A Comparison between Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Polanski’s film adaptation from 1971 and Kurzel’s film adaptation from 2015

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016

12 Pages, Grade: 1,3

Lukas Jan (Author)


Table of contents

List of tables and illustrations

1 Introduction and problem

2 “Macbeth” – the play in comparison with two film adaptations
2.1 First scene – Act 1 Scene 1 in the play
2.2 Second scene – Act 3 Scene 4 in the play
2.3 Third scene – Act 5 Scene 8 in the play

3 Formal differences between play and both film adaptations

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography

List of tables and illustrations

fig. 1: First picture in Kurzel’s film adaptation (“Macbeth“. D: Justin Kurzel, GB, USA, F 2015: TC: 00:01:03).

fig. 2: The development of Banquo’s ghost in Polanski’s film adaptation (“Macbeth”. D: Roman Polanski. USA, GB 1971: TC: 01:20:01 – 01:21:22).

fig. 3: Macbeth’s death in the 2015 film adaptation (“Macbeth”. Justin Kurzel, GB, USA, F 2015: TC: 01:44:50).

fig. 4: Macbeth’s head on a pole in the 1971 film adaptation (“Macbeth”. Roman Polanski, USA, GB 1971: TC: 02:17:33).

1 Introduction and problem

Although technological progress affords humanity new possibilities in all sectors, be it communication systems, the news, education, bank transactions, or entertainment, it is inconceivable to dispense with books, letters or newspapers. Especially in the entertainment category, movies today are what novels were decades and centuries ago. They tell stories, history, sciences, etc. and like books they are grouped into various genres. By this observation they seem quite similar and the obvious difference is the textual information transfer of books compared to the audio-visual of movies. There are, however, many more differences between them. Movies are often based on novels. Famous examples are J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter”, Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist”, Lew Wallace’s “Ben Hur”, and William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” to name just a few. The latter two have been produced several times already. Not only “Macbeth”, but most of Shakespeare’s plays have been turned into films. His plays are surprisingly relevant in contemporary life and school. They are an integral component of general knowledge. The significance of “Macbeth” is obvious when you see how often it was reused. Already by 1908, the director Stuart Blackton produced the first film version of Shakespeare’s tragedy whereon many more followed, the best known by Welles, Kurosawa and Polanski. (cf. O’hara, Empire 2015). Renowned director Roman Polanski filmed his famous version in 1971: “Notoriously, Polanski's film makes much of physical bloodshed, forcing violence or the evidence of it upon us from first to last.” (Forker 2012, 209). This type of very brutal movie was not unusual for Polanski who specialized in horror and criminal genres. Equally as brutal is the newest film adaptation by Justin Kurzel with Michael Fassbender as king Macbeth and Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth. But how could these two famous directors transfer Shakespeare’s stage play into movies? Is the content adopted accurately or is it falsified? And what changes were accidentally or deliberately made? In the following, the original play will be compared to the film adaptations by Roman Polanski in 1971 and by Justin Kurzel in 2015. Additionally, the most important scenes and essential details in all three will be analyzed.

2 “Macbeth” – the play in comparison with two film adaptations

The film adaptations by Polanski and Kurzel differ in some important details, not only with regard to content, but also in form from the original by Shakespeare. The two directors tried to be respectful to his play so they maintained the majority of the dialog and also the sequence of the scenes. Some of the same film sequences were altered in both films so it seems Kurzel adopted some of Polanski’s features as well. This will be investigated on the basis of scenes. The stage play is one of the shorter ones Shakespeare has written, but it takes a long movie to accurately capture a book or here a script of a play. Polanski extended his movie beyond the average length to 140 minutes. On the other hand, Kurzel shortened his to 113 minutes, which causes some scenes to be shortened to the minimum or completely left out. In the following section, three scenes decisive to the storyline will be analyzed.

