A great warrior is told a prophecy by three witches that he will become king one day, and so by the powers of witchcraft, fate, or his own strength of the belief in the prophecy, he murders the king and fulfills the prophecy, with much prodding along the way by his ambitious and scheming wife. That’s William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, more or less. It’s a simple play, its nuances stemming more from the particularly poetic language than the depth of its plot. And yet it has captured the imaginations of filmmakers for over a century like few other of the Bard’s works. The screen often favors simplicity in works of adaptation, and in addition, Macbeth is dripping with screen-ready sequences of violence, (potential) sex, and horrific imagery, all of which are well-worn traditions on the silver screen. And from 1908 (when the first film adaptation was released) until today, many filmmakers have tried their hands at Macbeth, though three, in particular, set themselves apart from the rest as the best.
Like the three witches that draw the hangman’s noose of fate around Macbeth’s neck, Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and Roman Polanski have each successfully adapted The Bard’s darkest, and most cinematic, play. Some hew closer to the text than others (in Kurosawa’s case, he doesn’t include any of the language at all, for obvious reasons), but all make adaptive choices that flex the tonal and thematic character of the work in fascinating and revealing ways.
Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948)
Orson Welles began work on his cinematic adaptation of Macbeth already well acquainted with both The Bard and the story. Welles not only grew up reading and performing various works of Shakespeare, but he had directed a much lauded Voodoo interpretation of the play for the Negro Theater Unit of the Federal Theater Project in 1936, twelve years prior to the release of his film. For Macbeth (the film), Welles opted for a more traditional interpretation of the play than the one he had staged, in part perhaps because he didn’t want to repeat himself, but likely because it allowed Welles to cast himself in the title role. Macbeth was a character who fit right in among the pantheon of great men brought down by some combination of inherent weakness and the conspiratorial nature of fate itself that Welles made a career out of playing. One has little to wonder how much of himself Welles saw in these sorts of characters.
Welles’ Macbeth is the weakest of these three notable adaptations; like the vast majority of Welles’ films, there were various production compromises that splinter through the inherent greatness at its core. There was little in the way of studio tampering for this film’s production, at least until after it released where a second cut with significant editing changes was ordered, but Welles had to work with both a minuscule budget and a truncated shooting schedule. As a result, the film looks cheap and feels rushed. Macbeth is already a briskly paced play, and Welles’ truncations, unfortunately, hobble the psychological aspects somewhat, as ruminations often cede to action. Despite the hobblings, or rather because of Welles’ creative workarounds to them, this Macbeth still stands above much more lavish renditions of the play. To be sure, flimsy props and ill-considered narrative changes do hurt the film, but the resulting expressionist visual language delivers what even Shakespeare’s words cannot.
Because of the budget restraints, Welles filmed entirely on barren studio floor, sparsely populated borrowed and repurposed set-pieces from Westerns the studio had made, a fact that he chose to emphasize rather than obfuscate. By leaning into the limitations, all the negative space on the sets, and a castle that appears to have been unearthed fully formed from some hellish mountaintop, Welles was able to translate the physical spaces of the film into a nightmarish reflection of Macbeth’s mental state. The tortured cave-like structures that surround Macbeth are as warped and anguished as his paranoid and guilt-ridden conscience. As the film progresses, the various set-pieces, background actors, and props seem to slowly vanish from the frame, leaving Macbeth increasingly isolated, both visually and psychologically.
The props also cleverly convey visual motifs that draw out themes from the play. For example, the witches all carry staffs that are topped with a forked V-shape, and, as a display of their hold over Macbeth, Welles worked similar shapes into the sets, such as when Macbeth finally ascends his stolen throne we can see that it is shaped like the tip of the witches staff. As a secondary benefit of having Macbeth seated in the crook of the witches’ hold, a V-shape makes for a rather uncomfortable throne, and, as such, Macbeth never looks comfortable in his seat of power. It’s a canny visual translation of the many allusions to ill-fitting clothes that Shakespeare wove throughout the play’s dialogue. As a counterpoint to the witches’ pagan power, the Christian cross is a countervailing symbol that populates the sets and represents the coming tide of Christianity that will soon take over Scotland (more on that later). Welles’ utilization of the physical space, along with how he lenses it (plenty of deep focus, long takes with flowing camerawork, and chiaroscuro lighting) is the film’s most unique and successful element, and a prime example of how to adapt something to the screen.
