Review: Falling for Hamlet by Michelle Ray

Falling for Hamlet by Michelle Ray. Little, Brown, and Company, 2011. Currently available.

Genre: YA Fiction

Face Value: Oh my goodness. Here we have a severe example of the male gaze ruining a book cover. As Sarah so beautifully said when she saw this cover, “It’s all about the butt.” The focal point of the photograph is Ophelia’s bum, decked out in a teeny tiny school girl skirt, and ever-so-casually jutting out toward the viewer. And let’s face it: that plaid print is only emphasizing her bottom. My problem with this cover is that it is trying so hard to look sexy and mysterious and dark – but it doesn’t reflect the point of view of the story. This version of Hamlet is told from Ophelia’s point of view. If this picture were to reflect that point of view, it would be less about making Ophelia look alluring and more about Hamlet. It should be a picture of Hamlet looking disheveled, sexy, and little crazy-eyed. There should be something about the image that captivates us and helps us understand Ophelia’s unhealthy obsession with the troubled prince.

Does it break the slate? Even though Falling for Hamlet tries really hard to be a more Slatebreaking version of the tale, it falls short. In her author’s note, Michelle Ray explained that she was inspired to write this book after seeing a production of Hamlet in which Ophelia’s character transformation felt unmotivated and unexplained. Ray carefully crafted this narrative to tell the story from Ophelia’s point of view, and it did give me a different perspective on the story – but it didn’t change the power dynamics at play. Hamlet and Polonius and Claudius still had control over Ophelia’s life in alarming ways. Even though Ophelia’s voice has been honored, her impulses to challenge authority are still quieted by the forces at work in the world around her. There is certainly Slatebreaking intent behind Ray’s retelling of this play, but she chose to stick closely to the events of the original and thus eliminated possibilities for Ophelia to make different choices as the story unfolds. There is one huge difference between this version and the original story, and I’m going to share it now because even though it is a spoiler it’s not going to ruin the book for you: Ophelia lives. She orchestrates a fake accident to make it look like she’s dead. In other circumstances, this would be so totally Slatebreaking. But here, Ophelia cannot arrange this independently. She has to go to the men who still have some influence (Hamlet, Horatio, and the body guard Marcellus) to make it happen. It is a disappointing twist in the tale that made me feel even more morose about Ophelia’s absolute powerlessness in her world.

Who would we give it to? You know those drama kids in high school who wore funky clothing and read Shakespeare for fun and thought they were soooooo cultured? (I, um, may or may not have been one of them.) Give this book to one of those kids and they will love you for it.

Review: Falling for Hamlet is a contemporary re-imagining of Shakespeare’s play. I was excited to read this book because I’ve seen and read Hamlet more times than I can count, and I was eager for a fresh look at a familiar story. Sarah and I also recently visited Elsinore. The real Elsinore, which is actually Helsingor, Denmark. Seriously. I can prove it. Here’s a picture of me in front of the castle:

Yep, that’s where Shakespeare set his story. So I’ve been pretty enthusiastic about Hamlet lately. When I picked up Falling for Hamlet, I was hoping that Michelle Ray’s version of the story would somehow magically cast a spell over the story and make it exciting, Slatebreaking, and totally contemporary, while still maintaining the spirit of the classic at its heart. It did not live up to my expectations, but there were certainly some engaging qualities about the book.

When Ray decided to take on the task of adapting the tale to a contemporary setting, she tried to stay true to the events and circumstances of the play. In some instances, Ray’s efforts to set the story in current times worked very well. All of the circumstances involving Wittenberg, and Hamlet and Horatio’s time there, felt like a natural fit with contemporary life. Ophelia’s role as a listless teenager unsure about her future also worked well in a twenty-first century context. And then there were the moments when the contemporary adaptation was so jarring that I just couldn’t handle it. For example: Ophelia’s “mad with grief” scene becomes drunken midnight wandering through the castle, during which she doodles flowers on the hands and arms of those she encounters. The final fencing scene is now a lacrosse match for charity, in which Laertes has attached a poisoned blade to the end of his stick. The whole thing was so over-the-top that I couldn’t help but laugh as I read the grisly scene. By the end of the match, everyone was either bleeding from stab wounds or foaming at the mouth from ingesting poison. On a lacrosse field. In public. With the media watching. Oh, and it was all captured on video thanks to Horatio’s snazzy cell phone – and there’s no doubt the clip went viral on YouTube.

Michelle Ray was very successful at building up a believable atmosphere in which this story could take place. Ophelia gets mixed up with the royal family of Denmark because her father is an advisor to the king, and the resulting media attention makes her life much more complicated than the average teen’s. Her relationship with Hamlet is tainted by doubt, distance, and the paparazzi. I found the world of this story to be so oppressive and dark that it affected my mindset – I experienced very disturbing dreams for a few nights while I was reading it. Although those dreams were weird, I appreciated how effective this atmosphere of misery and deception was at making this story believable in a modern time frame.

It can’t be easy to be a member of a royal family, or to be romantically associated with one. Ophelia’s role as Hamlet’s civilian girlfriend was certainly a trying one – and it helped make her descent into depression and insanity more believable. Frankly, I don’t know how anyone stays sane with the paparazzi around.  Working the media into the story worked for updating the story to contemporary times, but it severely detracted from Ophelia’s potential as a Slatebreaking character. Although the story was told from her perspective, it didn’t empower her as a character. Her concern with media commentary on her morality and sexuality led to her betrayal of Hamlet and her ultimate retreat from public life. In my mind, a more Slatebreaking version of Ophelia would have stood up to those who pressured her to build a more demure public persona.

Although Ophelia wasn’t as bold or as Slatebreaking as I hoped she might be, Falling for Hamlet is still a pleasant surprise of a novel. It is worth reading to see how contemporary authors can still find inspiration in Shakespeare’s storylines. Although the book mostly stays true to the plotline of the play, it also covers new ground and gets at themes that are pertinent to our technology-laden, social media-embedded lives.

Reviewed from library copy.

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