Warning. From time to time one is guilty of opinionating in public. This is one of them. It’s long and bad tempered because I’m so tired of paying for films that are adaptations of ‘premodern’ texts which take my money and then insult my intelligence.
Another film adaptation of a Shakespearian play. The play Macbeth has been around for 400 years. There’s a library about it, and there have been numerous attempts to put that play on stage or on film and some have been creative, some have been misguided and some have been downright weird.
There are versions: there is no ‘right’ version. But why do so many modern adaptations require the audience to leave its brain at the door? Why are so many versions of early modern or pre-modern texts so often reductive to the point where you’d be forgiven for wondering if the filmmakers had ever bothered to think about the original. Why are they so unimaginative? There are exceptions. Brilliant exceptions, but they are so rare.
There’s probably two ways at looking at Macbeth (2015).
Does it live on its own, free of the original? Yes it does. As a film it looks beautiful, the acting is good, the story rocks along and it’s an entertaining ride. If you knew nothing about Macbeth, or ‘Macbeth’ this is an entertaining film as long as you leave your brain at the door. They could have called it Macca the Slasher and no one would have cared: Macca goes Ape.
As an adaptation it’s a reading of the source, so it’s possible to ask what it does with the original, or what is suggests as a reading of the original? Answer: it’s awful. It’s yet another mediocre piece dressed up with the usual marketing bullshit and cinema trickery which seems to miss the fact that 400 years ago Shakespeare didn’t insult the intelligence of his audience.
Think of that initial audience. They didn’t know the heart circulated the blood. Your average high school student who has being paying attention knows more astronomy and geography than they did. To find out what was wrong with you the doctor was just as liable to taste your urine or cast your horoscope. America was a vague rumour to the west and Australia hadn’t been invented. Newton and his physics were over a century in the future.
But that original audience wasn’t stupid. In Macbeth Shakespeare made something that was a spectacle: even the stage version has weird sisters and sword fights and apparitions, but the story works at whatever level you want to take it. It works as spectacle and profound meditation. You can't exceed it or sum it up neatly. Whatever meaning or theme you find is always opening outwards into new possibilities. He also created a linguistic space where it was possible to think through and in language. It’s not that Shakespeare wrote some memorable lines. His characters think through the language they use. Macbeth’s tortured syntax in the lead up to the murder, the way images cluster and echo each other, the way characters use their own particular sets of symbolism. You can hear these things in a production. Duncan’s ornate syntax, the rhythm of the witches which sets them apart, Lady Madcbeth’s habitual use of the first person plural etc.etc.etc. So claiming that they respected the dialogue, without paying attention to how that dialogue works, is indicative of the problem.
Yes, it’s a play about an ambitious Scottish couple and the consequences of their ambition, but ambition is just the specific example: every one in that audience, at some stage of their life would stand where Macbeth did, in act one scene seven, knowing that the thing he or she most wanted was the one thing all sane reasoning and social conditioning said was wrong.
The tragedy lies in the way he has to face the consequences of his decision, and the unraveling of the Macbeths’ relationship; they start joined at the hip and they both die alone regretting their actions. As Marjorie Garber pointed out, in the kind of easily available discussion in her book Shakespeare After All which should be the starting point for anyone thinking about twiddling with one of the plays: this is not about doing an act, but being done by it.
In the ‘making of the film’ on my Blue ray version the director says two things that are indicative of what’s wrong. The first is that he was more interested in the 11th century Macbeth than in Shakespeare’s. It’s a great idea. Though why you’d still use Will’s words is a good question.
At which point the person behind the camera should have stopped him and said, and what did you do with that information? Did you make a film about someone called Macbeth set in the 11th century?
A quick review of the History, which was not known to Shakespeare and is still very patchy:
Eleventh century Scotland was not a united kingdom but a number of smaller, competing ones. 9 of the ten ‘kings’ who ruled before Macbeth were murdered or killed in battle by the people who took over from them. Hereditary Kingship was not a feature of the time.
Duncan was not regarded as a Good King. He was seen as weak and his attempts at gaining military glory were disastrous. Macbeth’s claim to the throne was as good as Duncan’s and he could also claim that his wife was the granddaughter of a King.
Macbeth and the Scottish “earls”, including Banquo, rose against Duncan after his disastrous campaign in England. There is no sense that what Macbeth did was wrong or unusual. At the time of the Killing, Malcolm was nine years old. By law a King had to be at least 17. He and his mother and brother didn’t leave Scotland for two years.
Lady Macbeth was called Gruach. Her first husband was called Gillecomgain, a son of Duncan. Gillcomegain and Duncan’s Grandfather had killed Macbeth’s father. Lady Macbeth and Gillecomgain had a child, called Lulach. Gillecomgain was burnt to death in his fortress, possibly by Macbeth. Macbeth married Gruach, who was also his cousin. He was twenty-eight when they married.
Macbeth ruled a united Scotland for 17 years. He was so secure of his position that he went on a pilgrimage to Rome
The first attempt by Siward to defeat him was unsuccessful. He was defeated in battle by Malcolm and Siward in July 1054. Malcolm became King after the victory, but Macbeth continued to rule the northern part of Scotland until his death in battle against Malcolm in 1057.
Shakespeare did not know much, if any, of this.
