From Page to Screen: ‘Macbeth’

Danielle Ryan

Adapting a beloved text into a film or television series is a daunting task. In addition to pleasing die-hard fans, producers must also take into consideration those who have never encountered the property before. Some adaptations are good, some are better than the source material, and some are so god-awful that fans try to forget they ever existed. (Looking at you there, Tank Girl.) Let’s take a look at what works, what doesn’t, and just how one adaptation made it from page to screen. (Last time: The Mangler)

Remakes happen. Like Mark Twain said in all his wisdom, “there is no such thing as a new idea”. Every creator adapts and expands upon previously invented ideas, and every film is influenced by the films that come before them, even in movies that aren’t remakes, reboots, or sequels. One of history’s most often-adapted authors is the Bard himself, William Shakespeare, who has 410 feature-length films based upon his work (as of June 2016). Some of the more famous plays have a number of adaptations, and Macbeth features dozens. For this very special From Page to Screen, a group of us here at Fandom took a look at the best adaptations of The Scottish Play.

Throne of Blood (1957)

Cinematic maestro Akira Kurosawa was no stranger to Shakespeare. His paranoid thriller The Bad Sleep Well and his epic Ran took inspiration from Hamlet and King Lear respectively, but it’s his spectral take on Macbeth, Throne of Blood a.k.a. Spider’s Web Castle, that proves to be the most enchanting.

Kurosawa filters the Bard’s wicked tale of deceit through the Japanese art of Noh theatre, heightening the ghostly dread that oozes out of Shakespeare’s infamously cursed production. Set in feudal Japan, the story takes the familiar elements from the Scottish play and stages them in a dreamlike fashion. Noh is typified by its grandiose gestures and supernatural source material, and Throne of Blood takes advantage of these in delightfully eerie ways. The three witches are now a lone spirit that spins a threading wheel as she sings a chilling song about the eventual fates of the film’s Macbeth and Banquo surrogates, Washizu and Miki. Even Washizu’s death is refreshingly macabre as he’s not beheaded but impaled by a barrage of arrows as he tries to escape his prophesied doom.

That’s what I really love about Throne of Blood. It’s not a simple transposition of Macbeth to the age of the samurai but rather a loose reimagining that allows itself to craft its own identity. For example, the Lady Macbeth character Asaji is even more sinister than her Shakespearean counterpart. The scenes where she puppeteers Washizu’s decisions with her dark logic are genuinely spine-tingling thanks to actress Isuzu Yamada’s serene demeanor. And Toshiro Mifune’s performance as the frantic and disheveled Washizu is one of the legendary actor’s finest.

It’s far more original than it is derivative when it comes to being an adaptation of Macbeth — don’t expect any familiar Shakespeare dialogue to pop up — but it’s that individuality that makes Throne of Blood the best version of this haunted tragedy. [Drew Dietsch]

Macbeth (2015)

The 2015 adaptation of Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender in the title role and Marion Cotillard as his Lady Macbeth, is so brilliant that it received a 10-minute long standing ovation when the film debuted at Cannes Film Festival. It’s easy to see why, as the film is a gorgeous examination of betrayal, ambition, and war. The battle sequences are exquisitely gruesome, with swords clashing and blood flying. Macbeth is an inherently violent work, and this adaptation takes the bloodshed to another level.

In addition to outstanding cinematography, the selling point of the 2015 film is the acting. Fassbender is not the first member of the X-Men franchise to play the Scottish King (having been preceded by Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and James McAvoy), but he is the first to bring the warrior aspect of Macbeth’s psyche to life. This is not a stiff, traditional rendering of the play, but a breathing, pulsating thing, given life by Fassbender and Cotillard’s performances. For his part, Fassbender is a Scottish soldier so madly in love with his wife that he will let her convince him of treason; Cotillard is beautiful and enchanting and manipulative. She is the first Lady Macbeth that makes betrayal seem like an alright idea, though perhaps she is using her wiles on the audience as surely as her husband.

Macbeth brings the Bard’s Play to life with sex, violence, and a trio of witches to make a viewer’s skin crawl. For fans of the play or even someone who has no idea what “my mind is full of scorpions” means, this is the adaptation to watch. [Danielle Ryan]

Scotland, PA (2001)

Health gurus often say that fast food will kill you. In Scotland, Pa. that threat takes on a whole new dynamic. Director Billy Morissette’s take on the Scottish play puts Joe McBeth, played by James Le Gros, and his wife Pat (Maura Tierney) at the center of a power struggle for control of Duncan’s Cafe. The McBeths are, like the characters in the source material, ambitious to the point of mutiny. Their black and deep desires lead them to wrest control of the restaurant by way of murdering the previous proprietor. The resulting counter service chain becomes the first restaurant to offer drive-through window ordering, and “McBeth’s” is a poorly-disguised analog for a more famous real-life fast food chain. Christopher Walken, whose performance so often improves the condition of any film, plays a vegan police lieutenant named McDuff. His involvement in the story leads to one of the more memorable denouements in recent cinematic history, and the final shot of the movie is a perfect punchline to this dark joke about lust for power.

