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Macbeth On Screen: 7 Great Film Versions Of Shakespeare’s Classic Tragedy

Macbeth On Screen: 7 Great Film Versions Of Shakespeare's Classic Tragedy

Centuries of cultural trickle-down have proven that William Shakespeare‘s tragedies to be his most endlessly adaptable works. On occasion, this is down to his magnificent command of the english language —though it’s not strictly de rigeur, some filmmakers have airlifted verbatim passages of his dialogue straight out of his original texts. Shakespeare is eternal —his inspired turns of phrase have permeated common vernacular so deeply that we allude to the Bard every day without even realizing it. But another dimension of the enduring appeal of the Big Three —  “Hamlet,” “Macbeth” and “Romeo And Juliet“— is the ease with which they’re translated into contemporary contexts.

Those three tragedies revolve around universal themes that can be tailored to fit modern tastes or the milieu of the director’s choosing. The process of coming into one’s own, excessive ambition’s deleterious effects on the soul, and the agony of forbidden love all transcend the Europe of yore. Though Justin Kurzel stayed faithful to the source material when crafting his new adaptation of “Macbeth” (read our review here), his approach is only one fork off of a road rich with splintering paths. Kurzel retained the spirit of the original, but amplified the violence that the script mostly leaves implicit: namely, he staged battle scenes that Shakespeare had left offstage with a gruesomely cinematic bent.

READ MORE: 5 Innovative Ways the Michael Fassbender / Marion Cotillard ‘Macbeth’ Differs From Previous Versions 

Before Kurzel looses his tempestuous vision, The Playlist has assembled a look at seven other takes on “Macbeth,” ranging from the reverent to the imaginative. By the pricking of our thumbs, freely interpretive revisions on a fully enshrined classic of the stage this way comes.

“Macbeth” (1948)

Citizen Kane” lives on as such a massive achievement that it often threatens to eclipse the rest of Orson Welles’ sterling filmography. Among his lesser-known gems is this Old Hollywood adaptation, sticking with the original setting and leaving Shakespeare’s dialogue mostly intact (though critics of the film wanted to have Welles’ head for his having tinkered with the script, relatively slight as they may seem to a modern audience). Welles had previously mounted a production of “Macbeth” at the ripe age of 20 called “Voodoo Macbeth,” which transported the royal schemings to a Caribbean island and swapped out the Scottish witchcraft for island black magic. But he went straight down the middle for his big-screen tango with the Bard, taking the title role for himself and retaining the regal backstabbing. Welles himself gives a towering performance, and the larger-than-life Jeanette Nolan makes for an agreeably wicked Lady Macbeth, though it’s tempting to imagine what the film would’ve looked like had Welles been able to land Vivien Leigh, his first choice for the role. With only a shoestring budget, Welles was able to complete shooting on the film in just over three weeks —the final product still looks timeless and priceless.

“Throne of Blood” (1957)

With its emphasis on honor, its shifting dynamics of power, and a culture of violent ruthlessness, feudal Japan perfectly matched the original play in Akira Kurosawa’s immortal remix. The master filmmaker had admitted to modeling his samurai after the cowboys of Westerns in previous films, but here they provide an analog for the military royals of yore. Toshiro Mifune takes on one of his greatest roles as General Washizu, conveying supreme power but still enough willing blindness to fall into his manipulative wife’s (Isuzu Yamada) machinations. Kurosawa drew on the illustrious history of Japanese noh theatre to style his film, accenting the dramatics of Macbeth’s madness with the heft and grandeur of high opera. Kurosawa was the first filmmaker to turn Western audiences on to the fascinating developments taking place in Asian cinema, and no film encapsulates the satisfying international exchange better than “Throne of Blood”. Telling an English story through distinctly Japanese means, Kurosawa demonstrates the power of the film form as a facilitator of cross-cultural unity; audiences on both sides of the globe marveled at the hailstorm of arrows that punished Washizu for his hubris. Regional specifics aside, anybody with eyes can bask in the warming glow of Kurosawa’s genius.

“Macbeth” (1971)

Eight months pregnant with their first child, Roman Polanski’s muse and wife Sharon Tate was brutally murdered in the summer of ’69 by the Manson Family cult. After two years of wallowing in chronic depression and survivor’s guilt, Polanski dragged himself back into the world of film with this dark, paranoid riff on “Macbeth.” In his review at the time, Roger Ebert notably declared that the film was “an original film by an original film artist, and not an interpretation” and it’s still pretty hard to argue that point. Polanski repurposes the skeleton of the story to fit his own stylistic and thematic ends, focusing his efforts on elements of self-destruction and psychological instability present in Shakespeare’s original. Shifting the spotlight away from the performances and onto the overall mood of the piece, he summons fear and anxiety from silences and discomfiting absence like those witches worked that cauldron. In his previous film, 1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” Polanski successfully left the haunting impression that everyone therein was out to get our heroine. The year after, his personal suspicions would be confirmed in a horrifyingly real fashion. “Macbeth” starts at that point of total paranoia and descends deeper, as our ostensible hero tries to get the jump on everyone gunning for his crown.