Welles’ adaptation of the narrative and language of the play is more of a mixed bag than his bold aesthetic choices. As mentioned earlier, his adaptation cuts down an already brisk play, choosing to forgo any of the battlefield reports in Act I, instead quickly introducing Macbeth and Banquo and their fateful encounter with the three witches upon the heath. The loss of expository dialogue is not itself much of a loss, as that’s often the first thing that should be trimmed down when adapting for the screen, but it is a loss in that it trims out vital scenes that inform us how other characters view Macbeth before things go sour, as offer more of a build up to the events that unfold. The film does at least still devote time to crucial mood setting, though, as it still opens with the witches, who, in this adaptation, construct a terrifying voodoo-like golem (perhaps a holdover from his production of “Voodoo Macbeth“?) The brief scene functions both to create an immediate atmosphere of dread, and is an explicit representation that the witches have a magical hold over Macbeth.
Quite a few characters from the play are condensed or eliminated, or in Ross’ case — Ross is a minor Thane in the play– he is cut from the film but much of his dialogue is given to a major new character: the Holy Man. The religious theme is the biggest change to the narrative, and, while interesting in theory, I’m not entirely sure it works within the context of the play. As previously mentioned, Welles highlights a dichotomy between the pagan power that the witches represent and the coming tide of Christianity, first reflected in the Holy Man that seems to lord over much of the proceedings at the castle, and later by the swarm of cross-bearing English soldiers that come to help Duncan’s son reclaim his throne. While this additional subtext is a pretty fascinating historical perspective, the issue that crops up by layering it onto the existing narrative framework is that it doesn’t make much sense when you consider that the explicitly magical witches aim to manipulate Macbeth into usurping Duncan and then bring about his own downfall; thus, in orchestrating Macbeth’s downfall, they orchestrate their own, because through their own machinations they put the power of Scotland squarely in the hands of those who wish to see them defeated: the Christians. While I’m not opposed to the welding of religious subtext onto what is essentially a humanist story, in this case, the pairing simply doesn’t make logical sense. Then again, Welles was never a logical filmmaker, but an emotive one, and all the power of the visual symbols he employed might have at least made it a worthy trade.
More detrimental to the story than some of its muddled themes is the cumbersome handling of the dialogue. I’m not referring to the Scottish brogue Welles had the cast assume for the dialogue (which the studio then mandated be re-dubbed for a re-edited re-release they erroneously assumed would catch audiences in a way the initial release hadn’t); I had no issues with that, but there are numerous dialogue changes in the film to make it more understandable, or expedient, for an audience unaccustomed to Shakespeare’s language, and each instance sounds jarringly dissimilar to the language of the play. In conjunction with the already abbreviated structure of the play, it can feel at times that Welles was simply rushing to get to the finish line (and perhaps he was, given his abbreviated shooting schedule).
Fortunately, there are still plenty of moments of transcendence that resist the insistent tug of the leash, giving time for the language to breathe and represent a careful insight into how the story functions. Welles’ choice to play the famous “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy over a shot of churning fog adds ethereal and unnerving hopelessness to the nihilistic speech, as if Macbeth has already surrendered to the void. The ending is anything but a surrender, in fact, Macbeth’s “lay on MacDuff” is portrayed as a moment of triumph for the character as he reclaims his destiny from the nefarious witches. He may not have had a say about how to live his life, but he can control how it ends, and as a result, the witches’ foul golem that they’ve been using to control his fate is shattered in a decisive blow to their power. It’s a thrilling moment, and is played out with equally thrilling choreography in the swordplay. The film may be largely cloaked in the atmosphere of German Expressionism, horror, and film noir, but by the end it becomes a story of hope, as Macbeth is able to assert himself in the battle of the fates, and the reclaiming soldiers are presented as a force for good (after the more ambiguous Holy Man, who seemed to not offer much help to poor MacDuff’s family before their slaughter at the hands of Macbeth and his men, is slain by Macbeth at the start of the battle). The film isn’t Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but Welles’, and the totality of the translations, excisions, and other adaptive choices represent a personal touch on the story, entirely successful or not.
