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  • Michael Rickard II

Roman Polanski's Film Adaptation of "Macbeth": The Challenges of Adapting from the Sta

A final strategy for opening up a stage play is to add music and sound effects. Although plays can employ music and sound effects, there is no comparison to what can be done in cinema. Polanski uses a number of musical pieces and sounds to enhance the film. This includes a traditional medieval song at the film's banquet scene. Even more interesting is Polanski's use of music by the psychedelic folk group, The Third Ear Band. This gives Macbeth an unworldly sound, furthering the idea that this is a world turned upside down. Polanski also utilizes memorable sounds throughout the film such as when Macbeth consults the witches on how to stay in power.

Of course, these strategies are just part of what may make an adaptation work or fail. "Identifying the use of the opening-up strategies described below is not an end in itself nor an evaluative measure of an adaptation, but rather a helpful way to begin talking about dramatic and cinematic conventions, and the choices filmmakers make in bringing a play to the screen" (Desmond and Hawkes164). Roman Polanski's approach to Macbeth bears further examination.

Polanski's adaptation of Macbeth is a close adaptation of Shakespeare's play. Polanski keeps much of the drama's plot, characters, settings, dialogue, and themes. Unlike adapting a novel, a filmmaker does not have to concern himself with trimming a play as it normally is performed in around the same time as a feature film. Like any adaptation, a filmmaker's interpretation of the source material may result in a different version than the text (or in this case, the drama). With Macbeth, Polanski retains the play's characters and plot. As noted earlier, he does expand the play by adding scenes mentioned in dialogue and using symbols in the film to foreshadow the plot and to express its themes.

There have been several different interpretations of Macbeth. A recent BBC adaptation starring Patrick Stewart as Macbeth changed the setting to a 20th century dictatorship with the play incorporating visual imagery reminiscent of Nazism and Communism. As Desmond and Hawkes note, Romeo and Juliet were updated to modern times as well. Here, Polanski keeps Macbeth in its traditional historic setting.

Polanski keeps the Shakespearean dialogue as well. Filmmakers must decide whether or not to keep the dialogue in the original Shakespearean English. As Desmond and Hawkes note, some filmmakers eschew Shakespeare's dialogue, choosing to visualize it (178). This is seen in Baz Luhrmann's 1996 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Polanski chose a different approach, keeping the play's dialogue. This allows Polanski to combine visuals and dialogue to create stronger scenes. For example, Macbeth's dialogue shows his inner struggle over how he will become king. "(aside) The prince of Cumberland!/That is a step/On which I must fall down, or else o'erleap,/For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires;/Let not light see my black and deep desires./The eye wink at the hand, yet let that be/Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see." (Mac. 1.4.50-55)Not only does Polanski rely upon the original dialogue but he takes advantage of cinematic elements to convey it. Polanski uses actor Jon Finch's voiceover to show Macbeth's thoughts rather than an aside (which is commonly used onstage).

The play's themes of violence and the question of destiny vs. decision when it comes to Macbeth's corruption are explored by Polanski. Two different versions of Macbeth illustrate how two different characters can adopt two different interpretations of a play's theme. As noted by Wendy Rogers Harper, directors have explored the question of whether Macbeth was doomed by destiny or decision when he embarked on his rise to power. Rogers argues that Orson Welles kept the witches' supernatural nature while Polanski demystified them. It can be argued that Polanski takes the mystical element out of Macbeth in order to shift Macbeth's blame from destiny to decision. For example, Polanski removes Hecate from the play. He also removes the scene where the witches talk about cursing a sailor whose wife has offended them. If the witches do not employ magic, it is more difficult to argue that they prophesied Macbeth's doom. Harper suggests that in Welles' adaptation, Macbeth was destined to fall while "Polanski places the responsibility for Macbeth's actions in his own hands" (204).

Roman Polanski was no stranger to personal tragedy and it can be argued that his life experience colored his interpretation of Macbeth. Critics have noted the violence of Polanski's Macbeth. The play was violent to begin with but Polanski added several violent scenes including the Thane of Cawdor's hanging, the rape at the Macduff castle, and the climactic battle between Macbeth and Macduff. Olivia Marie Harsen argues that Polanski's interpretation was the result of his mother's murder during World War Two but even more influenced by the recent brutal murder of his wife Sharon Tate. Watching the film's grisly images, it is clear that Polanski wanted a violent tone to the film.

While Polanski's adaptation of Macbeth is a close adaptation, he opens up the play using cinematic elements such as visualizing scenes mentioned in dialogue and using the camera to show symbols and motifs. Polanski adapts the play to film while dealing with the challenges presented in adapting them. Polanski does not change the film's plot, characters, or setting but adds scenes and tweaks characters in order to further his interpretation of the film's themes. In the end, Roman Polanski's adaptation of Macbeth is an exciting and thought-provoking film that proves to be a successful adaptation of a play.

Works Cited

Desmond, John M. & Peter Hawkes. Adaptation: Studying Film & Literature. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005.

Harper, Wendy Rogers. "Polanski vs Welles on Macbeth: character or fate?" Literature Film Quarterly 14.4 1986: 203. Salisbury State College. 29 Sep 2015..

Harsan, Olivia Maria. "Life Bleeding into Art." Screen Education 77 (2015) 1240128. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web 29 Sept. 2015.

Macbeth. Dir. Orson Welles. Perf. Orson Welles, Jeanette Nolan, Dan O'Herlihy, Roddy McDowall, and Edgar Barrier. Republic Pictures, 1948. Film.

Macbeth. Dir. Roman Polanski. Perf. Jon Finch, Francesca Annis, Martin Shaw, and Terence Bayler. Columbia Pictures, 1971. Film.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003. Print.

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