According to family legend, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were responsible for my mother's having failed her English Literature A-Level, for which "Hamlet" was a set text. Rather than read Shakespeare's original she prepared for the exam by watching Laurence Olivier's film version, which was playing at her local cinema, several times. Unfortunately, she failed to realise that Olivier had used an abridged version of the text so was quite unable to answer a question about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who do not appear in the film.
I mention this anecdote because Tom Stoppard's play "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" revolves around the idea of taking these two minor characters, so minor that Olivier could afford to omit them altogether, and making them his protagonists. Another minor figure, the Player King, plays an important role, but some of Shakespeare's major characters, such as Hamlet himself, Gertrude, Claudius and Polonius, become minor ones in Stoppard's play. Stoppard's idea was to use Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as examples of the "little men" of history, playing a minor role on the fringe of great events while failing to comprehend their significance, and thereby to raise questions about the nature of reality and of human existence.
I saw Stoppard's play in the theatre during my university days and was enthralled by it. I loved his intellectual daring, his brilliant wordplay and the way in which his protagonists are both comic figures and, at the same time, tragic ones. The plot parallels that of "Hamlet" itself, but with the action seen from a different viewpoint, and includes lengthy scenes in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern speculate on what is going on around them or try to pass the time (by, for example, playing Questions) while waiting for their brief moment in the spotlight. Trying to summarise the plot any further would probably be pointless; the play has been described as an "absurdist, existentialist tragicomedy" which is probably the best way of summing it up.
I have never, however, been as enamoured with the film adaptation as I am with the original play, even though Stoppard himself not only wrote the screenplay but also acted as director, his only experience of directing a film. As he said, "It just seemed that I'd be the only person who could treat the play with the necessary disrespect". I think that the reason lies in the differences between the theatrical and cinematic media. (I am not alone in this; the critics Vincent Canby and Roger Ebert both criticised the film on this ground). The theatre is primarily a verbal rather than a visual medium, and this is particularly true of the modern theatre which has for the most part dispensed with the elaborate sets and costumes which were so popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The cinema, by contrast, started out as a purely visual medium, and although the coming of the "talkies" in the late twenties introduced a verbal element, the visual element is generally at least as important as the verbal.
And Stoppard is an author who loves words. His play is full of puns, quibbles and word-games, written in a language which has little in common with everyday spoken English. In the theatre, which is both more intimate and more stylised than the cinema, you can get away with this sort of thing; it becomes a sort of game between actors in audience. In the cinema, more realistic and more remote than the theatre, and even more so when the film is seen at second-hand on television, it just tends to fall flat or to come across as mere sophomoric rhetoric, silly-cleverness for its own sake. This is a pity, because the acting is often quite good. Gary Oldman as Rosencrantz and Tim Roth as Guildenstern both try hard to overcome the difficulties caused by the cinematic medium; I don't think they succeed, but they do enough to suggest they could have been very good in a stage production.
The film rights to the play were originally bought by MGM in 1968, only a year after its first theatrical production. John Boorman was scheduled to direct, but in the end the project fell through. It has long been accepted in the cinema that there are some novels, including literary classics, which are virtually unfilmable. This film indicates that there might also be such a thing as an unfilmable play. 5/10 A word of warning. I would not recommend the film to anyone not already familiar with "Hamlet". They would probably score it 0/10.