Welles’, and actress Jeanette Nolan’s, respective interpretations of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, are as fascinating and flawed as the rest of the film. Here, Lady Macbeth is portrayed as an embodiment of rage and strength, or, perhaps more interestingly, rage as a guise of strength. Nolan delivers her lines with passionate fury, choosing to berate Macbeth into action rather than seduce him, and Welles often places her above Macbeth in the frame, highlighting his subservient relationship. Adding to Lady Macbeth’s apparent strength is an adaptive choice that all three of these films choose not to make: in the play, Lady Macbeth is originally the one who is going to kill Duncan, not Macbeth; however, her hand is stayed by the fact that Duncan’s sleeping visage reminds her too much of her father. This moment of empathy (or weakness, if you are as bloody-minded as she is) adds a degree of nuance to Lady Macbeth’s character and makes her an even better foil for Macbeth. She is able to screw her courage to its sticking point with far more ease than Macbeth, but when it comes time to actually take a life, it’s Macbeth who ultimately is able to do so (after a period of much mental tumultuousness). And once he’s killed Duncan he is set off on a bloody cascade where additional lives become a small toll to pay, whereas Lady Macbeth begins a mental spiral down the drain hole of guilt, unable to cope with the act she helped set in motion. Welles’ film, in addition to Kurosawa’s and Polanski’s, all forgo this moment, to varying results.
The more straightforward interpretation of Lady Macbeth in this film, as well as the other two, isn’t necessarily a bad thing; she makes for arguably the most captivating screen presence in all three adaptations. But in this particular version, it does add to the feeling that, as Welles said, the film is more of a “bold charcoal sketch” of the play than a nuanced and finely detailed adaptation. As noted before, that particular boldness works extremely well with the expressive qualities of the film, but less so in the narrative. Welles’ portrayal of Macbeth is even more flattened, as he plays him less as the poetic warrior challenged by the weight of bloody succession, and more as a bleary-eyed drunk who rambles to himself. He doesn’t do a bad job, the largeness and innate flaws of the character flatter Welles’ acting style, but it’s immediately apparent that his performance here at times feels like the borrowed robes of Falstaff, a Shakespearean character that Welles would later embody far more comfortably and successfully. Borrowed robes or not, there is great artistry in Welles’ Macbeth, and were it not for the next two adaptations we’ll be discussing, it would likely be remembered as the greatest cinematic take on the play.
Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957)
Akira Kurosawa had planned to make his adaptation of Macbeth earlier than he ended up (it was initially planned as his follow up to Rashomon, 1950), but it was actually the news that Welles was making one of his own that led Kurosawa to hold off until 1957. Had Kurosawa made Throne of Blood when he originally intended, there would have been little conflict. Throne of Blood makes far more liberal changes to the structure of the play than Welles’ adaptation did, and as a result, the two movies stand entirely apart.
Kurosawa’s adaptation doesn’t begin with the three witches, or even Macbeth or Banquo riding together after successfully routing an insurrection, but with a chorus of sorts, incanting a bleak song about man’s ambition while the visuals depict a fog-enshrouded shrine to a castle that has fallen many years ago. In fact, the three witches aren’t even in Throne of Blood. Nor are Macbeth or Banquo, per se. That’s because Kurosawa didn’t make a straightforward adaptation of Macbeth, but rather relocated the story to feudal Japan, jettisoning the language and major plot points entirely. The broad strokes and themes are still there, of course, and many of the major characters are more or less as we expect (Macbeth has become Washizu, Lady Macbeth has become Lady Asaji, and Banquo has become Miki, for example), but there are significant deviations from the source material outside of the linguistics or temporal changes, the chorus being one of them. Many Shakespeare adaptations have relocated or modernized The Bard’s work (Kurosawa himself would do it twice more with Hamlet becoming The Bad Sleep Well, 1960, and King Lear becoming Ran, 1985), but few –if any– have been as successful as Throne of Blood. Despite some of the drastic changes to the story, Throne of Blood deeply understands the fatalistic themes of the play, and all its changes are used to reinforce its own interpretation of them. In many ways, it is as ironclad a piece of storytelling as Shakespeare’s original.
