What has made Shakespeare’s plays so enduring – so capable of continuing to thrive in the four centuries since they were first performed – is their capacity for adaptation. Beyond its exquisite dialogue and vivid poetry, Shakespeare’s canon explores universal themes; is inhabited by characters that play out identifiably human concerns not constrained by the time period and place in which they might be set. Consequentially, there are innumerable examples of Shakespeare plays being re-contextualised and restaged, placed into more contemporary settings.
From the apartheid Julius Caesar (Royal Shakespeare Company, Gregory Doran, 2013), to the New York slacker Hamlet (Michael Almereyda, 2000), to a Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes, 2011) set in a modern, a war-torn eastern-European “Rome”, to 10 Things I Hate About You (Gil Junger, 1999) and West Side Story (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, 1961), which take retooling Shakespeare to its extreme, adapting Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet respectively into a high school romantic comedy and a gangland Broadway spectacle. Even if not all such efforts are entirely successful, they are usually interesting. Each takes the spirit – if not always the original words – of Shakespeare’s material, and plays them out in new environs, allowing new shades of meaning to be gleaned from the original work.
Then, of course, there are the adaptations that do none of those things. And in some ways, their failures retroactively reveal more about the greatness they failed to capture.
Case in point: the Australian 2006 film version of Macbeth, directed by Geoffrey Wright.
It’s difficult to summarise all that is worthy of criticism in Macbeth: affected cinematic techniques; a general Cliff Notes-version gutting of Shakespeare’s original dialogue; the wasting of some fine actors (well, most of them). But perhaps the film’s greatest sin, the one that is reflective of all the others, is that it ultimately misses the point of its own narrative entirely.
It fails to realise that Macbeth is meant to fall.
This concept of falling is at the heart of the original play’s tragedy. It’s the whole point of the tragedy. It’s arguably what tragedy itself means. A character starts in one place, and ends in another. Broken. Defeated. Corrupted.
Even if we don’t admire Macbeth in the beginning of Shakespeare’s original script – he certainly has enough flaws straight out of the gates that reveal he’s not the most immediately lovable guy – we are still compelled to see that he is a highly regarded man. He is a proud and loyal soldier, respected by his fellow warriors and trusted absolutely by his king, the monarch, ‘Gracious’ Duncan.
Shakespeare shows us all this so that we can feel acutely how far this character has been reduced when we later see him splashed in his king’s blood, scheming his best friend’s murder, lying to the court, barking at ghosts, beating up his servants, patronising his unhinged wife, and screaming mad prophesies into the air as he slaughters his brothers in arms. We see how good he was so we can measure it against how bad he has willingly become.
It’s not a difficult premise. It’s basically screenwriting 101.
In this modernised version of Macbeth, the man we meet in the first minute of the movie (played by Sam Worthington) is a drug-dealing, psychotic thug working for a murderous crime lord.
I’ll say again: that’s where he starts.
So whatever ‘fall’ is about to play out is going to be relative at best. It means that the narrative’s entire moral baseline is so completely out of skew that it undermines the remainder of the film.
You are meant to feel the horror of Macbeth killing his king: a righteous, generous, trusting father figure is slaughtered in his bed by a man he considered his host and his friend. But here it’s just one psycho killing another. ‘Dear me!’ we are meant to gasp.’ That shady drug dealer who has already slaughtered multiple people and laughed beside their corpses is thinking of killing the degenerate mob boss who’s been groping his wife all night? How frightfully upsetting.’
So when Worthington’s Macbeth stumbles off to murder Duncan, you almost wonder whether it’s not meant to be a good thing. I mean, if Macbeth is still ‘good’ (by the presumed but never exhibited logic of the film) then wouldn’t him getting rid of a bad guy potentially be a tick in the plus column? Why, he might really turn this organisation around! Maybe build a community outreach program or something.
Except no. He remains a baseline bloodthirsty maniac and the film’s moral compass barely twitches. Macbeth will still claim to have ‘murdered sleep’ in this version, as he does in the original play, but here it becomes almost comical; it seems more like he was planning on using those bed sheets later and knows nothing is going to get the stains out.
