Analysing Film Adaptations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth
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Published: Wed, 21 Feb 2018
In Roger Manvell’s Book Peter Hall is quoted as saying “Shakespeare is no screen writer. He is a verbal dramatist, relying on the associative and metaphorical power of words…Even his stage action is verbalised… This is bad screen writing. A good film script relies on contrasting verbal images. What is spoken is of secondary importance.” (Manvell, 1971, p.125)
It is certainly true that screenwriting and playwriting are two very separate arts, as is the discipline of acting in the two arenas. A screen actor has the advantage of the camera being able to pick out subtle facial expressions and body movements that will illustrate the characters emotion without the need for dialogue. A stage player must project his or her voice across the expanse of a theatre and cannot rely on the audience members at the back of a theatre being able to witness all the subtleties of their body movement. As such much more needs to be spoken. On the screen expositionary dialogue is redundant and detrimental to the narrative drive. However Shakespeare infuses all his dialogue with rich textual imagery and double meanings. In translating this to the screen some of it is unavoidably lost.
This essay will explore the aforementioned contention with reference to three adaptations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It aims to show that although it is very difficult to adapt Shakespeare’s poetry faithfully it is not impossible. The version of principle discussion will be the 1948 version that was directed by and starred Orson Welles, as well as the 1971 Roman Polanski directed version starring Jon Finch and the 1957 Japanese retelling by Akira Kurosawa, Kumonosu jô (Throne Of Blood.) The opening scene of Macbeth is extremely short yet extremely effective in establishing an atmosphere of mystery and the imagery of light and dark as an analogy of good and evil that runs throughout the course of the play. It opens to the sound of thunder and lighting. The turbulent and dark nature of the weather serves as an apt environment for the turbulent and dark events that unfold and effectively serving to set the tone of the play and the imagery of stormy weather that is used as pathetic fallacy throughout the play. The witches mention a battle and Macbeth but their involvement in these maters is not clear; but what is clear is the atmosphere of mystery that is established. They converse in verse with rhyming couplets and all chant the same couplet at the end of the scene as if they were casting a spell. Fair is foul and foul is fair Hover through the fog and filthy air. (Act I Scene I) The internal rhyme and inversion of values of good and bad warns the audience that something is amiss and is echoed in Macbeth’s opening line of the play, So foul and fair a day I have not seen (Act I Scene III) The verbal resonance of this line associates Macbeth with the will of the witches and foreshadows his entanglement with the forces of diabolism.
The filmic versions of the play also stem their predominant imagery from this opening scene. The opening scene of Welles’ Macbeth shows the three Witches standing on the edge of a tall jagged rock face. The barren landscape is dark and shadowy and mist swirls in the dark night sky. The production design is minimalist and actually resembles a theatre set rather than a filmic one. It recalls the visual style of German expressionism, which has a tradition within the horror genre. This design continues throughout the film. The lighting and the black and white photography have been composed to cast eerie shadows over the sets and faces of the players, perfectly visualizing the light and dark imagery in Shakespeare’s text. The film actually opens with lines from Act IV Scene I. Double, double toil and trouble Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
The film then cuts to a close shot of the cauldron mouth as the witches mix a potion and continue to chant Shakespeare’s words as if casting a spell. From the cauldron a clay doll is formed and as it is fully formed the word Macbeth is spoken as the films title appears on the screen. Although tonally much of what Shakespeare had written is retained within the visual style of the film, in this version of the scene the emphasis on the witches is changed from agents of diabolism to enforcers of it. Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy of Act I Scene V bares none of the visual flair that Welles’ opening scene does. To momentarily go back to the source material this is the scene where she has just been informed in a letter from her husband about the fulfilment of the witches’ first prophecy. Her immediate concern is that her husband does not have the necessary character to murder Duncan for the crown. ‘I fear thy nature, It is too full of the milk of human kindness To catch the nearest way’ (Act I Scene V) Her conceit is interesting as it is clear in the play that Macbeth struggles a little with his conscience he is quite easily persuaded to commit murder. She also calls to the spirits to ‘Come to my woman’s breasts, and take my milk for gall.’ (Act I scene V) The inference here is that she wants to replace Macbeth’s milk of human kindness with her own diabolically polluted milk. She ally’s herself with the forces of evil in order to give her the strength of purpose to kill Duncan. Her words are about her adopting evil into her own nature and becoming one with the malevolent forces. ‘…Come you spirits That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full Of direst cruelty… …Come thick night’ And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell. (Act I Scene V) The line from to the crown to the toe is at once a statement that she wishes to become engulfed with evil and a reference to the royal crown. The soliloquy also includes the images of darkness associated with evil. The words unsex me here recall Banquo’s comments on the ambiguous sexuality of the three witches. You should be women Yet your beards forbid me to interpret That you are so. (Act I Scene III)