Back to the chorus; the chorus is an invention of Throne of Blood, but it’s not merely a mood setter (although the eerie fog and disembodied voices do perfectly set the mood for us) but is actually the first domino knocked over in what eventually clarifies as a structural trap which codifies the themes of inevitable doom that humanity brings upon itself. I say humanity, and not Macbeth, because the chorus makes it clear that it is the ambitions of man in general that bring about ruin, not just the acts of a lone individual; this is an early example of the crushing nihilism that would characterize much of Kurosawa’s later work, and Macbeth was a perfect vehicle for it. The structure that the chorus sets up is circular, for the film both opens and closes with it, and there are other signifiers of the film folding in on itself as well; the early sequence of the King Duncan figure, Lord Tsuzuki, receiving battlefield updates from runners imparting news of the invasion –each new report separated by a screen wipe– prefigures a sequence near the end of the film of Lord Washizu receiving similar news, filmed in the same way. The structural ouroboros elegantly encapsulates the themes of Macbeth, as it represents both the inevitability of Washizu’s fate, and the cyclicality with which violence begets violence, or as Macbeth himself states in Act 3 Scene 4: “blood will have blood”. Washizu betrays his Lord, and when he becomes Lord he too is betrayed. This never ending cycle of violence is furthered by another adaptive choice of Kurosawa: it is noted that Washzu’s predecessor, Lord Tsuzuki, also rose to his post by slaying his former lord. Throne of Blood is not about one man’s moral and mental descent after engaging in wrongful murder, but is about mankind’s penchant for self-serving, and ultimately ruinous, ambition. There is also even less question than in Welles’ adaptation as to the role free will plays. The very structure of the film traps Washizu in its inescapable spiral, and the omniscient chorus from the very opening brings about a sense of inevitability to his fate. Lady Asaji’s character has also been greatly expanded compared to Lady Macbeth in such a way that Washizu is made to feel like he has no choice but to inexorably march down the bloody path that will bring about his demise…but more on her later.
Because the film is not a straightforward adaptation of Macbeth, Kurosawa made liberal excisions to the narrative. For example, Lord Tsuzuki only has one son rather than two, there isn’t really a Ross character, and, most notably, there isn’t a MacDuff. This last omission is the most critical to this adaptation, as it results in an entirely different climax from the one-on-one duel of swordsman fueled by vengeance that punctuates the original story. The only prophecy Washizu receives about his impending defeat pertains to the woods coming to the castle, as there is no “no man of woman born” to do the deed. In Macbeth, most of Macbeth’s Thanes flee the castle or join the other side, but in Throne of Blood Washizu’s army stays within the castle walls, ready to fight until the prophecy of the woods closing in on them comes to pass. Suddenly, they realize that Washizu’s boasts of victory are hollow and are ready to turn on him in an instant. Rather than dueling with swords, the archers below send volley after volley of arrows at Washizu (using real arrows, in one of the greatest stunt sequences in film) until a killing blow is finally struck. It’s not as traditionally satisfying as the duel in Macbeth, where a character is able to right some heinous wrongs in single combat against the man who wrought them, but it is just as (if not more) striking on film. As mentioned earlier, having Washizu’s own men kill him rather than an enemy invader (even if MacDuff was a former ally) completes the film’s circular structure.