It’s clear from the beginning what the film is trying to do. This is an Australian film, another entry into a slew of similar gangland crime tales; stories concerned with, or set on the periphery of the seedy, criminal underworld of metropolitan Australia. Wright made his name on a film called Romper Stomper (1992), the story of a gang of white supremacists. Eric Bana’s Chopper (Dir. Andrew Dominik, 2000) was a semi-biographical film about a gangland killer. Heath Ledger’s Two Hands (Dir. Gregor Jordan, 1999) was a comedy thriller about a kid in debt to a mob boss. And that’s before you even get to movies about all the impossibly beautiful heroin addicts apparently littering the country, like Candy (Dir. Neil Armfield, 2006) and Little Fish (Dir. Rowan Woods, 2005). Only two years after Macbeth’s release there would be a television series called Underbelly (2008-2013), an anthology miniseries that glamorised real-world Australian gangland crimes (think: a matey Sopranos with far clunkier writing and even more gratuitous nudity). ‘Inspired by real events’ and running for several years of diminishing returns it catalogued the murky dealings of drug dealers, killers, and the special police forces tasked with investigating them.
So you can understand the impulse of the filmmakers. Indeed, you can almost feel hear the first production meeting:
‘Let’s make Macbeth feel contemporary and fresh. Let’s not just do another student theatre Reservoir Dogs version, or a cops in 1920s Chicago – let’s go to today’s headlines. What’s in the news?’
‘Well, there’s still plenty of talk about how the Victorian police force is corrupt…’
‘Police, eh? I like it. Gangland murders.’
‘That’s not what I –’
‘Yeah yeah yeah. Macbeth as a drug dealer. A Tony Soprano type. Clipping guys in the head. Going all Scarface on everyone’s ass.Prostitutes and guns and motorbikes and a dude having an orgy with three girls in Catholic school outfits.’
‘Wait. What?! What was that last one?’
‘I love it. Write it up. Get me the least expressive human in this country – he can be our lead – and populate the rest of the cast with great talent that get nothing to do but glower and have their dialogue drowned out with rock music. Orgies! I love it.’
‘But there are no girls in Catholic school outfits in Shakespeare’s –’
‘Didn’t you say there were bitches?’
‘I said witches.‘
‘Witches. Bitches. Whatever. Just get it done. I want Goodfellas in singlets. Oh, and that Lady Macbeth washing her hands speech is a bit dull. See if you can get her to do it in the nude.’
And so we get this. Lots of shaky-cam and slow motion. Head-shot executions and machine guns and squibs. Long brooding pans of corpses littering the streets and tables spilling over with Jack Daniels bottles and lines of cocaine. An equally pretentious and predictable tonal misfire that wastes a promising premise for an antiheroic action film, resulting in an exploitative, self-satisfied snore.
And yet it could have all been so easy to fix. Had the filmmakers looked to the front page of any metropolitan newspaper in Australia in the past few decades they could have seen a better set up for this premise staring them in the face. The Victorian police force (the very state in which this version of the film is set) have, in the past, become infamous for some major corruption scandals. Had they just run with this conceit – had Macbeth been a cop, an upstanding, celebrated member of the police force who becomes tempted by the power and prestige of becoming the commissioner, say – the story could have kept its seedy gangland vibe, and yet legitimately shown his descent from heroism to morally bankrupt carnage.
Even if they were married to the whole criminal in a criminal enterprise thing, there are ways to play that too. We could have watched an ethical man become incrementally compromised, like Walter White in Breaking Bad (2008-13). We could be charmed by a morally repellent man, like Al Swearengen in Deadwood (2004-2006). Instead, we get Sam Worthington (who, despite being terrible in this performance, to be fair, isn’t offered anything to work with), in a film that seems designed to hollow all the complexity and depth of the original text into hackneyed spectacle.
Because I wasn’t kidding before about those witches. For no reason that can be fathomed, aside from the obvious cheap titillation, the three witches (who in some productions are played as being disinterested in Macbeth’s plight, such as in Roman Polanski’s film, or in others actively intent on destroying him, like in Orson Welles’ version) here are presented as three hot extras from The Craft (Dir. Andrew Fleming, 1996) who decide that what they really want from Macbeth is a laughably gratuitous orgy scene in a cheap knock-off of the Playboy mansion. Lost in a swirl of candles and veils and theatrical O-faces the second prophesy scene unravels like it was directed by a pubescent boy with two handfuls of undressed Barbie dolls.
It doesn’t even work as symbolic of his corruption; again, he’s already a murderous, drug-dealing senior player in a metropolitan criminal enterprise. He was already grinding on them during the scene where they imparted their first prophesy. By the time this orgy lazily meanders onto the screen, the idea that he might sleep around – let alone cheat on the wife that was calling him a dickless coward (‘screw your courage to the sticking place’, I.7.60), and encouraging him to massacre his boss – is not exactly a shocker.
