What’s Done Is Done
On adaptation, originality, and The Tragedy of Macbeth.
By Victor Omojola
Following an all-student screening of The Tragedy of Macbeth at the 2021 New York Film Festival was a brief Q&A session. Before asking their question, one audience member raised their hand and eagerly shared that they and the student sitting to their side had just finished filming their first feature-length film. They made sure to add that they were from Minnesota and that they had financed their project independently.
Minutes prior, the Q&A’s two respondents, Frances McDormand and Joel Coen, had entered the room as opposites. McDormand, the film’s Lady Macbeth and one of its producers, practically danced onto the stage while Coen, directing his first-ever film without his brother, maintained a muted disposition. Still, Coen’s excitement at the words of the young filmmaker hailing from his home state was unmistakable. He responded with a reference to his own first feature film, which his then-girlfriend, McDormand, also starred in. He smiled while recounting a particular episode in which he and his collaborators, driving around Minnesota, looking for potential investors, fell victim to the notorious midwestern winter. Skidding on a patch of ice, their car hit a vehicle parked in the driveway of the house they were approaching. This provoked an intense discussion about whether to inform the homeowner of their blunder before or after asking for money. Blood Simple (1984), he explained, was crowdfunded, and he was thrilled to hear that today, nearly four decades later, films could still be made in such a manner.
Coen’s elation is understandable considering the commercial structure, past and present, of the film industry, in which burgeoning filmmakers live at the mercy of a few large corporations. The standard of vertical integration used by streaming services like Netflix and Amazon only increases the imbalance in this system. And of course, the never-ending discourse surrounding the blockbuster film franchise, often centered around the opinions of Martin Scorcese, is enough to make any cinephile want to scream in a fit of madness rivalling that of Macbeth’s titular character.
Such debates coexist with a slightly more nuanced phenomenon: the prevalence of adaptations over original screenplays. Indeed, just as market-tested, profit-driven Marvel epics dominate Hollywood at the expense of smaller-budget, art house films, the adaptation maintains a firm grip on the film industry. This begs the question many critics have pondered after seeing The Tragedy of Macbeth: Why exactly did Joel Coen and Frances Mcdormand feel the need to make it?
Casey Rogerson, CC ’24, told me effusively that “they had such a clear vision for what they wanted it to be, and it was cool to see them execute that.” Rogerson is an aspiring screenwriter studying Film and Media Studies and Creative Writing. He also has acting ambitions and a background in theatre. In fact, Rogerson is currently involved in a production of Macbeth by Columbia’s own King’s Crown Shakespeare Troupe. It is no surprise, then, that he believes The Tragedy of Macbeth was worth its making based on the acting performances of McDormand and her co-star, Denzel Washington, alone. In general, Rogerson feels certain that despite being the latest of over 20 film or television adaptations of the work, this Macbeth “proved the need for its existence.” He continued, “this one felt really current, it felt very original.”
Annette Insdorf, film historian and professor of film at Columbia School of the Arts, praised the work’s cinematography, shot in a “glorious black and white.” She also appreciated the performance of “the extraordinary Kathryn Hunter” as the witch. Insdorf described that “after uttering predictions to Banquo and Macbeth, the three images of her transform into birds that ascend. This is the kind of breathtaking cinema that would not be possible on a stage.”
Insdorf’s comments not only help one recognize the particular brilliance of Coen’s adaptation, but also situate the film amongst warring theories of cinema and its relation to the theatre. 20th-century film theorist André Bazin, for instance, spent much of his career trying to define the unique semiotics of film through its basis in realism. And yet, during the Q&A, Coen spoke of his desire to construct a deeply stylized film as opposed to, say, Justin Kurzel’s more immersive take on the Shakespearean tragedy from 2015.
This isn’t to say that for a piece to be specially suited for film, it must reflect Bazin’s vision. But the tension illustrates an ongoing conversation concerning adaptation of the theatre. Must a filmic work deviate strongly from its staged forebears to be worth producing? If the answer is yes, then, as Insdorf points out, the monochrome cinematography and avian symbolism, among other elements of The Tragedy of Macbeth, should qualify it for the screen. However, Coen’s choices reflect a great deal of influence from the endless catalog of thespian Macbeth remakes. Shakespeare’s original verse is virtually untouched and the film, at times, feels as if it exists in a closed environment—as if the screen is merely a two-dimensional backdrop.