Visually, Throne of Blood, like Welles’ Macbeth before it, is a unique blend of pure cinema and stagebound origins. This time around, rather than reflecting western stage productions in its bare sets, Throne of Blood’s use of empty space, expressionistic makeup, and heightened performance, harks back to Japan’s own Noh stage tradition. Though the methods are different, the result is similar to what Welles achieved; the blend of stage techniques in front of the camera and intensely cinematic use of the camera (and editing), results in an eerie and evocative texture to the film that draws out emotion and subtext through purely visual means. The technique is especially powerful here because Kurosawa’s dialogue isn’t Shakespeare’s poetry, so by doubling down on the visuals, his adaptation exists more squarely in the cinematic tradition. Kurosawa isn’t tied down to figuring out how to visually render soliloquies, and his dialogue scenes are much more truncated in general. And though Kurosawa also employs a minimalist visual style for the film, it’s clear he had a much larger budget to work with than Welles, and he put it to good use. The full size Spider-Web Castle facade he built on the slopes of Mount Fuji is awesome in its imposing size, and the actual location’s black soil and fog-enshrouded slopes adds a hellish and ethereal atmosphere of the film that would be difficult to replicate on a studio set (though Kurosawa managed to do so for the castle interiors, importing tons Mount Fuji’s black soil to make it as seamless as possible). Despite the heightened Noh influence to the visual design of the film (even pulling the terrifying forest spirit which replaces the three witches, and its equally unnerving song, directly from a Noh play), there is a greater sense of reality to Throne of Blood than Welles’ Macbeth. Nothing feels artificial, and even the camerawork (though no less impressive) calls less attention to itself than the expressionist angles and long, flowing shots that Welles employed.
The best visual moments in the film are inventions of Kurosawa’s to express what the Shakespearean dialogue otherwise would have, but in purely cinematic terms. After Washizu and Miki encounter the forest spirit and receive their prophecies, they get lost in a thick bank of fog on their way back to the castle. The scene seems to last for an eternity, or at least well past the point in which most directors would have figured it served its purpose; there is no dialogue, and the scene is comprised purely of Washizu and Miki riding back and forth through nearly identical shots of impenetrable fog. But the maddening tedium of the sequence is key to its brilliance, in that it is a wholly visual way to depict the mental fog that Washizu and Miki are experiencing following their encounter with the spirit, and it forces the audience to spend time with the characters to wonder if they will ever be able to find their way out, both literally and figuratively. Later, after Lady Asaji has convinced Washizu of killing Lord Tsuzuki, she quietly and slowly shuffles into a pitch black doorway before returning, facing the camera now, moments later holding a bowl of drugged sake. It’s a chilling image, both because of her unnatural movements and because the doorway has been transformed into a void where she returns full with the intent to murder. By this point in the film, we have already gotten a sense of Lady Asaji’s character, but this shot visually encapsulates her essence and the depths to which the narrative will go.
While Lady Asaji still shares many of the core scenes and traits as Lady Macbeth (she still convinces Washizu to kill his Lord, she still succumbs to her guilt, and in a fit of madness tries to wash invisible blood off her hands), she is depicted as unambiguously manipulative, and her calm demeanor and slow movements render her even more terrifying than the spirit. Her role as an active agent within the story has been greatly expanded beyond just prompting Washizu to murder Lord Tsuzuki, however. Asaji masterfully manipulates Washizu, presenting each subsequent killing as a necessary action. Washizu must, for example, kill Tsuzuki because he’s not a kind ruler like Duncan was in Macbeth, but was a traitorous warlord who only got his post by killing his own predecessor. If Washizu doesn’t kill him, then he himself will be taken out. And then Asaji convinces him to kill his friend Miki, rather than announce Miki’s son as the heir as a token of gratitude (since Washizu has no children of his own). But Asaji tells Washizu that she is pregnant, and if he doesn’t kill Miki then the spirit’s prophecy of Miki’s children inheriting the castle will come true. By weaving Asaji throughout the story as a more active agent Kurosawa creates more dramatic tension. She is a dynamic and expressive external source for Washizu to deliberate and argue with, which is more cinematic than wrestling with his inner thoughts. Of course, this renders Washizu a more passive character than Macbeth, but his passivity only strengthens Kurosawa’s thematic interpretation of the story being one in which Washizu is utterly trapped by external forces. The representations of these characters are not as nuanced as those of the source material, but their star interpretations match the Noh mask expressions that the actors and makeup convey; it’s a theatrical choice that, like so many in this film, trades on the broadly emotive visual qualities that come through so strikingly on film.
Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971)
Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Macbeth was the first film he made following the slaughter of his wife and unborn child at the hands of the Manson cult. Much significance has been made of that fact, and it’s difficult to separate the horrible story from the overwhelmingly dismal and violent film that Polanski directed; the horrible slaughter of Macduff’s family is often cited in particular as reflecting that event. In any case, whether Polanski intended the project to be a reflection of the Manson murders or not, his adaptation of Macbeth remains the bleakest and bloodiest of all the bleak and bloody adaptations. What’s more, Polanski’s rendition is also one of the most accurate to the text of the play, certainly among the three being discussed here. And yet, despite remaining extremely faithful to the text of the play, Polanski’s film is no less cinematic than the others, nor is it devoid of creative license; in fact, the areas in which the film and play diverge is entirely realized through cinematic terms, rather than through any core changes to the dialogue or narrative.
The brilliance of Polanski’s interpretation of the play is that it mines fresh, yet logically sourced, interpretations of characters and their motivations through contextual visual details in the scene while remaining faithful to what the characters actually say in Shakespeare’s text. An early example of this is that a mistrustful rivalry is established between Malcolm, one of Duncan’s two sons, and Macbeth, through the characters eyeing one another disdainfully (Donalbaine, Duncan’s other son –given a hunchback in this version– also eyes Malcolm with envy, a detail that is crucial to this film’s ending) as Malcolm is named Prince of Cumberland, heir to the throne. This fleeting setup leads to a crucial narrative moment later on: during a party Macbeth has hosted for Duncan, Lady Macbeth attempts to (verbally) screw her husband’s courage to its sticking point, as she is wont to do. Her attempts seem to be failing until Macbeth runs into Malcolm, who shoves his chalice in Macbeth’s face for a humiliating refill and utters a simple, condescending “hail, Thane of Cawdor”. His remark cuts at Macbeth’s readily apparent jealousy at Malcolm for being promoted. Following this dressing down, Macbeth returns to Lady Macbeth with his courage fully screwed, so to speak. These marginal visual moments entirely recontextualize not just the moment of decision itself (as written in the play it is entirely between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth), but add new layers to the characters that reverberate through the rest of the play. It is less a radical reinterpretation of the play, as Throne of Blood is, than a creative coloring inside the lines –lines that Welles’ charcoal sketch version of the play left deliberately unfilled.
The best example of the subtle visual recontextualization Polanski achieved is with the character of Ross. In the play, he is a fairly minor supporting character, a cousin to MacDuff who is mostly used to deliver exposition and illustrate the growing suspicion, and later abandonment, of Macbeth after he steals the throne. He’s such a minor character that the previous two films we looked at didn’t even include his character. Polanski, however, latches on to the fact that Ross sticks around on Macbeth’s side slightly longer than some of the other characters, who flee immediately and turns him into a full-blown Machiavellian opportunist and remorseless sociopath. The kicker? This is achieved without any major invented dialogue for the character, and is done entirely visually. Ross is often seen shrewdly lingering in the background of scenes, clearly considering the changing political circumstances around him, and Polanski places him in scenes where he was not expressly mentioned before (such as being used to dispatch two lowly criminals after Macbeth has them murder Banquo). An even more canny use of the original text through this new character interpretation is built from the scene in which MacDuff’s family is slaughtered under orders from Macbeth. In the play, Ross visits MacDuff’s wife and attempts to dissuade her from condemning her husband of cowardice for fleeing to England following Duncan’s murder, and then exits before Macbeth’s arrive to slaughter MacDuff’s family. Polanski’s film connects the dots between the sequential nature of the events to arrive at a far more powerful rendition of the scene. This version plays out the same way, except that, on his way out of the castle, Ross visually acknowledges Macbeth’s executioners and allows them into the castle. That Ross facilitates the slaughter of his own relatives, moments after appearing to comfort them, and shortly before switching sides to deliver the “sad” news of the slaughter to MacDuff himself, adds a chilling dimension to the character that transforms his role from a largely expository one to a fascinating support role that expands upon the themes of treacherous murder, boundless ambition, and the darkness at the center of humanity.
