Fair is film and film is fair –Cinema and the Shakespeare Adaptation


It is no debate that Justin Kurzel has crafted something wicked in his Macbeth: this is a savage Scotland where Shakespeare’s words flourish under a camera and cast that mingles cinema with sin. If you wish to know my thoughts on this Macbeth solely as a film, I suggest you read Jack Blackwell’s review as I share his opinion. My observation however, was that for a film so loyal to the setting of the Red King, Kurzel is not always faithful to the Bard himself, and is often open to remaking the plot altogether. This sparked a curiosity in me about this bizarre sub-genre that resides in film and has only continued to grow in popularity: The Shakespeare Adaptation.

It’s a complicated union between film and the Shakespeare, for his works were crafted specifically for the theatre. We often forget that the Bard’s works predated the rise of the novel; and these Hamlets and Lears were the closest literature had in understanding the human psyche until many decades later. Theatre had specific parameters to perform by, and all plays in this generation worked inside them. Nowadays, the soliloquys, stage directions and general ambiguities that make Shakespeare an icon are also a hindrance outside the theatre: how does the actor deliver a monologue to an audience that is miles away? Why are scenes of pivotal dramatic importance off-screen?  What do you cut? Will your audience be able to understand what’s going on? Where did that giant bear come from (no one knows, no one ever will)? There are plenty of hurdles for any director of the screen that differ to a director of the stage. From my experience, they go one of three routes.

The first route is that of filming the play as a play. At first this sounds ridiculous, since it will always be a play, but the approach alters the final product dramatically. Examples of this breed – a dying breed – of Shakespearean cinema, would be that of Trevor Nunn’s Macbeth (starring Ian Mckellen) or Laurence Oliver’s Richard III. You can tell in that classical performance style and such obvious lighting that the layout is almost inviting a live studio audience. Besides a more expansive set, the reality is that the play is treated no differently than before. It is almost as if the camera has taken a front row seat in a West End theatre and sneakily recorded a Friday matinee. But this is not a downfall to the style, and actually proves useful in the clarity of the film; often one of the hardest trials to overcome in a Shakespeare adaptation. By celebrating the natural habitat of the plays, they are allowed to flourish as they do on stage. My personal qualm, and probably the reason why it has faded out of popularity, is that it doesn’t take advantage of all the new tools at a director’s disposal. Sure this method is safe to do, but for the cinema’s audience, an audience with different temperaments and expectations than one at a theatre, it feels like a waste of resources.

The second route then is the opposite, as many directors now try to not only treat the play a as film, but to cinefy it. From the epic Henry V by Kenneth Branagh, to the hallucinatory Tempest of Derek Jarman, and now to the recent visual abattoir of Kurzel’s Macbeth, these films aim to compliment the verse with sound and screen. The drastic scene changes fuelled by imagination in the plays beforehand now suffice a passive moviegoer, as the director can transport all ‘gentles’ to any Elsinore they wish to conjure. Lines no longer need to be projected to fill an amphitheatre, but can be whispered or mumbled. The camera can magnify all nuance in performance. The supernatural can be accomplished with CGI. The clear moments of theatricality are lost in these adaptations, but what is gained is the return of the spectacle in these films. Whether it be acting or cinematography, a modern audience can relish all the newfound senses that now accomplish the words of the plays.

And finally there is the other end of the adapting spectrum known as the retelling; when plot remains but the words, places, names, and characters are remade for public consumption. This method triumphs usually in the popularity angle, as the adaptation gives the illusion of novelty, the familiarity of the tradition, all the while modernizing the core of Shakespeare to make him accessible to everyone. Movies such as Lion King or West Side Story are testaments to this method. Yet most moviegoers acknowledge a boundary you can’t cross with Shakespeare, where the retelling becomes a regurgitation and the film becomes foul. Billy Morissette’s Scotland P.A., a guilty pleasure of mine, is an apt example, as the Scottish play is relocated to a fast-food restaurant where the disgruntled employees vie for the role of manager at MacBeth’s. In comparison to Kurzel’s Macbeth, it just goes to show how you can’t always get away with murder on the silver screen.

In the end, those dramatic genes in a Shakespeare adaptation haunt the film, and each style of directing approaches the dilemma in different ways, especially those the soliloquys that rarely have a home in modern cinema. If we compare three Macbeths that come from each style (Nunn’s dramatizing, Kurzel’s cinefying, and Morissette’s retelling) in one speech (‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow…’) we can see just how the Shakespeare adaptations are varied in style. For the Nunn production, the camera practically freezes for the entire speech, as McKellen delivers the speech in emulation of a spotlight. Kurzel’s Macbeth, Fassbender, frantically darts between a voice-over and a sinister delivery to the camera in close ups resembling some sinister Scorsese film. Morissette removes the words and replaces it with silence, a revelation that cannot be articulated. Each one can be dissected and disapproved of, yet each own should be acknowledged for the merits they bring in their diverse interpretations of the same monologue that has been performed thousands of times.

Then there comes the argument my friend brought forth: with so many adaptations of Shakespeare, on stage and screen, do we need any more? In many ways this is very true, for there are now 275 adaptations of the 38 plays (including the likes of extreme makeovers like West Side Story and Planet 9), with 25 Macbeths among them. Surely, my friend suggested, audiences would be too tired of the Bard to engage with Kurzel’s Macbeth, it’s all been said before!

What I have shown proves otherwise. In those three examples, it is evident that with stories as timeless as Shakespeare’s, we as an audience are delighted to revisit these plays when they are revived with fresh perspective. And with Kurzel’s unique take on the words of Shakespeare, it seems clear that there is plenty of room for these adaptions. As 2015’s Macbeth celebrates its popularity with critics and cine-philes, I believe we will always welcome new additions to Shakespeare adaptations, as long as they are always signifying something.


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