Insdorf also contended that the value of any filmic version of the Scottish play lies in the filmmaker’s ability to provide “a new prism for appreciation and understanding.” For her, elements like the film’s colorblind casting of Washington as Macbeth make the work a worthwhile venture. When asked about the film’s noticeable lack of Scottish actors, Coen joked that in making the film, he did not care much about the country of Scotland. The anecdote is humorous, but also speaks to the reasonable claim that Macbeth’s usefulness as source material comes from the freedom it gives filmmakers to place and re-place it in new social and cultural contexts.
Serenity S’rae, a Theatre Arts major in her junior year at Boston University, often writes about the experiences of the everyday Black person. As a Black woman, S’rae feels she occupies a notoriously unambiguous space in the American psyche but, in reality, is more difficult to locate. “I often felt in this middle place,” she said. This reckoning with identity, which all Black artists must undergo, is related to her appreciation for Shakespeare: “I think audiences have and always will kind of gravitate towards the beauty of the language and the freedom of the language and also the non-specific stereotypes [of] race or gender.”
One might call this a certain freedom of the Shakespearean identity—one that allows for and demands Insdorf’s new prisms of comprehension. The flexibility of the playwright’s characters speaks to the longevity of their adaptability in rapidly warping historical situations and through different interpretive lenses. It also offers a compelling defense of this particular Tragedy of Macbeth.
Still, S'rae expressed apprehensions concerning the industry's fondness for adaptation. S’rae is currently working in Los Angeles as a developmental intern for State Street Pictures, a Black-led production company whose most recent success was The Hate You Give (2018), directed by company head George Tillman, Jr. During her time with the company, S’rae has found that, in general, production companies value IP—intellectual property intended for a film or television adaptation—above all else. S’rae takes slight issue with this. “I think we can be so much more original. I think it also just makes people a little bit more fearful of original content,” she said. “They kind of want to stick with the good ole canon that they know or things that they know work and sell. And ultimately, that’s the goal of every production company, is to have the next hit and to sell and make a lot of money.”
One does not have to be a disciple of Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School to recognize the accuracy of S’rae’s comments. The film industry is no more than an industry. Its structural rigidity, then, is highly relevant. The dwindling of major industry players, the infatuation with proven franchises, the hunger for IP, the reliance upon established artists, and the predilection for adaptation are merely different spokes on the same restricting film reel. Hungering for profit, the film industry veers ever towards efficiency and therefore, repetition. And what is adaptation but a form of repetition?
For a young writer, the idea of succeeding with original material within such a system can be daunting. Proving that your work is as worthy of the screen as the words of Shakespeare is no small task. Admission to a writer’s room often hinges on one’s ability to imitate a pre-established writing style in a speculative script. Gaining traction in the biz is largely contingent on mastering the lingo already approved by the machine.
But S’rae is hesitant to suggest that screenwriters should abandon their original projects completely because, as evidenced by The Tragedy of Macbeth, established stories and franchises are usually managed by established filmmakers. “If they’re gonna go with adaptations,” she said, “they’re gonna have a big-ass writer to do it.” Indeed, both S’rae and Rogerson connected their interest in the film with their appreciation for its stars, both behind and in front of the camera. This makes one wonder: Are film adaptations only legitimized when they’re executed by trusted, proven, and well-liked artists?
Had Coen and McDormand decided, in 1984, to make a highly theatrical screen rendition of Macbeth, it would have seemed derivative, frivolous, un-noteworthy, and, most importantly, not ideal for launching a career. But today, as two well-known film artists who set out to create something that personally galvanized them, they were able to do just that–and, all things considered, do it well. Now bolstered by the commercial behemoth that might have squashed their 1984 attempt and unobstructed by the need to succeed, they could do today what thousands of filmmaking hopefuls could not. Considering, then, this marriage of established artists and established stories, perhaps the best explanation for why Coen and McDormand endeavored to make The Tragedy of Macbeth is also the simplest: because they could.