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Polanski’s and Kurzel’s Film Adaptations of Macbeth


Film adaptations of plays have been common throughout the existence of the movie industry. However, even more so than book adaptations, plays are notoriously hard to get right as they were specifically created to be played out on stage. This is even more applicable to Shakespeare’s work, which has unique elements ranging from language to plot devices that are difficult to represent in the film medium. This paper will explore two well-known film adaptations of Macbeth, Polanski’s Macbeth (1971) and the modern remake of Macbeth (2015), directed by Justin Kurzel, through the lens of a major theme in the play of blood and violence to determine how true to the original play these films remained and whether they were able to accurately capture its essence.

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Explanation of Major Theme

One of the primary themes in Shakespeare’s Macbeth is blood and violence. It is most likely one of the playwright’s most violent plays, containing the word ‘blood’ 42 times. The concept of violence in Macbeth is that it begets more violence. The play begins with a bloody battle, then goes on with Macbeth murdering to claim the throne, then he must pursue violence against his enemies to preserve power. One of the play’s lessons is that every violent action, no matter how noble the reason, inevitably leads to the next. Upon encountering Banquo’s ghost, Macbeth reflects, “It will have blood, they say; blood will have blood” (Shakespeare 3.4.151). Macbeth is forced to commit violence until it is all he has left in his life, and he begins to identify with it, which drives him mad.

Production #1

The 1971 version of Macbeth is one of the most violent and goriest films to be produced, especially for that time. Notably, it was made shortly after the director’s family and friends were infamously brutally murdered by the Charlie Manson cult, with the wife who was pregnant at the time being heavily mutilated. So many saw the overexuberant violence in Macbeth as a means for Polanski to process the tragedy. The film is very dark, pessimistic, and seemingly full of rage in its storytelling, visuals, and effects. This version remains relatively true to the play in structure and dialogue, and only small liberties are taken. The cast was very young, considering that the play does indicate that Macbeth is on the older side. However, Polanski wanted young actors for the sexual spark, and he believed as a warrior, Macbeth would not have lived to see old age. Polanski created the setting of significant cruelty, unforeseen loss, and tyranny, all based on bloodshed (Weinraub). Whether or not the film reflected Polanski’s grief, it did seemingly capture the world of Macbeth with its bloody violence, a life of constantly facing death, and ultimately a man who is broken by what he has done.

Production #2

The 2015 production of Macbeth was directed by Justin Kurzel. As a more modern version, this film is viewed more like a blockbuster. It was also the director’s creative choice to strip the dialogue, leaving likely less than half from the original play and inserting much of its screenplay. The plot largely stays true to Macbeth but takes more widespread creative liberties. The visuals for the film are stunning and significantly push that notion established in the play of a world that is full of gloom and despair. The film also adds (or potentially masterfully captures) the mystical elements, creating a sense that there are otherworldly powers at play that the protagonist cannot control. From the theme of blood and violence, this version also takes significant freedom in portraying all kinds of violence, ranging from gory killings to tragic women burning on crosses. The violence is present, translating the play’s motif, but it is not overwhelming in either volume or prevalence. When it occurs, similar to the play, one knows why it happens, contributing to the general plot and themes healthily.


Both productions offer takes on the unique play. The 1971 version opens a door to underlying Macbeth’s theme of murderous ambition. It captured the essence of the violence begets violence aspect of the play. Polanski takes on a naturalistic approach, presenting realistic portrayals and a vicious cycle of crime. Polanski’s film is often viewed as a psychological examination of mass murders, given his history, and Macbeth, despite seemingly being the tragic hero, is not much different from a villain. Meanwhile, Kurzel’s adaptation can effectively capture the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, which Shakespearean scholars often view as the Fourth Witch. The film effectively demonstrates her influence on Macbeth and their strained relationship as the protagonist becomes lost in his violent ambitions. Both can highlight moments and relationships at a deeper emotional and visual level than would be possible through text or stage, offering a completely new perspective on Macbeth.

Understanding of the Play

It was an enjoyable experience to watch both films and see visually how Shakespeare’s iconic play comes to life. Both movies created tremendous world-building on the epic scale deserving of the play. It was evident that both directors took creative liberties in the process, but for the most part, it was clear that the films are about Macbeth and their vision of it and nothing else. As motion pictures were created for entertainment, I felt that they did not capture the inherent depths and morals of the play despite the brilliant acting.

However, from a visual perspective, watching the films helped me immerse more into the play when I read about it. The well-detailed outfits, the dark melancholy environment, the coldness of the stone castles, and ruthless battles – were captured wonderfully as often described in the play itself. Furthermore, through the theme of violence, both films spared no expense or reputational risk in recreating the gory violence, which helps to better understand Macbeth and his vicious cycle of “blood.” Even as a warrior that has seen death, it must have been psychologically taxing for him to commit these atrocities, all based on the deception of the witches and his ego striving to keep control of power. The films capture these moments, capable of relaying emotions through visual effects and music.

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Both Macbeth films are strong motion pictures and take unique approaches to adapting the famous play. However, from a purely adaptational point of view, Polanski’s film is better. It stays true to the structure, dialogue, and motifs of the original play while masterfully capturing the blood and violence involved in it. Despite being a close adaptation, the film does not make it seem forced but allows for a natural flow of the story as it would be told in a theater setting, instead of focusing on elements that would help the viewer immerse. Meanwhile, Kurzel’s Macbeth is simply veering off the path too far in attempting to capture the feeling of the play rather than its content. As a result, the film loses track of the original play’s meaning despite being an amazing visual and sensory experience that encompasses the feel and mysticism of Macbeth. Overall, this exercise has helped to greatly consider the role of film in adapting Shakespeare’s work, and it is likely that as long as the film exists as a medium, new attempts will be made to capture the epic stories of the renowned bard.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. “Macbeth.” Folger Shakespeare Library, 1606, Web.

Weinraub, Bernard. “‘If you don’t show violence the way it is,’ says Roman Polanski, ‘I think that’s immoral and harmful. If you don’t upset people then that’s obscenity’.” The New York Times, 1971, Web.

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