2.1 First scene – Act 1 Scene 1 in the play

The beginning of a story already tells the audience a lot about the story itself. In which genre it is classified, who the main character is, or it may challenge the viewer in order to pique their interest. So it does in “Macbeth”. Three witches, also called weird sisters, enter the stage in a thunderstorm and have a short dialog in the play. The 1971 movie begins in a very similar way. The three witches conduct a ritual, which is depicted in great detail but it is not in the stage version of the play. The dialog was also changed slightly. They leave out three short lines, and the last sentence in scene one of the play is shifted to the beginning. Polanski only made this modification because of the formal time flow requirement. The exact stage direction is implemented again and they leave into the mist. Kurzel’s version has a very different opening scene.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

fig. 1: First picture in Kurzel’s film adaptation (“Macbeth“. D: Justin Kurzel. GB, USA, F 2015: TC: 00:01:03).

The first image the audience sees is a dead child in white clothing lying on a funeral pyre. The beginning here is completely different not only in scenery but in the story line. The couple in this scene, dressed in black, is Macbeth and Lady Macbeth grieving for what appears to be their own child and consummating the ritual of the pyre. There is no information about the Macbeths having a child in the original play. It is not mentioned in the 1971 version either. Upon further reading, there are only two text passages where this comes up. In Act 1 Scene 7, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth plan the murder of King Duncan: “I have given suck, and know how tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me.” (Shakespeare 1606, 40). Polanski leaves this sentence out, while Kurzel supports the fact that they had a child and lets Lady Macbeth remember it. In the second passage in Act 4 Scene 3, Macduff answers the message that Macbeth killed his family: “He has no children.” (Shakespeare 1606, 83). This quote again appears in both movies only saying that Macbeth has no children at the moment. It remains unsettled whether Shakespeare wanted to point out that Macbeth had a child or that only Lady Macbeth had one from an earlier marriage, which is very speculative, or that Kurzel changed this fact on purpose. Polanski omitted this anecdote. This supports the argument that Kurzel wanted his version to be more personal. In the intro, it is said that the war prevailing in Scotland is civil. The outcome of this is that the primary comradeship of Macbeth, Banquo and Macduff turns into mistrust because of the rivalry of the different Houses, even though they are all Scottish, while in Polanski’s version they are resisting Norwegian invaders (cf. Thomas 2015, 974). The witches appear in the next scene, but there is a fourth person, a little girl. The dialog is almost exactly the same as in the play. There is only one different word: “Upon the battlefield.” (“Macbeth”. 2015: TC: 00:02:27). Instead of “Upon the heath”, as it is said in the play and also the 1971 version, they will meet Macbeth directly after the fight on the battlefield.

2.2 Second scene – Act 3 Scene 4 in the play

As per Freytag’s pyramid, this scene is in the third of five acts, the climax phase. After the rising action, the climax is the turning point in a play. In the tragedy, everything went well for Macbeth until this act. (cf. Barroll III 1975, 1-20). He first had Banquo killed but his son Fleance could escape. Then at a banquet he sees Banquo’s ghost and at this point, things start to turn around for the main character. When the ghost appears, who is only visible to Macbeth, he goes mad and talks to the ghost and himself. In the 1971 film version, the scene begins with the murderers talking to Macbeth in another room with nearly the same dialog as in the play. The sequence of action is also similar, but Polanski implements this scene with an increasing madness of the king caused by the increasing atrocious appearance of Banquo’s ghost:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

fig. 2: The development of Banquo’s ghost in Polanski’s film adaptation (“Macbeth”. D: Roman Polanski. USA, GB 1971: TC: 01:20:01 – 01:21:22).

