Polanski’s Macbeth

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Anyone with the most rudimentary literary training should be struck by the perverse backwardness of the adaptation-as-betrayal approach:  The study of adaptation is clearly a form of source study and thus should trace the genesis (not the destruction) of works deemed worthy of close examination in and of themselves.” -from the editors’ (Andrew S. Horton & Joan Magretta) introduction to Modern European Filmmakers & The Art Of Adaptation (1981)

Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971) is an anomaly of sorts, given how rare an adaptation of William Shakespeare had become in the early seventies.  Macbeth also has the benefit of being “authored” by an auteurist filmmaker at a time when Andrew Sarris’ criticisms were still highly popular and still had a foothold in the public consciousness.  This second anomaly contextualized Macbeth within Roman Polanski’s oeuvre, and not strictly within the confines of that of the bard.  The great adaptors of Shakespeare to film who had come before, Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles, were indeed auteurist filmmakers but at a time when that notion had yet to be invented or clearly defined, let alone popularized.  Thus, one tends to think critically of Macbeth as a film by Roman Polanski first and a play by Shakespeare second.

Yet this serves my purposes.  I am by no means qualified to discuss Shakespeare with any authority.  But a film of a novel or a play represents, as alluded to above, a unique work of art in and of itself whose source originates in literature.  What follows will be an examination of Polanski’s Macbeth strictly within the confines of the cinema in general, and specifically in comparison with other film adaptations of Shakespeare.

There is a clear aesthetic connection between Polanski’s film and Olivier’s version of Hamlet (1948) that is articulated rather well by Terrence Rafferty in the booklet to the Criterion Collection release of the film.  To paraphrase, Polanski and his co-writer Kenneth Tynan have relegated a number of Shakespeare’s monologues to interior dialogues, a strategy utilized by Olivier a number of years earlier.  This tactic helps diffuse the inherent artifice of the theatre in its translation to film.  Olivier presents the antithesis to such a choice in his “campy” adaptation of Richard III (1955) where artifice is celebrated.  The theatricality of Richard III provides a strategic degree of detachment between audience and spectacle that intrinsically opposes Polanski’s style and his penchant for Freudian colorings of his narratives.  Polanski’s Macbeth, differing even from Olivier’s not dissimilar Hamlet, shows a preference for naturalism consistent with Polanski’s earlier filmography where suspense is born out of, rather than made to service, the psychological deficiencies and abnormalities of his films’ characters.  The first strong example of a filmmaker utilizing Shakespeare as a means to probe deep psychological questions is surely Grigori Kozintsev’s Hamlet (1945) and later King Lear in 1971.  However, given the state of the Cold War at the time Polanski made Macbeth, one cannot be certain of Kozintsev’s influence on Polanski’s film.

Due to Polanski’s adherence to Freudian psychology the visual structure of his film is obliged to lean away from the classicism of Olivier as well as the neo-Expressionism epitomized by Orson Welles’ own 1948 film adaptation of the Scottish Play.  Rather, it seems apparent that Polanski drew heavily upon Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarová (1967).  Marketa Lazarová, like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, is set in the middle ages and deals with both pagan and Christian iconographies.  Vláčil’s style is to isolate his characters, often employing a snowy landscape or a shallow focus with the character positioned before some portion of a castle, church, or some other similar structure.  For Vláčil this represents the comparative isolationism of the era physically, as well as the psychological disparities between the films various characters.  Polanski does this in Macbeth, as well as following the course of Marketa Lazarová’s adherence to historical realism.  However the visual motifs of Marketa Lazarová only make up a portion of Polanski’s visual structure in Macbeth.

The close-ups in Polanski’s film derive from Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible Part I (1945).  The exaggerating effect upon the human face of the camera angles exemplified by Eisenstein’s film permit a degree of artifice for Polanski, allowing the performers to emote with a theatricality only suggested by the dramatic mise en scene of Marketa Lazarová. The fluid melding, as opposed to the over-the-top juxtapositions of style in Olivier’s Richard III, of these two visual aesthetics signals a cinematic bearing akin to that of Orson Welles’ Chimes At Midnight (1965), though Welles is concerned with two different aesthetics, neo-realism and expressionism, as a means of equitable dialectical exchange.

The above mentioned approach to aesthetic improvisation in Macbeth escapes the potential for dismissive claims of imitation on the part of Polanski himself based upon the merits of the filmmakers own psychological imprint upon the film.  Recurring visual motifs of a fetus recall not only his previous film, Rosemary’s Baby(1968), but the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate; an incident that continues to inform Polanski’s work.  Similarly, Macbeth‘s sequences of “dream imagery” or surrealism have their root in an even earlier film by Polanski, Repulsion(1965).  These trends in Polanski’s films clearly indicate a degree of personal filmmaking absent from the majority of filmic adaptations of Shakespeare’s works.

If one returns to Horton and Magretta’s phrase “adaptation-as-betrayal” one may begin to understand why the personal imprint of filmmakers is lacking in adaptations of Shakespeare.  Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet (1968) as well as Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989) are two films who prioritize a faithfulness to the original text to such a point that there is little to recognize as personal in the films.  However, there have been films that move so far away from Shakespeare’s original text, particularly Julie Taymor’s Titus(1999) and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), that they become irreverent post-modernist exercises in self-indulgence that render any contemporary relevance null and void.  The key to the success of Polanski’s Macbeth, Welles’ Chimes At Midnight, Kozintsev’s King Lear, and Olivier’s Richard III is that the films balance their affiliation with Shakespeare equally with the auteurism of their respective authors.