And this complete lack of character psychology is true across the board, which, considering Macbeth is deservedly labelled Shakespeare’s most psychological play (an argument could be made for Hamlet, but I think Macbeth’s anti-heroic self-immolation clinches it) is a catastrophic misstep.
Macbeth is a play about the unknown motivations that lie beneath the superficial masks its characters present to the world around them.* It is why Lady Macbeth has to keep schooling her husband on how to play-act innocence (‘Your face, my thane, is as a book where men / May read strange matters’ (I.5.60-1); ‘look like the innocent flower, / But be the serpent under’t’ (I.5.63-4)). It is why, beneath his hypocritical mask of grace and cordiality, Macbeth’s image of himself is finally eaten away, until all that is left is the performance, emptied of all meaning:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. (V.5.17-23)
But in this adaptation, just as there is no height from which these characters can fall, there likewise appears to be no subconscious from which they can be tormented.
And this superficiality is most detrimental in the depiction of the film’s two leads, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
To dig into my first example of this, you have to know that there has been a long academic squabble about whether or not Lady Macbeth had a child. The dispute stems primarily from a moment in the play in which she is attempting to goad Macbeth into following through on the murder of Duncan:
I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me;
I would while it was smiling in my face
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this. (I.7.54-9)
It is a powerful, horrifying image, one used to jolt both husband and audience to attention. You made me a promise, she says. I would never break a promise to you, no matter how vile the act – even if it was to kill my own child – a child she implies did actually exist (‘I have given suck’). It is a collision of absolute dependence and complete betrayal, rhetorically realigning their morality to a personal bond, to which all else is sacrificed; Macbeth’s breaking of his word to her is more egregious a betrayal than infanticide.
It works. Macbeth goes off and does the deed, grumbling that she should only ever produce male children because all her femininity has clearly dried up. And since he spends the rest of play fretting that he has no heirs to inherit his throne, a whole history of critics have inferred that this means Lady Macbeth must actually have once had a child, who is now dead.** The speculation therefore runs that the couple is perhaps displacing their grief at losing a child into building a new future through murderous insurrection. A lost life gives birth to a new kingdom of death.
What some of these literal readings of Lady Macbeth’s words often do not address is that the whole speech is a performance. She has been hyperbolically perverting Macbeth’s image of himself as a man to make her point (‘Be so much more the man’ / ‘Then you were a man’), and when that doesn’t work, she likewise twists the image of herself as a woman to draw out the apparent disparity in their convictions. The ‘baby’ might well be metaphorical – a bit of knowing overstatement to make a point about their respective genders, and his relative weakness.
And indeed, Lady Macbeth’s word is later revealed to be suspect, the play going on to show that she is not the ghoulish immoral creature she declares herself to be. Despite inviting darkness into herself, claiming that she would willingly commit any villainous act, she chickens out of killing Duncan herself because he looks too much like her father; instantly begins to worry when it becomes clear her husband is off slaughtering people on his own; and is so horrified by her role in the murder that she becomes impossibly lost in a suicidal spiral of grief, nightly rising in her sleep to try and wash the blood from her hands. Just as Macbeth spends the play lying to himself about still being a good man, even after all his evil acts, she was lying to herself about being evil, while unable to entirely silence the remnants of her humanity.
And this baby marvellously exhibits the myriad ways in which her character can be played and interpreted: it may or may not be the reason she is so willing to embrace deceit and murder; it may or may not be at the heart of her motivations to spur he husband into action; it may or may not be entirely rhetorical. It’s a subtle piece of alluded back story, one that the performers and audience are free to engage with or ignore as they wish. It may be a clue to her behaviour, but it equally may be nothing.
In this production all that subtlety is gone. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are visiting their child’s grave in the first scene. His empty bedroom remains preserved in their home. And just in case you still didn’t get it, in the moment before Lady Macbeth prays to the dark forces of the world to ‘unsex’ her and fill her ‘from the crown to the toe top-full / Of direst cruelty’ (I.5.40-1), she stares off at the theatrically foreboding silhouette of a child’s swing, empty and creaking in the night. Rather than deepening the inner life of this character and her husband, it plays more as cheap manipulation, a way to compel the audience to empathise with people the film has not bothered to give any other identifying features.
