With Roman Polanski’s film adaptation of The Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare, the famous director of such classics as Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby has created one of the most realistic, cinematic and epic Shakespeare film adaptations ever made. Upon its release in 1971, Roman Polanski’s Macbeth received some attention, most of which was sensational but then quickly disappeared from public notice and general distribution. However, with the Criterion Collection’s recent reissue, it is undergoing renewed evaluation and the responses have been favorable. Never before or since has Macbeth’s themes of envy, greed, lust for power, guilt and overwhelming despair been made so real as in this film. The film mainlines us into the dreary and blood-soaked landscape of 11th century Scotland. Though most of the plot points and dialogue are loyal to the original text, the film exudes a mood that is palpably bleaker than the original. Through the power of cinema we experience the tragedy of Macbeth more intimately than ever before.
Film has the unique ability to supplement dialogue and acting with arresting visuals that provide more scope than any stage set can reproduce. In a play one can see and hear the action only from the limited dimensions of a stage and from one perspective, that of your seat. Through the lens of a camera the emotions, themes and action of the play take on new life and are made more intimate through changing locations and visual perspectives. In addition to monologues, we hear the thoughts of the characters through voice-overs. Instead of a play’s few props and backdrops, we see medieval life in actual locations, be it castle or heath. There is no doubt that plays are a very effective means of storytelling but through the power of editing, the use of actual locations and the ability to shoot wide and close up shots to establish a scene and/or move into the middle of the action, we can truly feel a part of the action as opposed to witnessing it from afar. Roman Polanski’s Macbeth is eloquent proof that film is a wonderful medium through which to newly experience and appreciate Shakespeare’s work.
The entirety of this film is steeped in violence, brutality and an eventual decent into madness. This is not entirely surprising as it is the first film Polanski made after the violent and tragic death of his wife and unborn child. It is no coincidence that Polanski chose to adapt one of literature’s most famous tragedies and create the most violent and graphic Shakespeare adaptation on stage or screen. At the very beginning of the film we are immediately confronted by the brutality of war when we witness a fallen soldier being beaten to death with a flail as he tries to crawl away. The soldier with the flail proceeds to steal the man’s boots. Later in this same scene we meet Macbeth for the first time. He and his friend Banquo watch as captured enemy soldiers are beaten and unceremoniously hung. This scene is made more horrific by the fact that the men are not dropped but dragged violently upward, their legs kicking wildly in the air. War is not shown as glorious or honorable, which stands in stark contrast to the praise that is levied on Macbeth for his valor in battle and acts as a foreshadowing to the mindless acts of cold blooded violence to come.
Deaths in the play are often described but not shown. In this film they are not only shown but shown graphically. In Macbeth’s quest for power and to fulfil his destiny as described by the witches he is willing to kill anyone who stands in his way; friend or foe, man, women or child. The film does not shy away from the violence that plays such a crucial role in Macbeth. Similar to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, the violence perpetrated by the film’s protagonist is meant to shock and horrify. Though we all know violence, especially murder, is deplorable, the strength of our reaction is directly proportionate to how the violence is displayed, to whom the violence is directed and for what reason. In this film people do not die immediately; they bleed, scream and beg for their lives. In the massacre scene at Macduff’s castle, everyone is killed, including the women and children. Many filmmakers would have chosen not to show all the violence that transpired within the castle’s walls. There seems to be an unwritten rule in cinema that you do not graphically show violence again children or animals. This film adaptation breaks all these rules as it shows in brutal detail a mother watching as her child is stabbed to death. It is implied that she will be raped and then murdered. Murder is not objectified or made abstract in Polanski’s Macbeth.
Many films which are set in the medieval era look fake or untrue to the time period. This film reeks of blood, mud, cold and damp. The costumes appear heavy, you see people’s breaths in the cold, rain beads on the chainmail and helmets of the soldiers and mud smears the hems of dresses, capes and robes. The violence and blood are realistic which also helps to make the film feel grounded in reality. Shakespeare’s use of Elizabethan language has never felt so at home in a film. In many Shakespeare adaptations the words seem forced or exaggerated but in Roman Polanski’s realistic depiction of medieval life in war torn Scotland, the dialogue feels completely natural and not forced in the least.
While watching the film, I wondered what made Roman Polanski choose this particular play to adapt. He has never done another Shakespeare adaptation, therefore it’s reasonable to assume that there was something about Macbeth that spoke to him. The obvious answer is that Macbeth is about as grim a story as one can imagine and this mirrored his frame of mind after the Manson murders. Perhaps he realized that, in the right hands, the story had the potential for a truly phenomenal and moving film adaptation. I think he saw the potential of the Lord and Lady Macbeth characters; their ambition and their guilt, two elements that clash and only one can reign supreme. Polanski used Shakespeare’s words as the bedrock on which to build his own vision of the story. Though he didn’t change all that much in regards to the plot or dialogue, he did change the feeling and energy surrounding the characters and plot. Nothing about the story feels honorable and Macbeth’s death at the end of the film is not so much tragic as it is inevitable. Polanski strips away the varnish of the elaborate language to show the rot underneath. In this film Macbeth is shown as more of a child than a man, pushed far out of his depth until he is finally crushed beneath his own misplaced ambitions.
There have been countless adaptations of Macbeth but none have been darker or more extreme than Polanski’s film. He has succeeded in making a film that is true to the setting of the play, rugged Scotland and life in a medieval court, while conveying the great ambitions and inner turmoil of a couple who feel they deserve to be higher than their station (much higher). Rather than accept their place, like loyal servants of the crown, they want the crown itself and will stop at nothing to get it. Shakespeare’s play is a cautionary tale, Polanski’s film is a nightmare.