-track-minded girl because Marsden is so good, in his other novels, at writing female characters who are strong-willed, smart and exceedingly brave. If you ask me, I think Marsden has better success creating his own characters and plots than borrowing from the bard.

Still, I can appreciate aspects of Marsden’s novel. Chilling and hopeless and bloody, it is indeed the work of a talented writer, especially on the level of language. He never deigns to comfort the reader, and he isn’t offering easy answers. He reminds me, too, that Hamlet makes a fine story for teenagers. What would you do if your uncle killed your father? Have you ever been in love? Do you believe in ghosts?

In Alan Gratz’s novel “Something Rotten,” Horatio Wilkes goes to Denmark, Tenn., to visit his grieving friend, Hamilton Prince. When two guards find a strange recording on a security camera, the boys have their mystery: Who killed Hamilton’s father? Hamilton is sure the murderer is his uncle, Claude, but Horatio insists that they gather evidence before jumping to conclusions. Gratz re-works Shakespeare’s novel in clever ways. Olivia Mendelsohn, the Ophelia character, protests pollution from the Elsinore Paper Plant, almost killing herself by purposely drinking the poisoned water. Hamilton convinces his mother he has a drinking problem, and she sends him to a rehab clinic. The novel is loaded with references, but also stands alone as a decent mystery for readers not familiar with the play. Horatio’s hard-boiled detective voice lends a dark story a welcome splash of humor and sarcasm, and though some minor characters do die, Gratz steers the plot from its tragic course by ending with the police taking the murderer into custody. Case closed.

In her historical novel “Ophelia,” Lisa Klein uses Shakespeare’s play as a skeleton around which she fleshes out her own tightly woven, imaginative story. “I had wanted to be the author of my own tale,” says narrator Ophelia, “not merely a player in Hamlet’s drama or a pawn in Claudius’ deadly game.” Framed by a letter from Horatio to Ophelia describing the horrible scene of Hamlet’s and Laertes’ fatal fencing bout, we immediately understand that this Ophelia doesn’t die when she falls in the stream. So what happened? At its core, Klein’s novel is a love story, but not a lovey-dovey one. Ophelia, lady in waiting to the queen, wins Hamlet’s heart — and his hand. With a secret marriage, a feigned death and a series of miscommunications, Klein layers her story with elements of Romeo and Juliet in ways that thicken the plot, raise the stakes, and send a happy situation spiraling out of control. When Hamlet cruelly subjects Ophelia to the madness he promises to save for his mother and Claudius, Ophelia is devastated. But she is a heroine with a good head on her shoulders and the poster girl for her father’s edict, “to thine own self be true.” Drawing on personal strengths to get herself out of trouble, Ophelia leaves Elsinore to find a new life for herself. One of Klein’s gifts as a writer is her ability to slacken the tension of one story thread while she tightens two or three others. There is never a dull moment in Ophelia. Before I even made it to the last page, I was ready for a sequel.

For other Shakespeare-inspired novels, check out Lisa Klein’s new novel, “Lady Macbeth’s Daughter,” Alan Gratz’s “Something Wicked,” Jody Gehrman’s “Confessions of a Triple Shot Betty” (based on “Much Ado About Nothing”), and “Saving Juliet” by Suzanne Selfors.

For free showings of movies related to Shakespeare’s plays at the Community Center at Mercer View, see the Fall 2009 Classics on Film series offerings at www.mercergov.org.

Island native Galen Longstreth holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults and a master’s degree in early childhood and elementary education. She lives in Highland Park, N.J.

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