From Page to Screen: The Tragedy of Macbeth

Terry Pratchett has neatly ruined Macbeth‘s opening for me — the eldritch screech of “When shall we three meet again?” answered by a nonplussed “Well, I can do next Tuesday” — but Kathryn Hunter’s contortions in her role as the witches and Joel Coen’s creepy direction do much to restore the story’s uncanny atmosphere. The Tragedy of Macbeth, an Apple original movie that I saw in a smallish cinema but which most people will probably see at home via streaming, brings the virtues of the stage to the screen, and virtues of the movies to an adaptation of a play.

The Tragedy of Macbeth (poster)

The named places in Macbeth are nearly all in Scotland, but this movie version makes no attempt to tie the action to a real place. Like a play, its settings are more suggestion than location. The outdoor scenes are nearly all light and fog, with the merest sets standing in for landscapes. Coen is more generous with skies, especially those haunted by circling birds that may or may not be the witches transformed.

Shot in black and white, the visual style of this Macbeth draws heavily on the German Expressionism of the silent film era. The angular sets reminded me of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, while the mood and use of light reminded me of The Seventh Seal, which is of course neither German nor silent but as intimately concerned with death as Macbeth. Like Caligari, the story in Macbeth turns very much on its lead characters’ states of mind, and how those change over the course of the tale. One memorable outdoor scene in The Tragedy of Macbeth recalled The Night of the Hunter, one of the most menacing movies I have ever seen.

The final fights of Macbeth’s life — nearly the only on-screen violence in this version — take place on a set designed to resemble a rampart. Those narrow confines, with suggestion of fatal drops to either side, symbolize how Macbeth’s choices have led him to a constricted space where he must fight all comers or die. He has no more supporters, he has nowhere to turn; in the end, he has no more choices.

One of this version’s most interesting choices is the suggestion that the nobleman Ross is playing all sides against each other in his own game. He is with Macbeth; he attempts to warn Lady Macduff; he is witness to Lady Macbeth’s undone state; he is with Macduff in England. Coen takes up the suggestion of some scholars that Ross is the third murderer who does in Banquo. In the text, the third murderer is not identified. Macbeth himself only engages two to kill Banquo, yet when asked the third says that Macbeth sent him. Two other scenes, including the movie’s last one, suggest that Ross is playing a game that stretches beyond not only Macbeth and Macduff but also beyond murdered Duncan’s son Malcolm, who reclaims the throne after Birnam wood comes to Dunsinane. I re-read the play not long after seeing the movie, and I think it’s an intriguing choice. It adds a layer of plotting, gives depth to a lesser character, and shows that a restoration is not the end of conflict.

The Tragedy of Macbeth is a very striking version of the Scottish tragedy. The reimagined witches’ cauldron from the first scene of act IV stands out among the movie’s visual moments that have the immediacy of live theater but which could never be put together on a stage. Macbeth’s death is similarly effective in how the visuals display the play’s themes. The artificiality of its appearance, and artifice in its production, transport the story from windswept Scotland to a timeless meditation on ambition and its price.

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