The best adaptations of Shakespeare’s work are those that make an effort to place the story in a different setting or a different time. Updating the productions often highlights the underlying truths about human nature that are so easily disguised underneath flowery language and frilly costumes. Scotland, Pa. takes it further by reinterpreting what it means to be a king. Any viewer who has worked in food service will recognize in McBeth and his wife the pride that leads to back-of-the-house politics in kitchens across the country. Full to bursting with black humor, crazy hippies, and deep fried body parts, Scotland, Pa. is a tale of hubris and hamburgers that is sure to leave you “lovin’ it.” [Robert Mitchell]

Macbeth (2010)

There have been many adaptations of one of the Bard’s beloved masterpieces, Macbeth, some ranging from faithful to downright bizarre (looking at you, Restaurant Macbeth); There is a lot out there, but an essential viewing comes in the form of Rupert Goold’s 2010 adaption set in the backdrop of a Stalinized Scotland-Soviet Union hybrid. At the center is Macbeth himself, brilliantly played by Patrick Stewart as a cold, stone-faced commander who exudes militaristic confidence and fascism and yet, there is a sense of precariousness in his more vulnerable moments that is typical Macbeth, but what differentiates this portrayal is that it is not so much Macduff taking revenge, but Macbeth’s own sense of consequence for his accomplishments making him aware of the bleak ending that is most assuredly coming, and the moment he nihilistically gives up is the most telling we’ve ever seen.

Say nothing for Lady Macbeth. A number of directorial decisions made it through, though no dialogue is changed so the good lady is just as devious as ever, but an interesting thing to think about is her age compared to Patrick Stewart’s. He looks more than double. This gives off the impression of a trophy wife marrying high and fighting to keep herself that way, which serves up more than enough adequate motivation for why she dared her husband to screw up his manhood in the first place.  The witches are portrayed as nurses who painfully euthanize and are constantly straying in the background, even in scenes they weren’t even present in the original play, but it gives them a more omniscient air that makes them, and the world Goold has crafted, all the creepier and fully realized in a way Macbeth has never been before. [Seth Jans]

Men of Respect (1991)

Men of Respect is a 1991 mob movie that got dumped in the slow winter months and forgotten for 25 years. Due to Millennials rediscovering certain flicks on outdated mediums, this film is starting to experience a resurgence. John Turturro and his real-life wife Katherine Borowitz play this iteration’s Lord and Lady Macbeth. Turturro is mad at Rod Steiger for passing him over as Don and conspires with his wife to kill Steiger. After they kill Steiger and banish his sons to Florida, the real fireworks begin.

Local rival Dennis Farina gets bumped off and now it’s up to Peter Boyle to set things straight. Boyle begins a campaign to kill Turturro and install Stanley Tucci as the new don. But, Turturro keeps screaming that he can’t be killed by a man born of a woman. Peter Boyle reveals that since he was born by C-Section, he can defeat Macbeth’s prophecy. That’s when Boyle whacks him and Tucci takes over. End scene.

The film is an amazing Macbeth adaptation due to working as a B-mob movie and a Postmodern attempt to make sense of MacBeth. The conviction and glee that Boyle has in his voice when describing his mother’s C-section is so bizarre. The cast is stunning for its age, especially when you realize that this is the film that Turturro did right before “Barton Fink”. The 1950s saw a few attempts to turn Drive-In mob movies into Macbeth style takes, but they lacked the follow-through of “Men of Respect”. For those that haven’t seen those earlier flicks, only check out “Joe Macbeth”. The rest are garbage. [Troy Anderson]

Macbeth (1971)

The 1971 Macbeth is one of the more lurid adaptations of the play to screen. The film was directed by Roman Polanski following an unimaginable personal tragedy. His pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, along with some of his friends, was brutally murdered by the Manson Family two years earlier in one of the most infamous crimes in American history. It has been suggested that the Manson murders may have influenced his directing choices, in particular a very graphic scene involving the murder of Macduff’s wife and son. Controversially the film also features plenty of nudity, including a scene where a guilt-crazed Lady Macbeth wanders nude for no explained reason. Despite the use of titillation, this is a solid film: Jon Finch does a great job as Macbeth and Francesca Annis is incredible as Lady Macbeth.

Polanski’s bloody adaptation achieved a mixed reputation in 1971, as critics may not have been ready for a film to take literally Shakespeare’s themes of blood and betrayal. But today it is regarded as one of the best versions of Macbeth to screen, pulling together a mood of corruption and evil across the film. Much as the 2015 version would do decades later, this Macbeth is perpetually a gray unhappy place. The grimness is achieved without much changes to the text, Shakespeare’s own narrative easily translates into a cynical tale of horror. Most of the internal monologues are turned into voice-overs. Without changing any dialog, the minor character of Ross is expanded into being an opportunistic henchman of Macbeth’s, a traitor to a traitor. Also at the end, the character Donalbain is seen visiting the witches, suggesting that the evil in Scotland will survive the short reign of our usurper star. [Eric Fuchs]

Danielle Ryan
A cinephile before she could walk, Danielle comes to Fandom by way of CNN,, and Paste Magazine. She loves controversial cinema (especially horror) and good cinematography; her dislikes include romantic comedies and people's knees.
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