In the play the scene establishes Lady Macbeth’s ambition for her husband as another factor in his downfall by associating her with imagery of diabolism. The majority of the scene in Welles’ film is played out in a medium shot of Lady Macbeth in a bare bedchamber whilst the soliloquy is delivered in voice over. Jeanette Nolan’s deliver of the lines is extremely theatrical in tone and the back drop is unusually expressionless. The scene looks and plays as if it has been recorded at a theatre performance As such the scene is visually static and the power of Shakespeare’s words carry the scene as opposed to any cinematic elements. Polanski dilutes the immediacy of Lady Macbeth’s turn to evil by having her deliver the first part of the soliloquy before Macbeths return to the castle and then the second part, where she calls upon evil spirits, after Malcolm is named successor and it is clear that murder is the only way for Macbeth to ascend the throne. Although this changes emphasis, like Nolan’s performance Francesca Annis delivers the soliloquy in voice over and a theatrical tone. Whilst Shakespeare’s words and imagery are retained there is nothing cinematic about the scene itself Act I Scene VII suggests that Lady Macbeth was right about her husband’s willingness to perform the act of murder. In a soliloquy Macbeth talks himself out of the deed; he reasons to himself that it is evil and that he does not have the necessary character. ‘…I have No spur To prick the sides of my intent, but only Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself.’ (Act 1 Scene 7) Macbeth effectively talks himself out of the deed by considering the ramifications of killing Duncan. He employs imagery of heaven to illustrate Duncan’s virtue and the legitimate claim to the throne. ‘,Or heaven’s cherubin hors’d Upon the slightest couriers of the air, Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye
That tears shall blow down the wind.’ (Act I scene VII) In Welles’ film this same speech in the film is relocated to a religious ceremony that precedes the battle. Orson Welles’s creation ‘Holy Father’ reads through a post battle service. In the background there are men holding huge Celtic crosses. This symbol of early Christianity illustrates an uneasy balance between Christian ethics and pagan mysticism. Again the expressionist set retains the constant presence of the forces of evil; the religious context of the scene emphasizes the conflict with the diabolical influence.
We are allowed inside Macbeth’s mind as he rationalizes what he is planning on doing and the evil nature of it, but the ‘I have no spur’ passage has been omitted. The scene plays out in a close shot of Macbeth’s face which remains resolute. There is no suggestion of a moral struggle in Welles’ delivery, merely an acknowledgement of the immorality of his intentions. However on the ‘Heaven cherubin hors’d’ line there is a cut to a wider shot of Duncan’s subjects genuflecting before him. This reinforces the notion of Duncan as the model ideal for king. The Polanski version of the scene is fantastically captured on screen. Once again we hear Macbeth’s thoughts in voice over, this time in the full original text. The scene starts with a close shot of Macbeth’s pensive face, then tracks backwards to reveal the festivity and frivolity of all the others at the feast. This reiterates Macbeth’s position as Duncan’s kinsman and host, whilst placing Duncan within the context of a happy and prosperous kingdom. On delivery of the line ‘we’ld jump the life to come,’ there is a roll of thunder and the curtains are violently blown into the hall disrupting the festivities as if to disturb Macbeth’s train of thought. This scene at once retains Shakespeare’s poetry and accompanies it visually in cinematic terms. The final soliloquy of the play comes in Act V Scene V after Macbeth’s learning of his wife’s demise. In is a dramatic pause before the arrival of Birnam wood to Dunsinane to allow Macbeth to mourn for his dead wife and contemplate his actions. ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow Creeps in this petty pace from day to day To the last syllable of recorded time;’ (Act V Scene V) The repetition of the word tomorrow gives verbal resonance to a sense of inevitability of Macbeth’s death and the inevitability of death as a universal truth. The word creep also has connotations of the subterfuge of malignant forces. Macbeth sees that he is backed into a corner and that his plans have been his own undoing. ‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.’ (Act V Scene V)
The ‘walking shadow’ that Macbeth speaks of hear exists between light and dark and is also an intangible and temporary thing. The reference to acting suggests that Macbeth feels as if he has been directed by some unknowable source, and the words sound a fury recall the lightning storm that heralded the arrival of the witches’. This soliloquy is rich and full with imagery and perfectly captures the mind of a man whose purpose has left him. After this point in the play all Macbeth has is an instinct of self-preservation.
In Welles’ film the scene is at once strikingly visual and completely verbal. Although the two sets of imagery do not properly resonate. A close up of Macbeths face is cross faded with an image of swirling mist as the soliloquy is started then delivered in full by Orson Welles in voice over. The association between Macbeth’s face and the fade places the viewer firmly within Macbeth’s mind and indicates that we are privy to his innermost thoughts. The fact that there is very little to look at gives added gravitas to Macbeth’s words and makes the viewer reflect upon them more.