Those three pictures are from Macbeth’s mind. It is his feeling of guilt to have his former companion killed and also the fear of Banquo’s revenge as a ghost. While Lady Macbeth tries to calm the king, he only stares at the ghost. When this one additionally comes up to Macbeth, he draws back and screams with fright. Banquo’s ghost disappears when the king burrows his face in his arms to not see him anymore. Polanski directed this scene to be so emotional and horrifying that the viewer can empathize with Macbeth’s fear. In Kurzel’s film adaptation the scene begins like in the play, the king welcomes his guests and talks to one murderer in front of the whole audience. The structure resembles more the original play than Polanski’s. In the following scene, Banquo’s ghost appears in his empty seat, his face dirty and looking at Macbeth. Then Lady Macbeth leads the bewildered king back into his seat after the ghost disappeared. He raised his glass in a toast to the absent Banquo to paper over the cracks. A difference is that some guests left the banquet when they saw Macbeth acting strangely. The dialog is very similar to the original. Fassbender’s Macbeth is not extremely mad like Finch’s Macbeth in 1971. It builds on the authenticity Kurzel wants to cultivate throughout his whole movie. The last point is important in contemporary movies because the audience can identify with the characters and the actions. On the other hand, the exaggerated representation by Polanski expresses how extreme Macbeth’s madness had grown. With such a crazy king, no one would take him seriously anymore. The director is famous from the horror film genre, which is why he depicts it in such a scary manner. With the less disturbing action in the 2015 movie, the main character does not lapse into complete insanity but slides slowly into madness throughout the whole movie. This is also seen in the next analyzed scene. Fassbender plays a less furious Macbeth – strange, sure, but cannier and Kurzel develops and reveals these traits as the film progresses.

2.3 Third scene – Act 5 Scene 8 in the play

In the penultimate scene of this stage play it finally comes to the “Catastrophe” for the main character, as is typical in a tragedy. After the suicide of his wife, the English army with Macbeth’s enemies, Malcolm and Macduff amongst others, arrive at his castle. They want to fight Macbeth, so Malcolm, the rightful heir to king Duncan, becomes king. Like in the first scene, Polanski changes the dialog here. He even cut out some lines that are important for the story and therefore the meaning of the end changes a bit: Macduff tells Macbeth that he “was from his mother’s womb Untimely ripped”, (Shakespeare 1606, 94). This is so important because the prophecy said, Macbeth can only be killed by a man who is not born by a woman. Macbeth answers but his last sentence is deleted: “I’ll not fight with thee (Macduff).” Instead he exclaims that he will not yield. In the play between those two statements, Macduff offers him to yield. The difference to the play is that the main character is portrayed as more narcissistic and obsessed with power and doesn’t want the witches’ prophecy to come true. The stage direction purports that they continue to fight until the king is slain and they do in Polanski’s film adaptation. The newest film version is more similar to the play with regard to the dialog, but the ending is changed by the portrayal of Macbeth. The fighting begins like in the other movie. The scene has a red, misty filter on the picture caused by the fire around them. Kurzel wants to anticipate the brutality with all the blood. (cf. Kaever 2015). They wound each other badly with stabs in their legs and bellies, while in Polanski’s film it is more like a show battle. In both movies Macbeth already had his blade on his enemy’s throat. Finch leaves him alone, feeling himself safe and there the big difference comes up. In the 2015 film adaptation, the king still has his blade on Macduff, when this one says he was born by Caesarean section, so Macbeth had the chance to kill him with knowing this. As if he needs to fulfill the prophecy, he doesn’t kill him but stands up and says what Polanski cut out. Macduff offers him to yield like in the play. In all three versions, Macbeth explains why he does not give himself up: “I will not yield, To kiss the ground before young Malcolm’s feet.” (Shakespeare 1606, 94). Fassbender challenges the prediction and puts his fate into Macduff’s hands. There is no more fighting and Macduff stabs Macbeth who doesn’t resist. That’s the reason why his answer gets a completely different meaning. The aim here is to show that he yields to Macduff and the prediction but not to the “young” and inexperienced Malcolm. Kurzel accentuates this on purpose in contrast to Shakespeare and Polanski. In Kurzel’s version it seems as if the king wanted to be released from the situation, the curse, and his insanity and to die as a hero and so he does: After Macduff gave the king the deadly stab, Macbeth tries to stay as long as he can before he slumps down and dies on his knees. During this struggle, a slow, tragic melody plays and the enemies act as if they were just taking leave of their hero: “Kurzel’s film achieves an […] epic feel.” (Thomas 2015, 974). Polanski doesn’t give him such an honorable ending. Macduff decapitates him and puts his head on a pole, exactly the same as the stage direction. The atmosphere is more pleasant and relieved.

