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Film Versions Of Macbeth


According to Michael Mullin, "Macbeth on Film," Film/Literature Quarterly, 1 (1973), 332-342, there were at least nine different versions of Macbeth in the silent era, and there have been nine sound versions including adaptations. In his article, Mullin compares Orson Welles' Macbeth, Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, George Schaefer's Macbeth, and Roman Polanski's Macbeth, four productions that are also discussed here.

Macbeth.
Directed by Orson Welles U. S. A. 1948 (rereleased 1949). Audio Brandon.
Starring Orson Welles, Jeannette-Nolan, Dan O'Herlihy.
This film is more Welles than Shakespeare. The setting is more that of Beowulf than that of the later Middle Ages or the Renaissance. On this account, Welles is impervious to elements in the play (the banquet, King Edward, hypocritical behavior) that suggest a highly developed culture against which the Macbeths do their dark deeds. Welles makes the conflict one between "agents of chaos, priests of hell and magic" and "Christian law and order." dhristianity, we are told, has "newly arrived" on the Scottish moors. For the old order, Welles uses suggestions of Stonehenge and the Druids. Macbeth's appearance is as we might imagine Attila the Hun. All of this means, of course, that murder would be expected of Macbeth. Welles excises political elements intimating the union of Scotland and England and makes the play one of religious conflict: the major symbolism, accordingly, is the Celtic cross against the forked staffs of the Witches. Welles goes to the length of creating a character denominated the Holy Father, who is spiritually pitted against Witches that look like vulgar village gossips. Basically, this film is an expressionist version of Macbeth: it rejects naturalism, reduces human relationships to "broad, primal urges," and expresses these by heavily symbolic gestures and postures. Thus, the shadow of Macbeth's finger moves slowly along a wall to point at Banquo's Ghost. The thrust of the film emanates from Welles' apprehension of a struggle in society between the individual will to power and the need for law and order. Curiously, Lady Macbeth's dress has a zipper, and she uses lipstick. Other discussion of this film may be found in James Naremore, "The Walking Shadow: Welles' Expressionist Macbeth," Film/Literature Quarterly, 1 (1973), 360-366; Susan McCloskey, "Shakespeare, Orson Welles, and the 'Voodoo' Macbeth," Shakespeare Quarterly, 36 (1986), 406-416.

Throne of Blood.
Directed by Akira Kurosowa Japan. 1957. Audio Brandon.
Starring Toshiro Mifune.
This film has been regarded as an adaptation rather than an imitation of Shakespeare. For example, without textual support Kurosawa makes the forest image central to the play: if Macbeth could control the forest he would be king indeed. Kurosawa's visual equivalents, such as having Macbeth die a pincushion of arrows, some of which have been shot by his own people, have been given qualified praise, e.g., by John Gerlach, "Shakespeare, Kurosawa, and Macbeth: A Response to J. Blumenthal," Film/Literature Quarterly, 1 (1973), 352-359. Kurosawa tries to make the corruption of Macbeth understandable by emphasizing the prophecies and the influence of his wife. Lady Macbeth announces her pregnancy, thus giving Macbeth a familial excuse for what in Shakespeare is less certainly realized. There are other instances of Kurosawa's chipping away something of the play's grasp of the darker aspects of human nature. Kurosawa's Macbeth, as the film goes on, becomes distanced from the viewers' sympathies and loses touch with the tragic idea of "a world that mocks human longing with sad knowledge of human limitations" (Gerlach).

Macbeth.
Directed by George Schaefer United Kingdom. 1960. Audio Brandon.
Starring Maurice Evans and Judith Anderson.
This color version, critics say, suffers from "theatrical," "stagey" acting by Evans and Anderson and from the "prettifying" of costuming, the Witches, castles, and the heath, which become the bonny Scotland of the calendars. There is, to be sure, some slight textual support (in I.vi) where Duncan and Banquo remark on the "pleasant seat" of Macbeth's castle. The principal characters are too old for their parts, and too cheerful. There is undesirable contrast between the theatricality of the acting and the down-to-earthness or documentary quality of the scene and the innumerable bits of stage business. The emphasis on realism, as Michael Mullin has pointed out, causes the chubby Evans to appear as an "ageing psychopath" experiencing hallucinations instead of ghosts, visions, and incompletely glimpsed apparitions. The sympathy of the audience is withdrawn from Macbeth.Macbeth. Directed by Roman Polanski United Kingdom. 1971. Columbia Cinematheque. Starring Jon Finch and Francesca Annis. Polanski's color version presents a young and attractive Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, who by these qualities help to realize the "fair is foul" theme of the play. Lady Macbeth is quite free from the meat-ax quality often associated with this character. Polanski-with memories of European concentration camps and the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, by Manson and his "family" - emphasizes bloodshed more than Shakespeare does: for example, the camera focuses on the exceptionally bloody murder of Duncan whereas this act in Shakespeare's play takes place offstage. One gathers that for Polanski the crown itself is tainted because at the ending Donalbain, Malcolm's brother, is shown, pace Shakespeare, riding off to consult the Witches. Polanski sensationalizes Shakespeare's play by, among other things, having Macbeth drink the Witches' brew; by presenting the Witches nude in IV.i; by having Lady Macbeth appear nude in the sleepwalking scene; and by focusing the camera on the decapitation of Macbeth. The result is a rather melodramatic and distracting film.Norman Berlin has reviewed the film in "Macbeth: Polanski and Shakespeare," Film/Literature Quarterly, 1 (1973), 291-298. David I. Grossvogel has written a review, "When the Stain Won't Wash: Polanski's Macbeth," Diacritics: A Review of Contemporary Criticism, 2 (Summer, 1972), 46-71.
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