Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Atomic Shakespeare Part 1 – Macbeth

“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” – Witch, Macbeth

I’ve taken the title for this category from a classic episode of the 1980s TV show Moonlighting.  In this episode the cast does a very funny and self-referential version of The Taming of the Shrew.  It was “meta” before there was such a concept.

I am using the term “Atomic Shakespeare” to refer to any movie adaptation of a Shakespeare play that is not set in the traditional time or place of the play.  Examples would be 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) and Kiss Me Kate (1953), both of which are versions of The Taming of the Shrew.  There have been many films that have moved Shakespeare’s tales into a different setting, hence the “Part 1” in the title.  I will be revisiting this category in the future.

For right now, I will be reviewing three very different interpretations of Macbeth.  One is set in feudal Japan, one is set in a 1970s suburban Pennsylvania fast food restaurant, and one is set in an alternate history, militaristic Scotland.  These movies are Throne of Blood (1957) – directed by the great Akira Kurosawa; Scotland, PA (2001); and Macbeth (2010).  There have been many other Macbeth adaptations that have also changed the settings (i.e. 2006’s Macbeth set in the criminal underground of Melbourne and Men of Respect set in modern times), but I have not seen them.

Rather than redundantly recount the story of Macbeth in each movie review, I will give a summary here and refer back to it from the reviews.

Here is the basic plot of Macbeth – Macbeth and Banquo are traveling home from a military victory.  They are peers, both Thanes under Duncan, the King of Scotland.  They meet three witches who predict that Macbeth will first be Thane of a larger region, then King of Scotland.  They also predict that Banquo will not be king, but will be father to a long line of kings.  Both are shaken by the witches’ prophecies, but when they reach the king the first part of the prophecy about Macbeth comes true.

Macbeth tells his wife and she immediately tries to convince him to make the second part of the prophecy come true when the King next comes to visit them.  Macbeth finally agrees and kills his kinsman King Duncan in his own home and frames the King’s sons for it.  Lady Macbeth has to finish the job, though.  Both of them are shaken by this deed and both start to unravel as the story goes along.  Macbeth again seeks out the witches to get more prophecies about his rule.  They tell him he is safe “until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane” [Macbeth’s castle] and that he need fear “no man born of woman”.  Macbeth believes this to mean that he is invincible, since how can a forest come to a castle and what man is not born of woman?

In the meantime, Macbeth’s unraveling becomes paranoia, which causes him to distrust Banquo, who knew of the prophecy and who likely suspects Macbeth in the King’s death.  Banquo and his young son try to flee to safety, but Macbeth orders their deaths.  Meanwhile, another Thane named Macduff is a constant thorn in Macbeth’s side, opposing his rule because he also suspects Macbeth.

By the way, you may be wondering why you should care about any version of Macbeth, or even Shakespeare for that matter.  The answer is that these stories have been hugely influential on so many books and movies that they couldn’t even be listed.  Want a big example?  Ever heard of The Lord of the Rings?  Author J.R.R. Tolkien took the concepts of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, as well as fearing harm from “no man”, and used them to create Treebeard and the other Ents, as well as the showdown between Eowyn and The Witch King of Angmar at the battle outside Minas Tirith.

Here are links to the film reviews.  I will update them as I post each review.

On to the reviews…


  1. Ha, nice point about LotR. I've heard the Tolkien scholars mention that on the special features videos from the LotR DVDs.

    1. I'm not sure where I picked up that information, but it might have been from the same place.