Moving the Boundaries Through Transposition and Reconfiguration in Film Adaptations of Shakespeare
The universal themes of ambition, power, and greed make William Shakespeare’s Macbeth remarkably applicable to countless other times, places, and people. It is with this mindset that directors Akira Kurosawa and Billy Morrisette approached their respective adaptations of the play, Throne of Blood and Scotland, PA. Throne of Blood transposes the play’s setting from Scotland to feudal Japan and alters the story as little as possible in order to remain faithful to both the original plot and to traditional Samurai culture. Scotland, PA goes even farther by reconfiguring the play as a dark comedy based around a fast food restaurant in 1970’s Pennsylvania. What makes the relationship between the two films and their source material so unique among adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays is that each film is able to stay faithful to the plot, characters, and themes of Macbeth while also presenting them in unprecedented, yet ultimately functional, settings. Through transposition and reconfiguration, the films Throne of Blood and Scotland, PA are able to limn Shakespeare’s text while also broadening the boundaries within the general concept of adaptation.
Throne of Blood is not only an example of how adaptable Macbeth is in terms of plot, character, and theme, but also exemplifies the power of transposition. In terms of music, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the term “transposition” as “the performance of a piece in a different key from that in which it is written”. With this definition in mind, we can see that transposition is the only applicable term to the resetting of Macbeth from 12th century Scotland to Feudal Japan. This is because film stays remarkably faithful to the original text and deviates only for cultural difference, and the “change in position” of the term becomes the best term of reference in regards to this adaptation. While the cultural differences between 12th century Scotland and feudal Japan are very great, the story of Macbeth proves to be broad enough to be adaptable to any major culture. The play deals greatly with corruption, power, and manipulation, which are human traits not specific to any one era or geographical location. Ambition and greed are the potential weaknesses of every individual regardless of language, ethnicity, or residence, and the setting of Throne of Blood thus exemplifies the universality of these themes; in turn, this film is one of the most faithful Shakespeare adaptations.
Kurosawa uses mise-en-scène to bridge the world written in the text and the feudal Japanese setting the audience sees onscreen. The film begins with a shot of the Japanese landscape shrouded with fog, a visual reminiscent of traditional Scottish weather. As the musical prologue is sung in voice-over, Kurosawa seems to be using visuals to build a path from one culture and setting to another, and this example of visual effect shows how Kurosawa is specifically defining his film as a transposition. The film also takes note of the calls in stage directions for thunder and lightning, keeping with the visual gloom of the natural world that is essential to any adaptation of Macbeth. Kurosawa’s great care to remain faithful to the visuals Shakespeare asks for is an example of how mise-en-scène is used bridge the gap between the text and its visual representation.
The horrific nature of the crimes committed by the main characters is shown in both pieces to disturb the essence of nature. In a conversation between Ross, Macduff, and an old man, it is discovered that “Duncan’s horses…turned wild in nature…” and “’Tis said they ate each other” (2.4). Similarly, in Throne of Blood, Miki’s horse is shown to be out of control and his son notes that what they witness with the horse is “an evil omen”. From both of these instances, we can discern that Macbeth and Washizu have, in their respective pieces, stolen God-granted titles for themselves, thus throwing the natural world into turmoil. This disturbance is an important theme in the original text, as it symbolically reaffirms the seriousness of the crimes that have been committed by the characters. The fact that Kurosawa was conscientious enough to keep it in his adaptation (while others would likely have considered it expendable) is an example of his dedication to this adaptation as one of transposition rather than deviation.
Especially crucial to any adaptation of Macbeth is the theme of men being manipulated by women. From Macbeth being convinced of his future by the weird sisters to finally being coerced into committing murder by his wife, it is clear that women play a very important role in the story: they cannot be replaced by men or removed altogether. Throne of Blood retains plot element by this by having a single female spirit speak to Washizu, and Asaji contributes to the plot greatly, even stating at one point, “I did not stain my hands with blood for the benefit of Miki’s son”. In neither the text nor the film are women free of responsibility for their actions or their roles as manipulators of the men, and to remove them is detrimental to both the text and the film.