As previously mentioned, Donalbaine (Duncan’s other son) is also subject to some brief and crucial development. Once again, in the play the character was very minor — which is why Welles’ Macbeth and Throne of Blood both streamlined their films to only have the one son — but Polanski chose to add some visual interpretations that add new dimensions to the story. The fact that this Donalbaine is a hunchback provides ample illumination for the character’s apparent jealousy of Malcolm, even if it isn’t explicitly mentioned in the film at all. The biggest alteration to the original story (all visually still, of course) involves Donalbaine, who, at the very end of the film, in an invented scene, rides out alone to the witches’ home. Without any additional dialogue, this new coda becomes a grim prophecy, every bit as cyclical as Throne of Blood, and perhaps even bleaker, as we can be assured that Donalbaine is seeking his own future that will assuredly result in the murder of his own brother to satisfy his ambition, and its own bloody downward spiral of death and madness to compliment it. While Polanski’s film is largely ambiguous as to whether Macbeth’s will or the witches’ powers are controlling events, this ending (along with other signals such as Ross’ new character traits, or brief moments like the gleeful blood-lust of the reclaiming soldiers as they mount Macbeth’s severed head on a spear) at the very least suggests that man’s inherent desire for violence and power is a symbiotic relationship with the witches’ power, each reinforcing the other.
Beyond the character moments, there are numerous visual motifs that further reflect Polanski’s fatalistic worldview. At the beginning of the film, after their incantation, the three witches bury three objects in the sand: a severed arm, a dagger, and a noose. The arm represents the man (Macbeth), the dagger the murder, and the noose is the man’s eventual death. The noose, in particular, is a recurring motif to signify the inescapable doom that will befall Macbeth, even before he meets with the witches. Our very introduction to his character is lined with treasonous soldiers being hanged behind him at a gallows. At another point, after Macbeth murders Duncan, he hoists a bucket from a well to wash the bloody deed from his hands — however, when he walks away from the well, the rope and hook the bucket was attached to sways ominously in the foreground, looking all the world like a noose ensnaring the doomed Macbeth.
On the subject of visuals, this adaptation of Macbeth is the first of the three to leave the stage entirely behind and fully embrace a real world setting. Lots of location filming, period-accurate production and costume designs, and heaps and heaps of mud, rain, blood, fog, and filth, all captured in deep focus, widescreen compositions, create an immersive world that better reflects the more nuanced and human approach to the material. The irony, of course, is that the film that is closest to the text of the play ends up feeling the least theatrical, but even the dialogue readings are often cast off in underplayed, occasionally mumbled, “realistic” performances that paradoxically make the Shakespearean language easier to understand. This dedication to realism gives the film an immediacy that the stylization of Welles’ and Kurosawa’s films eschewed in favor of a more expressive, at times even operatic, flavor to embolden their more simplified textual adaptations. Polanski’s screenplay was co-written by theater critic and writer Kenneth Tynan, who no doubt acted as a reliable font of knowledge in regards to the Shakespearian text, and why this film’s linguistic and narrative alterations are far more seamless than the cumbersome editorial hand that Welles dealt his own.