Another example of these characters’ superficiality is the way the film, distracted with its gangland theatrics, forgets to show its titular character’s mounting isolation.
One of the essential steps on Macbeth’s journey toward tyranny is the way in which he begins to distance himself from the people around him. As the story progresses, his support structure – the people through whom he used to see himself reflected – are slowly pushed away. At first, having heard the prophesy, he isolates himself from his King and fellow soldiers; then he distances himself from Banquo, who heard the very same prophesies he did; then his wife, with whom he planned and executed the murders; and finally even himself, as his entire sense of being deteriorates into an irresolvable, debased facsimile. By play’s end he is the hollow shell of what he once was – a lonely, self-loathing paranoiac, lashing out at everyone like a wounded animal.
But in the yet further mystifying choices this adaptation makes, Macbeth never sheds these support structures, because it’s not clear he ever had them to begin with. Banquo misses hearing the prophesy; when Macbeth is visited by the witches his friend is puking in the toilet (because “rock and roll, man!”) and hears nothing, so the knowledge has no chance to tear their brotherhood apart. Macbeth’s relationship with Duncan never seems to rise beyond a grudging subservience, so his murder seems inconsequential. His fellow ‘soldiers’ are treacherous criminals, so not trusting them seems only logical. And most bafflingly, Macbeth and his wife are already irreparably estranged at the beginning of the film, leaving nowhere for that relationship to go.
By the time Macbeth is swaggering around dressed like Bono and wearing a kilt because is-that-meant-to-be-funny-who-gives-a-crap-anymore the film has so utterly lost any semblance of a point that the tedious, jerky slow motion shootout, silently set to orchestration, becomes its own cruelty – artificially prolonging a fall from grace story that was over literally before the opening credits rolled.
…Oh yeah. And Fleance comes back and kills the innocent nursemaid for no reason. Because ‘cycles of violence beget violence’, or some other equally asinine, thematically half-baked crap.
Shakespeare’s original play offers an almost unassailable treasure trove of gripping psychological drama. It’s what has made this one of his most enduring, captivating plays. Thrilling versions have been made over the years. Unique, inventive, wild, inspired versions. With samurais and stately kings and politicians and mud-spattered warriors. But rather than dig into Shakespeare’s original material, this version tries to get a buzz from his second-hand smoke, gutting the dialogue but not bothering to replace it with anything visually compelling or symbolically interesting.
It is meant to rock its viewer profoundly, and yet only hours after seeing it, the whole experience of this film dissolves from the memory like smoke. For me, only two images remain: the first is when ‘Birnan Wood’ comes to Dunsinane. In this version it is a logging truck smashing through a barricade, sparking with gunfire – which proves to be the extent of the adaptation’s inventiveness. The second is the signature ‘dagger’ Macbeth sees, that leads him toward Duncan’s room to commit the murder. Here, the ‘dagger’ is the shadow of a garden pot plant (which sounds a lot more interesting than it is).As presented, the moment is rather more bizarre than one suspects it was intended, with Worthington’s Macbeth lovingly stroking a play of light and shade on a wall, selling away his soul at the behest of a lawn decoration.
And that seems to be a fitting summation of the adaptation itself. It is a film that wants so bad to mean something, it just has no idea what exactly. It becomes a gesture toward a shadow, the substance of the thing it is evoking completely misunderstood in the misguided attempt to chase its simulacra. Both man and film chase after a meaningless image and each destroy themselves:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (V.5.24-8)
* * *
Macbeth (2006), screenplay by Victoria Hill and Geoffrey Wright, directed by Geoffrey Wright, adapted from William Shakespeare.(Film Victoria, Mushroom Pictures, 2006)
Macbeth by William Shakespeare, ed by Stanley Wells and George Hunter (Penguin, 2005)
* As an aside, in a way it is even why the play’s ‘hero’, Macduff, is such a baffling guy. Despite knowing that Macbeth is evil, and almost certainly out to kill him, Macduff mystifyingly leaves his wife and child unguarded at home while he flees to England, only later, when he later hears the news of their predictable slaughtered, is surprised.He is so focussed on virtue and saving Scotland that he becomes personally inhuman – an accusation his own wife levels at him when she hears the insane news of his abandonment.
** There is also speculation that Lady Macbeth may have been married to someone before Macbeth, and that she gave birth to that man’s child – but again, this is all wild speculation unsupported by the play’s text, arguably best left only to function as subtext.