“Macbeth” (1978)

When critics describe a film as a “taped play,” they usually intend a pejorative, more or less a diss on a perceived lack of visual innovation that typically takes advantage of the unique properties of cinema as a medium. But in the case of this little-seen project, that’s a simple statement of fact; the Phillip Casson-directed “Macbeth” lived on the stage and was videotaped in full for broadcast on the BBC. No concessions were made to gussy up the production for the screen, keeping the theater-in-the-round format (resulting in constant, sometimes disorienting revolving camera movements) and paring down costumes to the bare minimum while nearly eschewing scenery entirely. Then what, pray tell, does that leave as the saving grace validating this project’s existence? Inhabiting the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are none other than Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, arguably the two most talented British thespians walking the boards in the year 1978. The duo delivers a pair of titanic performances, amply supplying the grandeur and —duh— theatricality that has elevated these characters into the pantheon of great dramatic roles. At the time, both actors were regarded as respectable fixtures of the stage, neither having become bigtime stars. But with “Macbeth,” their twin destinies as living treasures of the screen were instantly clarified.

“Men of Respect” (1990)

Honestly, “Macbeth” can pretty much be transposed onto any context in which killing isn’t seen as too out of the ordinary. Turbulent wartorn Japan made sense in “Throne Of Blood,” and so does the high-stakes world of organized crime. Geoffrey Wright recognized the parallels between power-hungry gangsters and scheming Scots when he moved the action to gangland Australia for his 2006 adaptation, but William Reilly executed this same concept better and earlier with 1990’s “Men of Respect” (though Reilly wasn’t quite the first one to imagine Macbeth as a wiseguy; that’d be Ken Hughes in 1955 with the lumpy “Joe Macbeth”). The concept doesn’t move far beyond its central mashup conceit, and seeing made men maintain a straight face while intoning thee’s and thou’s can sometimes make for an awkward sight, not to mention the hopeless pseudo-cleverness of naming the Banquo avatar Bankie Como. But there are distinct pleasures to be had in a white-hot performance from John Turturro in his prime, swaggering around with Italian-American braggadocio. He captures the volatility of the character as hungry mobster Mike Battaglia, gobbling up all of the crumbs of authority that fall his way, until he stumbles into a feeding frenzy and binge-eats until he keels over.

“Scotland, PA” (2001)

Perhaps the most boldly divergent of the many “Macbeth” reworks, William Morrissette’s “Scotland, PA” doesn’t stop at relocating Shakespeare’s hotbed of Machiavellian scheming into a fast-food joint. The film completely overhauls the tone of the play, transmuting the tragic elements into absurd black comedy. Both the original text and Morrissette’s film use Macbeth’s follies as a tragic teaching aid, but while Shakespeare led audiences to therapeutic catharsis in the concluding bloodbath, “Scotland, PA” sniggers at the pathetic maneuvering of the dimwits onscreen and invites us to share in the laugh. The year is 1975 and Joe McBeth is a wage slave at a Mickey D’s knockoff, harboring dreams of manager status and converting the restaurant to a high-efficiency drive-through. A prophecy handed down to him by a trio of soothsaying stoners gets him hooked on the notion of supremacy, and all it takes is a few nudges from his girlfriend before the manager is duct-taped in the walk-in fridge. Vaguely reminiscent of the Coen Brothers’ wretches in “Fargo” via their amateur-hour criminal ineptitude, the denizens of “Scotland, PA” are objects of ridicule, schemers to whom fate appears as a mean joke rather than divine force.

“Maqbool” (2003)
Vishal Bhardwaj slunk into the Mumbai underworld to make a proper Shakespearean adaptation for the people of India. None of the liberties that Bhardwaj took with the story —turning the Lady Macbeth figure into the Duncan figure’s wife and Macbeth’s mistress, as well as promoting the crooked-cop Weird Sisters from prophets to active forces on the goings-on in the plot— directly result from Indian cultural mores. Instead, the film fine-tunes the play’s dramatic arc for maximum emotional affect. As in his “Othello” adaptation “Omkara,” Bhardwaj conjures sweeping Bollywood sentiment from the longing and anguish that drive Macbeth to murder. Indian cinema has a rich history of jazzy gangster flicks, and hearing everyone refer to Maqbool as “don” certainly calls Hindi crime classic “Don” to mind, but the overarching mood is one of classicism and refinement. And unlike his subject, Bhardwaj’s ambition paid rich dividends. “Maqbool” put him on the map, leading to slots at Cannes and Toronto along with the professional esteem of Francis Ford Coppola. Both Bhardwaj and leading man Irrfan Khan were destined for success, though the filmmaker remained in India while Khan moved on to major roles in Hollywood films. “Maqbool” sees both enacting a strong, assured view on Shakespeare that manages to feel both fresh and respectful of tradition.

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