Shakespeare’s ending isn’t as personal as the other two. Here Macduff seems to be just a marionette of Malcolm, and that Malcolm represents the more important role. In Polanski’s movie, Malcolm only plays an underpart while the storyline focuses more on the two who are fighting. That Macduff fights so hard against Macbeth is not only due to his desire to return the crown to it’s rightful heir, but primarily for his personal reasons: avenge his family which was slaughtered by Macbeth. In the 2015 movie, Macduff and Malcolm both represent an important role. In this scene, the weird sisters appear one more time and watch the fight from next to the battlefield as if they want to make sure their prediction comes true. They play a very important part in the story because they prophesied everything in the beginning and Kurzel wanted to illustrate this once again.

3 Formal differences between play and both film adaptations

In the previous sections the content was compared and now some formal differences will be analyzed. O’Sullivan from the Washington Post said in his movie review on the 2015 film version: “Scenes that are only described in speeches in the stage play – including the initial pitched battle and, later, the gruesome deaths of Macduff’s wife and children – are shown in the film.” With this observation he points to the fact that Kurzel depicted especially brutal scenes with spectacular attention to detail. During the battle in the beginning, the change of soundless extreme slow motion pictures to normal speed with spectacular sound effects supports that Kurzel sets great store by this fighting scene. Also, sexuality plays an important role. Less in the stage play but in both film adaptations nudity and sex scenes are present. In Polanski’s film, when Macbeth seeks the witches out for the second time, there are more than 20 completely naked witches. “For the male, to look on the naked female body and its external lack may provoke a sense of absence within the male himself.” (Scott 2008, 105). He presents the witches as a kind of crazy, outworn cult also with the way they make the elixir, with frogs and herbs. All these additional odds and ends add to the length and contribute unnecessary information. Kurzel uses sexuality in a more intimate manner. There are two scenes where the Macbeth’s have sexual intercourse. With today’s tolerance and enlightenment, it is more realistic to show a sex scene rather than “simple” nudity that seems a bit antiquated to us. One more difference between both movies is that the numerous monologues by Macbeth are also spoken in Kurzel’s movie while Polanski sometimes changes them into thoughts and soliloquy when it’s allowed by the situation. Both directors implement the tragedy and the sad atmosphere through gloomy, misty stage settings with darkened colors. Kurzel’s adaptation was filmed 44 years after Polanski’s version and naturally seems more modern and authentic and with the film technology, the audience watches a more realistic movie.

4 Conclusion

A big advantage all movies have in contrast to books is sound. Adding music to film scenes manipulates the atmosphere and the viewers’ perception. Both film adaptations make profound use of this. Producing a successful movie still depends on many factors: how the director plans it, how suitable the actors are for their roles, and last but not least the size of the budget. The 1971 version has a great director with Roman Polanski whereas the actors in the 2015 movie are renowned Hollywood stars with Fassbender and Cotillard. Both film adaptations have Shakespeare’s stage play for submission and both are similar to the original but also to each other. They stay true to the storyline for the most part and it’s clear they want to represent Shakespeare’s Macbeth as well as possible though a lot was changed.


Excerpt out of 12 pages


A Comparison between Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Polanski’s film adaptation from 1971 and Kurzel’s film adaptation from 2015
University of Tubingen
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Macbeth, Shakespeare, Roman Polanski, Justin Kurzel, stage production, film
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Lukas Jan (Author), 2016, A Comparison between Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Polanski’s film adaptation from 1971 and Kurzel’s film adaptation from 2015, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/358805


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