The emphasis on character nuance and realism, of course, extends to Polanski’s, and actors John Finch’s and Francesca Annis’, interpretations of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is a far more nuanced and human interpretation of the character than the master manipulators of the other films. In the aforementioned scene in which Lady Macbeth attempts to convince Macbeth to go through with the murder of Duncan, she pleads with him through tear-filled eyes and seemingly fails to convince him until his brief confrontation with Malcolm re-ignites the flames of his murderous ambition. This contrast between her strength, her unswerving willingness to commit murder to further her and her husband’s role in the Kingdom, and her humanity makes the performance a fascinating one, even if it is not as immediately indelible as the commanding fury of Jeanette Nolan or the icy calm of Isuzu Yamada. To further cement this more conflicted, sympathetic take on the character, Polanski and Tynan opted to cut an incredibly harsh line she delivers while trying to enlist Macbeth’s help in the bloody coup: “I have given suck, and know how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me. I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done to this” (Act 1 Scene 7). That line is Lady Macbeth’s ultimate expression of her dedication to her cause, even if she has inner turmoil, but in his film Polanski decided to portray the inner turmoil as an exteriorized softening of her acrid strength. That being said, she is still the same manipulative character of the play who prods Macbeth along and questions his manhood, there is no radical reinvention of her character at play, but she is dragged down into the muck and mire of humanity from the pantheon of larger than life characters.
Finch’s Macbeth is even less dramatic of a reading of the character, playing his Macbeth as perhaps less self-assured and more spontaneously driven by his rash impulses than others have treated the role. He cuts a particularly unsympathetic figure in the role, as his jealousy-fueled ambition comes across as if he would have eventually usurped the throne regardless of his encounter with the witches. Despite being more unlikable of a character, he does a fine job in the role, coming through authentically and bringing a nervous energy that barely hides the seething danger that lingers just beneath the surface. Finch doesn’t quite have the imposing physicality of a great warrior that Welles and Mifune were so credible as, being both young and slight of build, but I find that only contributes to his “snake in the grass” portrayal. Besides, one only has to view the great swordplay between Macbeth and MacDuff’s invading forces, and the scrappy and exhilarating duel with MacDuff himself, to buy into Finch’s Macbeth as a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield.
Polanski’s film doesn’t sport the boldly expressive visual stylings that Welles brought to his film, or the radical and elegant reinterpretations of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, but as a straight adaptation of Shakespeare’s text to the film there is no better effort than this. It remains remarkably true to its theatrical origins while never betraying itself as a work for the silver screen, a difficult balancing act that it manages with aplomb. I might not go so far as to argue that it’s the best film of the three (Throne of Blood is a difficult film to top), but it is certainly the best straight-up adaptation of Macbeth.
There are multitudes of further comparisons between the films that warrant further closer inspection, but out of consideration for waning attention spans and weary eyes, I think we’ve come to a logical conclusion. Each film is a microcosm for the act of adaptation on its own, and when taken as a whole we are able to observe how different choices can have a ripple effect that results in a vastly different take on the same material. While some changes are more successful than others, the individuality of each film’s holistic approach is no more valid than the others. Welles’ expressionist “charcoal sketch” of film, Kurosawa’s nihilistic Noh take, and Polanski’s grimy and dismal realism each accent the original text in ways that reveal the richness, and deficiencies, of each. The overall strength and varied nature of these three adaptations, to say nothing of the power of Shakespeare’s work, are what make Macbeth such a great case study for an examination of the act of adaptation. In years to come there may be more Macbeths that will join the ranks of the three I have highlighted here (one can hope, anyway), that will only serve to strengthen the adaptive union between the silver screen and Shakespeare’s text. Until then…when the hurlyburly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won.
5 thoughts on “Macbeth: Three Distinctive Adaptations of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play”
Roman Polanski’s Macbeth was so well directed and acted that I discovered so much more meaning in the play.
What did you think of Fassbender’s Macbeth (I call it Fassbender’s and not Kurzel’s, cause Fassbender is the true powerhouse that drives the film)?
You’re right in highlighting Fassbender’s contributions to the film as it certainly his (and Cotillard’s) performances that are most to recommend about the film. Fassbender’s increasingly unhinged PTSD driven take on the character was a unique choice, as was the decision to have Lady Macbeth’s actions framed around the loss of her child. Unfortunately the film surrounding those choices didn’t quite do it for me. Kurzel’s stylized direction distracted rather than enhanced the storytelling, and the background characters felt more like visual props than characters in the world. It’s an interesting take on the story, but I wouldn’t put it in the same league as even Welles’ Macbeth.