Think about what a leap of the imagination it would take to try and get inside that story. How strange and alien it must be to a modern audience. How thought provoking. And then imagine a couple with that kind of family history. How did they negotiate their relationship? Or what it might be like to live in that world: imagine what it might be like to ‘love’ someone knowing their chances of dying in their sleep were almost non existent, that there is no point in the day or night when you could simply relax and not fear an assassin. Where every time they left there was a fifty-fifty chance they might not make it back.
But part of the problem with so many film adaptations is a basic failure to imagine.
At the level of ‘History’ this film is botched.
At times they seemed to have played with the idea of it being about that 11th century King. Macbeth’s ‘castle’ where he kills Duncan is nothing but a large barn, which is probably about right, although it’s a barn with no wall or fence around it. But then, abruptly heaving into the distance, there’s a much later medieval castle with cathedral like interiors. It’s a bit like a film about Drake leading the English Navy against the Spanish Armada in 1588 with RAF Spitfires appearing to strafe the Spanish galleys.
Battles are ridiculously stylized and silly. They seem to happen in fog or with drifting smoke. There’s knowledge, readily available, about how 11th century battles were fought and the weapons used in them. But here we have a Scottish 11th Century Army in which everyone can afford a sword but not one shield or helmet is in evidence, even amongst the Norwegians.
This does at least lead to one amusing moment when Macbeth says, ‘Before my body/ I throw my warlike shield’. He doesn’t have one and neither does anyone else.
The idea of a teenage boy being out of place in an 11th century army is just daft. The idea of Macbeth being upset by this is even dafter. Siward’s reaction to his son’s death at the end of the play should signal this. When the ‘last reserves’ arrive, there’s not a farm implement amongst them.
In one of the stranger moments of the film there’s a blink and you’ll miss it execution of the first Thane of Cawdor, by archers. But there are no archers in the battles. The battles are random melees. The English/Northumbrian army under Siward looks suspiciously like a group of monks on horseback. They should look like the English army in the Bayeux tapestry. They should fight like the armies did less than ten years later at Fulford Gate and Stamford Bridge and Senlac. If you want to ‘do’ the 11th century do it.
Being pedantic again? No. Why do I have to leave my brain at the door? So much time and technological know how went into this why couldn’t they get these things right?
The second thing I heard on the 'making of' was that Macbeth has PTSD. I’m not quoting directly. Because at that point my brain stalled …..
Why bother calling this film Macbeth?
Shakespeare’s working method was to multiply or remove the motivations and causes he found in his sources. This opens up his plays. It allows the audience room to move and it does not dictate meaning. You’re an adult it says: you make up your own mind. It’s rare to find modern films that do this.
The film begins with the Macbeths at the funeral of a child. So that ‘explains’ Mrs Macbeth. She’s lost a child. That’s why she does what she does. Simple.
As for Macbeth, well, apparently he has PTSD. And that explains everything too, so it’s all good and neat. And you don’t have to think or feel, just watch the pretty film.
Ignore the dodgy practice of analyzing people who have been dead for ten centuries using modern categories that probably don’t make sense when applied to the past. The distinction between soldier and civilian in the 11th century was meaningless. Ignore the desire to ‘explain’. Freud was guilty of this, he wanted to “solve the problem of Hamlet” and the dead child explanation for Lady M’s actions turns up in a 1916 essay of his.
Instead ask why didn’t someone stop and consider what happens when you make a reductive interpretation of the play that isn’t in the play and impose it on the material.
Macbeth has PTSD. Therefore he does what he does. The story now takes place ‘over there’ at several removes from the audience. Not only are we not about to be drafted into an 11th century battle, most of us don’t have PTSD. We might sympathise with those that do, but the universal claims of the original, the sense of choices and their consequences that everyone has to face, the limitations of morality, the way wishful thinking can misinterpret or misread (something both Duncan and Macbeth are guilty of), all this has been vaporized and replaced by what?
MacBeth is on the battlefield killing, Afterwards doing stuff with dead and wounded bodies you’d expect other people to be doing. Then he’s screwing his wife on what seems to be an altar in a chapel, then he’s butchering Duncan in a pointless frenzy and then he’s going weird in a room. People die. Lady Macbeth rides across the countryside and cries. Then she dies. Then Macbeth dies.
There is no possibility of sympathy or horror. He’s no longer a believable or interesting person; he’s a virtual character in yet another silly hack fest. It’s a terrible waste of the actors and the director
There’s no initial nobility, there’s no choice made consciously leading to horrific personal and social consequences. There’s no distinction between the Macbeths in their reactions to what they’ve done. It seems that Lady M is distraught because Macca’s gone nuts. There’s no sense of her terrible slow realization of her guilt.
Another thing Polanski did well in comparison was to show the way Macbeth rots Scotland out from the centre. There’s no noble Duncan: Duncan has basically disappeared. Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking has gone, the Hubble bubble scene has gone. The banquet scene is botched and the death of Lady Macduff and her family changed from the menace and horror of the original (which even Polanski got right, despite the fact it has one of Shakespeare’s most cringe worthy lines) to some twisted and unbelievable piece of brutal nonsense in which they are tied to stakes and burnt with lady Macbeth looking on.
It says something about the film that perhaps the most memorable scene is the one where MacDuff is told his wife and children are dead. The actors are given space to act, the lines work, they’ve worked for four hundred years and it suddenly becomes believable. And then its back to nonsense:
Burnham Wood becomes burning wood.
So why then, to wrap up this overlong grumble, given all the brilliant technical skill available, given the fine actors and the budgets and the skill of the director can’t we have a pre modern story told with intelligence and imagination which credits an audience with imagination and encourages it to use it?