Tom Jolliffe on the many film adaptations of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth…
Shakespeare may have been the scourge of G.C.S.E students for many years, but it seems that the long standing fascination with his work is in no danger of passing. Whether its Hamlet, Othello, one of the Henrys, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear or many of the countless other works, his oeuvre has been adapted or referenced almost since his death, from stage to (in the last century and a bit) screen.
The distinct hallmarks of a Shakespearean tragedy are often used in film even when the filmmakers aren’t even directly referencing his works. There’s something distinctly Shakespearean about a film like Barry Lyndon as an example, or even in an array of scenery chewing villains who have the mark of the Shakespeare baddy in their DNA. His influence is immeasurable. Fans of the wordsmith’s original texts will undoubtedly have their favourites, and the grim paranoia and often surreal fantasy of Macbeth has been something that attracted me (even if covering Shakespeare was thrust upon me in school, college and university). It won’t be the only work of Will’s to have a multitude of on screen adaptations, but certainly, Macbeth may well rank as the most innumerably covered of his films. It tells the tale of a General, told by three witches that he’ll be King. Encouraged by his wife, he kills the King and then gets driven mad by paranoia (provoked by Lady Macbeth) before rivals seeks to overthrow him.
A mere trawl through IMDb shows dozens, ranging from short films (from the very dawn of cinema) right up to films in the works. Given the sheer countless numbers, it’s fair to say that interest in ‘new’ adaptations have tended to come in cycles. The earliest film which really made a big impression did so thanks to the star involved in making it. It was Orson Welles. Still fresh from his ground-breaking work with Citizen Kane (and popular follow ups in The Stanger and Magnificent Ambersons), Welles found himself with cart blanche. Given the fantastic ego, the challenge of a Shakespeare adaptation was too much to resist. The film was greeted with mediocre reviews and unfavorable comparisons to Laurence Olivier’s version of Hamlet. Whilst Hamlet walked away with four Oscars, Welles’ Macbeth was ignored entirely. In retrospect, Olivier’s truer and perhaps more respectful version of his source did make for the better film, though Welles’ Macbeth has certainly aged well visually. It’s a stunning looking work, further exemplifying his gift for groundbreaking visuals.
The definitive screen version came almost a decade after Welles’. It also came from the far east. A rising director in post-war Japan, Akira Kurosawa crafted a beautiful and gothic adaptation of Macbeth, setting it in feudal Japan, with Throne of Blood. Kurosawa’s muse, Toshiro Mifune starred as the ambitious General, convinced to forcibly take his crown. Isuzu Yamada as the Lady Macbeth of this piece (Lady Washizu in this case) is a scene stealing behemoth. With her high painted eyebrows and intense glares, she becomes simultaneously beautiful but unsettlingly fierce. Mifune is atypically superb of course. Kurosawa’s debut entry intfo Shakespeare canon, also marked something different to many prior (and since). It’s lithe and succinct, boiling down the elements of the core story, keeping them engaging but not getting too bogged down. Shakespeare adaptations can often get bogged down in self-importance and ego. I think of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, a gargantuan four hours (that said, it’s a great film).
In 1971, Roman Polanski’s had been on a successful run of films through Europe, beginning to make a name for himself in the States (cinematically that is). His Macbeth is a British made film featuring an impress cast of British talent (notably Jon Finch, Francesca Annis and Martin Shaw). This would mark a solid version, staying faithful to the setting and Scottish lineage of the character (even though it shot largely in Wales and England). Ultimately it’s not one of Polanski’s finest works, but it has plenty of his stylistic trademarks making it visually interesting (though the darker more gothic visuals of Welles and Kurosawa are more enthralling).
Interestingly, none of the versions to this point had taken on a great significance on pop culture or box office. Romeo and Juliet has historically done well, even when cultivated into a fresh guise (West Side Story). In 2015 (a multitude of adaptations beyond Polanski) we had something of an oddity… Justin Kurzel’s version. Up to this point, Macbeth adaptations hadn’t resulted in the kind of Oscar recognition other Shakespeare adaptations had (notably Hamlet). With Michael Fassbender starring, opposite Marion Cotillard, here was a film with Oscar potential in abundance. Fassbender was(is) one of the most fiercely magnetic actors of his generation. Cotillard is equally exceptional on her day. Both in fact are excellent here. The film is a good adaptation with stunning visuals, but for some reason it just didn’t connect with audiences (it bombed). The film gets quite easily forgotten and didn’t live up to its early trailers. Despite good reviews from critics (though not spectacular) and a great response at Cannes, there’s a feeling that audiences just weren’t on board for another adaptation of Macbeth. Audiences can be alienated by Shakespeare’s dialogue, which is kept fairly true to source.
This didn’t stop the Macbeth train. There was a version in 2018 (little seen) and more excitingly, a new version The Tragedy of Macbeth is due from Joel Coen, who brings aboard Denzel Washington and his wife, the sensational France McDormand. Under the A24 banner, this promises to be potentially exceptional and challenge Kurosawa’s crown. So many icons across the years have played the titular King (aside from the aforementioned, Sean Connery once played Macbeth in a TV movie too). Which is your favourite on-screen adaptation? Who was the best Macbeth? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.