The works of Shakespeare are as timeless as their own sources. His work reached quickly the upper echelons of the classics of Homer and Ovid, Aeschylus and Euripides. Studied throughout the world as the affirmative English language writer, Shakespeare is not only respected so greatly, but imitated and adapted nearly as often.
As a writer of plays, his work is naturally crafted for the stage, and likewise when the stage fell under the focus of the first film reel, movies. One of his most beloved and superstitiously guarded works is Macbeth, the classic tale of bloodletting and madness in the Scottish Highlands. The tale is one of the shortest, and most produced of Shakespeare’s tragedies. I’m not hear to discuss the merits and elements of one of the Bards greatest works.
You can discuss this in school, on the internet, or while actually reading the play. I only seek to share with you a few of the many film adaptations available of this, the vicious dark tale of Macbeth
Macbeth (Orson Welles) – The first of the many epic productions, Orson Welles’ version of Macbeth is a dark, brooding version, done on an extremely low budget and with the wonderful overacting of Orson Welles. Over accentuated and nearly expressionistic in set design, the story here is told with the thick and fake accents of Scotland leading to its critical and commercial flop. However the story is well told and for those that can understand and follow Welles and troupe, the characterization is as strong as any other adaptation around.
Joe Macbeth – This version resets the action in Chicago in the film noir setting of a gang war. The interpretation is liberal, and the work vague at best in its mirroring of the bards themes, but it’s one of the more interesting and compelling adaptations, and it utilizes best the built aspects of the noir genre to tell one of Shakespeare’s darker, more ironic tragedies.
Throne of Blood – Akira Kurosawa, never a stranger to massive productions and interpretations of western works into Eastern forms loved Shakespeare as could be seen in his reproduction of more than one of the bards great tragedies. Macbeth he took on in Throne of Blood, the entirety of Shakespeare’s play told through the screen of 16th Century Shogunate Japan, and the story of Washizu Taketori, played by the world famous Toshiro Mifune.
Macbeth (Polanski) – Easily the most violent and bloody of all the adaptations, Polanski was in the darkest phase of his career, this film directly following that of Rosemary’s Baby and the violent murder of Sharon Tate and his unborn child at the hands of the Manson family. The results in his films is disturbing and vicious and of all the works of Shakespeare, Macbeth is the most ripe for gory violence. The film itself is par, with an acceptable presentation. Not the greatest, but surely the most intriguing in the visual format.
Macbeth (with Ian McKellan) – Directed by Cason for the small screen, this version of Macbeth is intriguing not because of set design, or production value, but the complete lack there of. Filmed in complete black, with only the actors and a mostly empty stage, some of the greatest stage actors from England this half century populate the presentation, with Ian McKellan and Judi Dench in the starring roles. The acting is thus superb, even if the presentation (and it’s a full presentation…meaning rather long) is a bit sparse.
Macbeth (Zefirelli) – The famed Zefirelli production starring none other than Mel Gibson, Glen Close, and Helena Bonham-Carter is the most star-studded presentation, with the largest budget and most sprawling of intentions. The film takes a fairly straightforward, albeit grandiose approach to the play that works because of the strength of direction and acting, but fails in some of the Shakespearian conventions it sidesteps. Considered to be the most cinematic production of Shakespeare, while trying to appeal to Hollywood ethos of film making.
Men of Respect – This 1991 film reworks the entire story in favor of a modern, business setting. It’s essentially the tale of a mafia battle in modern day New York, spoken in modern English. However, the mafia setting is perfect for the tale of Macbeth and the story remains more or less true to its source. A strong adaptation with little actual deviation, even if that lack of deviation makes for a rather stiff film.
Scotland, PA – This indie sundance flick takes place in Scotland, Pennsylvania in the 1970s, where a local burger shop owner, MacDuff is murdered and his “empire” taken over and rebuilt by Joe Macbeth and his wife. In this version, the role of the wife is enhanced to the point of almost alleviating Joe his responsibility. The film itself is a black comedy, as Banqo is a bumbling fool and the inspector, played by Christopher Walken is a gem. The witches are two men and a women, and hippies…and likely high, but their prophecies are sound. It’s a great movie for anyone who’s worked in fast food before as well.
Maqbool – This Hindi production takes place in the Mumbai underworld, the underworld a perfect setting for the battle of powers and murder of compatriots. The film wasn’t commercially successful, but did go on to win various awards and presents one of the only other non English interpretations of the play, and a beautiful one at that.
Rave Macbeth – A German production, Rave Macbeth is still filmed in English and was never released in America. The film takes place in a rave, with the familiar taking place between club owners and employees this run around. However, the introduction of familiar elements like the witches and the bloody hands is handled with a modern appeal to the drug culture that the film takes place in. The film is just that then, a drug trip of sorts.
Every one of Shakespeare’s greatest works, Macbeth has found a long and productive life in celluloid. The themes of the bards plays work in almost any genre, in any decade of any generation, and will continue to find their home on stage, in film, literature, and beyond.