The imagery evokes a sense of inner-turmoil that reflects the mind of a man who has been corrupted by power and stricken with grief. However it evokes other thematic and narrative elements such as a sense of mystery that recalls the witches, a sense of foreshadowing that herald on the stage. In this scene the ‘verbal essence’ of the play is completely retained by the visuals of the film. The end of the play restores a natural order to the kingdom of Scotland. Malcolm ascends to his rightful place on the throne. He is given a rhetorical speech in rhyming verse which serves as epilogue to the play. ‘And what needful else That calls upon us, by the grace of Grace,
We will perform in measure time and place:’ (Act V Scene VII) Unlike the opening scene were rhyming couplets were used to mimic the casting of spells, in this speech the rhymed words produce a comforting and familiar sound. The phrase measure time and place suggests that the rightful order has been restored and reference to Grace alluding to the grace of god tells us that the forces of evil are no longer at work.
The ending of Welles’ film does not include Malcolm’s speech. As Macduff holds Macbeth’s head aloft and proclaims Malcolm king the rest of Malcolm’s subjects join in and repeat the cry of “Hail king Malcolm” this continues as the subjects hold aloft burning torches that visually symbolise the light returning to a darkened kingdom. There is then a cut to a wide shot of the castle no longer enshrined in darkness but in the pale morning light. However Welles undercuts any sense of the restoration of order by placing the three witches silhouetted in the middle ground of the shot. Polanski’s film goes even further as we see Donalblain seeking out the witches’ council. He is presumably the next heir until Malcolm has a son and the suggestion is that he too will consult the powers of evil to aide his own bloody ascension.
As discussed earlier in the essay, these films place much more emphasis on the external factors that exert their influence over Macbeth. The play itself is more concerned with one mans decision to succumb to evil whilst the films of Orson Welles and Roman Polanski suggest that the force of the witches’ will is insurmountable. What is clear from the Polanski and Welles version’s of the Play is that although both films manage to translate certain passages from the play and retain the verbal essence they are not entirely successful. However they are interpretations of the play as well as adaptations emphasis on theme and narrative has been shifted. By far the most satisfying film version of Macbeth is Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. However this version has been relocated to feudal Japan and falls within the context of a different cultural setting.
Kurosawa has done the best possible job in translating the text into a foreign context whilst retaining the essential essence of the source material. There is an attempt to retain a sense of the poetic within the dialogue. Kurosawa approximates Shakespearian dialogue with a Japanese equivalent of Noh. At certain key moments of the film the dialogue slips into Noh verse such as the end of the film when a chorus is summarising the story of Washizu (The Macbeth Character.) Lived a proud warrior Murdered by ambition His spirit walking still. Still his spirit walks, his fame is known, For what once was is now yet true Murderous ambition will pursue…
This technique is used sparingly throughout the film so as not to seem forced or alienate contemporary audience, but what it does do is infuse the film with Japanese storytelling tradition and give the film an added quality of timelessness. Throne of Blood can also be considered as retaining the best qualities of Welles’s Macbeth in terms of its expressive production design. Kurosawa has spoken of the use of wide interiors with low ceilings and squat pillars to enclose the interior space and visualise a sense of oppression. This symbolises the forces out of Washizu’s control that are compelling him along his murderous and treacherous path. The exterior world of the forest is also expressionistic; the tangled treacherous forest is an inhospitable place where the witch and the hostile forces of nature conspire against the will of man. It also reaches out towards Washizu’s castle that has been made from the resources of the forest and is itself part of the forces of nature. Again the visual style has been interpreted in such a way to try to capture the essence of the tone of the source material.
Like Polanski and Welles, Kurowsawa has interpreted and adapt the play as he saw fit. The significant changes to setting and cultural changes mean that Throne of Blood has been scrutinised, studied and approached as a film in its own right and discussed in its own term’s without the direct comparison to Shakespeare’s exact words. As mentioned at the outset of the essay the arts of screen and play writing are very different and that which has been written for the stage does not necessarily translate to the screen. Critics argue rightly that Shakespeare’s poetry has been in places mutilated to bring the plays to the screen. However as this essay illustrates; certain passages have been successfully translated into cinematic terms retaining the imagery and the poetry of original play. To say that ‘the verbal essence of a Shakespeare play is essentially non-cinematic’ is untrue. To say that it is extremely difficult to translate into cinematic terms is entirely fair.
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Kumonosu jô (Dir Akira Kurosawa, 1957 Japan) Macbeth (Dir Orson Welles, 1948, US) Tragedy of Macbeth, The (Dir Roman Polanski, 1971, US/UK)
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