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New audiobook recasts Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ as a thriller
First Published May 21 2014 04:59 pm • Last Updated May 23 2014 03:34 pm

The hero of a new audiobook is introduced as he lies in bed, trying to sleep on a frigid day in 1601.

He’s the heir to the Danish throne, a tall handsome man of 27 with "a pale, finely chiseled face" and "mournful eyes that were the pale gray-blue of the sea in autumn."

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"To hell with the throne," the young man says, pulling the sheets over his head when a court jester comes to awaken him. "I want to sleep. Forever."

Not familiar with this guy? You should be. His name is Hamlet.

Audible Inc., the world’s largest seller of downloadable audiobooks, has followed the success of its recent novelization of "Macbeth" with a new thriller about the moody prince of Elsinore.

"Hamlet: Prince of Denmark," co-written by Shakespeare expert and novelist A.J. Hartley and British mystery writer David Hewson, was released Tuesday, narrated by "The Hobbit" actor Richard Armitage.

It’s a fresh, contemporary take on Shakespeare’s tragedy, one not afraid to create new characters or cut long soliloquies. We get a noirish Hamlet, who, when asked by Laertes if he’s ready to fence, blurts out: "I’ve been ready all my life."

The writers admit they’re a little nervous about the reaction they’ll get for this "Game of Thrones"-like portrait of a slightly bipolar Hamlet who never utters the line "To be or not to be."

"When we do this stuff, we take no prisoners. We change whatever we like. We are only interested in making it a good, entertaining, thrilling story that comes out of ‘Hamlet,’ " says Hewson.

The co-authors are hoping to at least replicate their success with "Macbeth: A Novel," featuring Alan Cumming as the narrator, that was so popular it was later published as a book and e-book.

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These two examples of original content makes sense to Audible founder and chief executive Donald Katz, a journalist-turned-entrepreneur who is excited to offer reinterpreted versions of literature’s best.

"The reality is that life is changing around the classics in so many ways," he says. "It’s trying not to worry about the doctrine of tradition and think about what the essence was supposed to be. I bet you Shakespeare would approve of all of this."

The market for audiobooks is vast, as commuters and runners increasingly embrace the medium. Audible, a subsidiary of Amazon whose audiobooks can also be found on iTunes, won’t release specific sales figures for projects, but says members last year downloaded 725 million listening hours.

The new "Hamlet" thriller comes out in a year that marks the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, yet may be a surprising birthday present since it strips away his language entirely. (For purists, of course, Audible offers several versions of the classic "Hamlet" narrated by theater gods such as John Gielgud, Simon Russell Beale or Laurence Olivier.)

Hartley says he and Hewson were inspired by the shorter version of "Hamlet" found in the playwright’s first quarto. The earlier play is more action-driven and less heavy with existential angst than the one schoolchildren annually struggle over.

"I think this material is engaging and exciting, but the language can be so off-putting for people that they go, ‘I can’t do this,’ " he says. "Or, worse, they think, ‘This no longer speaks to us.’ "

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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