Monday, May 16, 2005

Macbeth d. Roman Polanski, 1971

There is a good deal of difference between respect for the source material and genuflection of it. In the case of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, genuflection would be ignoring the ignobility of the characters, the mired fields of Scotland, and the utter lack of morality in reverence of Shakespeare's words. Because his language is so evocative - even amidst pure squalor - the temptation to "beautify" a filmic adaptation is understandable, albeit, at least in the case of Macbeth, a misstep. Thankfully, Roman Polanski, et al, embrace the squalid nature of Macbeth, turning medieval Scotland into a cesspool and emphasizing the depravity of the characters.

Shit, piss, blood, and a general matter of filth pock the Scottish plain, sparing not a one. Beggar and noble alike wade through the refuse, seemingly never free of the dirt and mud. This filth stands as a nice visual metaphor - contributed by Polanski - for the soiled depravity of the characters' souls. Just as the landscape and the bodies of the nobility are never clean, so are their actions.

Unlike most of Shakespeare's plays, there is no hero in Macbeth. The eponymous Macbeth is so overcome by desire for power that he in no way can be called a hero. The same goes for Lady Macbeth. So look to the opposition, right? Well, Siward is like a reed in the wind, playing to the current power. "All hail, King of Scotland," he yells twice - once for Macbeth and once for Malcolm. Macduff is ultimately a reactionist, never actually pursuing any protagonist deed, only responding to crimes against his family and person. It could be assumed rightfully from Banquo's imploring of the witches for his fate that he, if in Macbeth's place, would chase power in the same manner. The key to this lack of "good guy" lies in Malcolm. In a speech unfortunately exorcised from the film (although the spirit of the film knells this idea the whole way through), Malcolm expresses his doubt as to whether he could be king. He tells Macduff that his vices are just as bad as Macbeth's, if not worse. There's the point of the play, and the key to Polanski's success. Polanski understands that the point of Macbeth is interminable human depravity. All humankind is susceptible to soulless greed; the only thing separating one person from another is circumstance.

So Polanski runs with this idea and modifies it slightly, redistributing lines (most notably the "All Hails" cried by Siward) and, most striking of all, altering the ending. Clearly Malcolm is an important character, but what do we make of Donalbain? Polanski gives him a limp, making it clear that he is inferior to his brother, ergo his lack of complaint when his brother commands the throne. But a clear point in Macbeth is that man's desire for power is incessant. To illustrate this further, Polanski adds a scene for Donalbain at the very end. Donalbain stands in front of the hovel, where Macbeth encountered the Weird Sisters, and enters. He is after fortune, he is after power, and the desire for power continues.

Polanski's adaptation is far from perfect though. The acting is clearly amateur, with nearly every soliloquy internalized - an editorial decision that I imagine must have had something to do with the ineptitude of the actors. Most every other flaw can be traced to the acting, and I imagine that in itself is due to budget constraints. Admirable is Polanski's respect for Shakespeare and lack of respect for the characters. The point is this: to make the characters as repellant as possible in order to emphasize their flaws, flaws that illustrate the theme of the play and humanity at large. In this, Polanski's adaptation succeeds.


Blogger wbrant said...

Hey, you have a great blog here! I'm definitely going to bookmark you!

I have a lady macbeth site/blog. It pretty much covers lady macbeth related stuff.

Come and check it out if you get time :-)

22 October, 2005 23:19  

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