Is Cinema Doing Shakespeare Right?

Battle has raged in the bleak Scottish winter. Soldiers clad in hotchpotch war gear wriggle in the mud post-skirmish, their injuries seen to by their commander, Michael Fassbender’s PTSD-shocked Macbeth. Psychological trauma brought on by combat will be the reason for his eventual descent into madness. For now the Thane of Glamis watches a trio of strange women emerge from the battlefield mist, unable to discern whether the three are real or hallucinatory. The weary lord looks to these ‘witches,’ brow furrowed, his face smeared with war paint and dirt: “Live you, or are you aught that man may question? Speak if you can: what are you?”

When it comes to adapting Shakespeare for film, fidelity to the source material is considered paramount – even if that clashes with the vision of the filmmaker in charge. One criticism that could be leveled at Justin Kurzel’s gritty, grotty take on Macbeth is that the realistic edge the director brings to the project is blunted whenever a character opens their mouth to speak. Kurzel’s film is striking, with a style that could be described as Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights by way of an acid trip going bad, but the director’s grounded approach is forever at odds with that inescapably artificial Shakespearean dialogue – dialogue Kurzel never presumed to rewrite into something more befitting a film of this style.

Whereas filmmakers feel comfortable taking artistic license when adapting novels or the works of most other playwrights, there’s an unwritten rule that Shakespearean dialogue is so precious as to be locked in, that the stories cannot be tampered with in any significant way. Directors update the setting – Ralph Fiennes brought Coriolanus into an alternate modern-day Rome, Richard Loncraine set Richard III in a dystopian Britain, Joss Whedon did Much Ado About Nothing in his back garden – but more often than not the core storyline and dialogue remain virtually untouched.

We’ve seen variations on the same scenes and heard identical sets of lines spoken so many times before (Kurzel joins Roman Polanski and Orson Welles as the latest to tackle The Scottish Play for the big screen), and yet this somehow never troubles critics, even as they despair of a culture of endless remakes and ‘re-imaginings.’ What other playwright would be so revered four centuries after his death that it’s still considered taboo to tinker with his words — words that even Globe Theatre legend Mark Rylance argues are treated too reverently, and which quite literally don’t carry the meaning that they used to?

This is no argument for ”dumbing down” Shakespeare or for making the Bard’s work more palatable for modern audiences. There is undeniable poetry within the work of Shakespeare that all should hear, and some of his themes are timeless. But one has to wonder if film’s apparent reverence towards Shakespeare is too restrictive, when cinema allows for so much possibility.

For one, there’s a sense that Kurzel’s Macbeth, with its strong visual storytelling, would have worked better as a near-silent mood piece à la Valhalla Rising, but to merely suggest lifting those gem-like words feels like something approaching heresy – even though the film might have benefited. Film is arguably a director’s medium before it is a writer’s, and yet the ‘faithful’ Shakespeare movie consistently defies the auteur theory because the director is never the only one with a say in how the picture turns out.

Orson Welles in "Chimes at Midnight"

Occasionally filmmakers do break out of those narrow parameters, and some of the best screen adaptations of Shakespeare have seen more uncompromising sorts ignoring the rulebook altogether. To make Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles mischievously took from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor only the parts that involve the bloated noble character John Falstaff. Most filmmakers trim Shakespeare’s words for their adaptations, but none have been as bold as Welles, who dissected five of the Bard’s plays and made the jigsaw pieces fit together his own new way.

Others have gone further, merely borrowing the bones of Shakespeare’s stories and then fleshing them out as they saw fit. The Lion King (based on Hamlet), Forbidden Planet (The Tempest), and Ran (King Lear) have all taken this course, but there’s perhaps no finer example of a film choosing this path than Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. This austere translation of Macbeth rips out the original dialogue and streamlines the plot, while relocating the action to feudal Japan for a spooked rumination on the corrupting allure of power. Macbeth becomes the ruthless, manic General Washizu, while the drama is heightened through the influence of Noh theatre.

Throne of Blood is simply one of the great cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare, and at no point in its almost two-hour running time will you even hear a line of Shakespearean dialogue. It’s confident and singular where Kurzel’s version of Macbeth is conflicted and fated to recall adaptations that have gone before. The two films highlight a gaping difference in approach.

There are classics, such as Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar, that hew close to the source and prove the value in adapting Shakespeare in what’s considered to be the conventional way. Then there are adaptations, like Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, that – in trying to be both fresh and traditional, both auteur-driven and true to the original text – play, for all their qualities, like creative struggles between two distinctive and opposing voices.

The exceptional likes of Throne of Blood and Chimes at Midnight, meanwhile, make the argument for throwing out the manual more often. Orson Welles – creator not just of Chimes but of the stage’s revolutionary Voodoo Macbeth and Fascist Julius Caesar – understood better than most that Shakespeare is as flexible as any writer, and can be tackled as such. Throughout their careers, Welles and Akira Kurosawa played with Shakespeare like putty, and in the process created landmark interpretations of the man’s work. More filmmakers looking to adapt Shakespeare ought to be mindful of the fact that challenging convention, though controversial, can actually reveal the Bard’s plays anew.