Billy Morrissette’s reconfiguration of Macbeth as a dark comedy set in Pennsylvania still asserts the themes Shakespeare presented in his text almost four hundred years ago, branding Macbeth as one of Shakespeare’s more open plays in terms of adaptation. While the connection between medieval Scotland and post-Hippie culture America seems dubious, the reworking of the original text provides the same commentaries originally seen in the play regarding greed, insanity, manipulation, and the way the actions of characters can take a toll on nature. The actions the character Macbeth takes in the play are shown to disturb this balance of nature, as seen when Macbeth asks his wife if she heard anything while he was murdering the king, and she says, “I heard the owl scream, and the crickets cry.” This quote is a clear indication that the natural order of the world has been disturbed, and that what the Macbeths have done will have enormous repercussions as it is affecting even the parts of the world they are not directly connected to. In a more subtle commentary, Scotland, PA is set in the decade when the fast food industry had exploded in America; society had concluded that price was more important than health and the quality of food. Just as Macbeth has stolen a God-given title, America has deprived itself of the right to a healthy lifestyle, and the natural order to the world has consequently been disturbed enough to allow terrible things to happen. This connection between themes is just one example of how the adaptation is a faithful reconfiguration of Macbeth.
Another example of reconfiguration is in the character of Lady Macbeth and the guilt of her crimes driving her to madness, symbolized by the “blood” on her hands that she cannot seem to wash off. In the text, her doctor and gentlewoman observe her in utter confusion as she sleepwalks, saying “Out damned spot – out I say” to the spots of blood that are not actually there. In Scotland, PA, Pat Macbeth burns herself during the murder of Duncan and believes she has an ugly scar that won’t go away. The comedy of the situation arises from the fact that there is no scar and that Pat is the only one who thinks she has a burn mark; she accuses people of staring at its ugliness. The scene is very serious in the play because of it is a sign of Lady Macbeth’s guilt and growing insanity, and even though Morrissette’s restructuring of the situation into a comedy is unprecedented given the usually serious nature of Macbeth, it still conveys the same message of guilt apparent in the original text, proving that the film is faithful to it’s original work despite the reconfiguration of the material.
One of the most appealing things about reading, staging, or adapting Macbeth is its structural and thematic darkness, which is exemplified by the role of the supernatural in the plot, the theme of murder for the sake of power, and the use of seduction as a form of manipulation. While the darkness of the text is essential to any staging or adaptation of Macbeth, the play still remarkably refuses to be restricted by conventional genres. It can be staged as a psychological thriller, a fantasy, a conventional drama, and as Morrissette proves, a comedy. Scotland, PA is a black comedy, or in other words, a piece humorous at its core while also covering topics such as murder, corruption, and other happenings that are not usually considered funny. The film takes advantage of the freedom in the concept of adaptation by providing the viewer with a new way to see Shakespeare’s play, all the while retaining the darkness that is crucial to the plot. Morrissette thus gives the analytical thinker a new way to view the relationship of a text as classic as Macbeth to the modern film, exemplifying modern creativity at its height in the form of cinematic reconfiguration.
In a unique twist on the concept of adaptation, the seemingly unrelated films Throne of Blood and Scotland, PA each have a deep relationship with the foundational work, Macbeth, and with each other. The great variation in setting and interpretation seen in each film proves the ultimate pliability of Macbeth while managing to leave its core undisturbed. From this, the audience can understand that there should be a relationship of mutual respect between an original work and its adaptation; each must give the other room to function so that it can remain or become a unique piece of art. In most cases, the relationship is unbalanced and has induced conclusions among film critics and moviegoers that no adaptation has the same strength as the work it comes from. However, these two films are able to prove that an adaptation of a written work can be thought-provoking and of high quality, still respecting the core of Macbeth and using the flexibility of the piece to create an entirely new transposition or reconfiguration of art altogether.
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