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Copyright 2014-2016 by Dr. Mike Rickard
Roman Polanski's Film Adaptation of Macbeth: Overcoming the Challenges of Adapting from the Stage to the Screen Page One of Two
Adapting a play into a feature film presents challenges for filmmakers including how to expand the spatial limitations of the stage, changing the acting style of stage actors into a cinema friendly one, and how to deal with the dialogue intensive nature of most plays. A film adaptation is not without its advantages as a director is not limited by the spatial and temporal restrictions imposed on a play. Roman Polanski's adaptation of William Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth is an excellent example of how a play can be adapted to the silver screen without losing any of its appeal as a play and gain something from the extra elements of film.
As we have discussed earlier, film's unique storytelling elements give it the ability to tell a story in a different way than text. Film uses visuals and sound to tell a story. Literature by comparison only has text to tell its story. As mentioned in Adaptation: Studying Film & Literature, Robert Stam notes that film has the five added elements of "1. theatrical performance (live or animated), 2. words (spoken and written), 3. music, 4. sound effects (noise and silence) and 5. photographic images (moving and still)" (qtd. in Desmond and Hawkes 36).
A film adaptation of a drama brings in a dynamic not seen when a novel or short story is adapted into film. First, it is important to note the similarities and differences between drama and fiction. As Desmond and Hawkes point out, "Drama and fiction share many storytelling elements. Both use plot, characters, settings, themes, and figurative language to evoke intellectual and emotional responses" (159). They are not identical though. Drama and fiction as Laura Perrine notes, "drama is meant to be performed while fiction is intended to be read" (qtd. 159).
Film and drama share similar qualities. As Desmond and Hawkes explain, "Both (1) tell a story (2) performed by actors (3) before an audience" (161). Further analysis suggests both use words, music, and sound effects. The only cinematic element missing is that of photographic images.
A cursory examination of drama and film might lead someone to think the two mediums are identical. However while they share some of the same elements, there are distinct differences. One is that theatre is limited by the space of the stage. A second is that stage actors often have to use exaggerated voice and movements in order to reach the audience. "If the theater is large, the actor must magnify gestures, overstate facial expressions, and speak distinctly and loudly enough so that the viewers in the last row can see and hear him clearly" (162). A third difference is that plays are generally focused more on dialogue rather than action. As noted in Adaptation, these differences do not normally work in film, thus a filmmaker has to make changes to the play in order to successfully adapt it.
An important term to remember when discussing film adaptations of play is "opening up". As Desmond and Hawkes explain, "The term refers to a number of strategies developed by adapters to transpose the story from stage to screen conventions" (163).
The first method in which a play can be opened up is by filming settings only suggested in the drama. This is seen in Polanski's Macbeth which begins with a scene on a beach where the audience first sees the Three Witches. The play Macbeth does not give a setting in Act One Scene One; only "Thunder and lightning. Enter three witches". In the film, Polanski uses a gloomy looking beach as the setting when we first see the witches. Polanski adds an element of horror as he shows the witches burying a rope, a severed arm, and a dagger in the sand (possibly foreshadowing the violence to come).
A second method of opening up a play is by visualizing scenes only mentioned or implied in the drama. Shakespeare's Macbeth deals with violence but much of it is not seen in the play. Polanski's interpretation of Macbeth is violent and bloody (for reasons that shall be discussed later) and he visualizes scenes mentioned in dialogue to show the brutal world that the characters of Macbeth live in. For example, the execution of the Thane of Cawdor is only mentioned in the play's dialogue but Polanski films the scene, showing the Thane's bravery in death (again mentioned in the play's dialogue but not shown). Another scene mentioned in the play but not shown, is Duncan's assassination by Macbeth. Polanski shows this important event in the film, reinforcing the film's violent tone. The scene shows the brutality of the murder, Duncan's feeling of shock and betrayal, and the slippery nature of the crown. Another key event mentioned in the play but not shown is the climactic battle between Macbeth and Macduff. Polanski shows this, visualizing the brutal battle which climaxes with Macduff beheading Macbeth. This scene adds to the film because we see all of the soldiers around Macduff offer him their swords when he drops his. All of these events add to the story's drama and while they may have been difficult to show in a confined stage, it is difficult to imagine a film audience preferring to hear of them rather than see them take place before them.
A third option for opening up a play is to dramatize characters only mentioned or implied in the drama. Although Polanski does not add any characters, he expands the role of minor character Ross into a self-serving right hand man for Macbeth, depicting him as more brutal than he is in the play. Polanski also hints at further unrest in the kingdom when it is implied at the film's end that King Malcolm's younger brother Donalbain is seeking the Three Witches' counsel. This scene does not appear in the play but it is a logical addition given the film's theme of corruption and violence.
A director has the fourth option of expanding a play by visualizing literary symbols or motifs. A play can use symbols in order to convey a theme but film is superior in expressing a theme as it can use visuals, sound, and music to show a motif. Polanski does this throughout the film. The idea that power is corrupting and difficult to maintain is shown in the scene when Macduff assassinates Duncan and the king's crown falls to the floor. There is a close-up of the crown spinning around, symbolizing how power's elusive nature. This motif returns in the film's climax as Macbeth's crown falls off of his head during his battle with Macduff, showing that his kingship is in danger. Another symbolic scene is the bear-baiting scene. The bear is trapped (chained to a post) and surrounded by vicious dogs. This symbolizes Macbeth's situation later in the film where he too is trapped and surrounded by enemies and comments, "They have tied me to a stake. I cannot fly/But, bearlike, I must fight the course" (Mac. 5.7.1-2)
A fourth expansion strategy is use the camera and editing to move the story into cinema time and space. Polanski does this superbly. The film is full of striking shots and edits that could not be duplicated on stage. These shots and edits range from the obvious to the subtle. The scene where Macbeth approaches the Weird Sisters to learn his fate is breathtaking. Polanski uses masterful imagery to show the prophecy revealed (and leaves the question of whether it is magic or hallucinogenic drugs that cause it up to the audience). The scene begins with Macbeth looking into a pool of liquid and takes him on a prophetic journey through mirrors which ends with Macbeth shattering a mirror. Polanski also uses subtle camerawork to tell his story. For example, after Lady Macbeth has committed suicide, we see a shot of Macbeth looking up towards the sky and then down at her corpse, acknowledging that she has killed herself by jumping to her death. During the film's climax, we see a flashback of Macbeth's vision of his being invulnerable to anyone born of woman. The shot of the baby being ripped from his mother's womb is replayed, signifying that Macbeth realizes the prophecy's true meaning. Such a technique would be impossible to duplicate onstage.
The sixth strategy for opening up a play is to mute or erase act divisions. A stage play is broken up into acts in order to convey the idea that time has passed or that the setting has changed. This is not necessary in a film (although as Desmond and Hawkes note, some filmmakers employ similar techniques when adapting plays such as Lumet's adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night). Polanski does not mark Macbeth's act divisions with fadeouts or similar methods.
Polanski's adaptation of MacBeth showed the reality of violence.