Throne of Blood, Macbeth, and the Complexities of Adaptation
Note: This was originally a paper I wrote for a class I took titled “Film Among the Arts.” It’s been slightly reformatted for posting here, but the text remains intact.
The concept of adapting a work of art to film is more than simply complex. There are myriad ways to approach doing so, none of which ends up being entirely satisfying. This is perhaps especially true of works considered to be truly great works of art. This is no truer than when speaking of adapting works of Shakespeare to screen. Aside from the prolific nature of adaptations of his works to screen, the inherent nature of fidelity of adaptation is frequently, if not almost universally, raised. How does one go about adapting such a work as revered as those plays of Shakespeare? Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) forces this consideration more than most adaptations of Shakespeare, partly because it is not a direct textual adaptation of Macbeth, but more of an appropriation of the work to a filmic and aesthetic medium. Unlike a more traditional adaptation of any stage play, wherein the text itself, the dialogue, is translated directly to the screen – such as the case with both Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971) as well as Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948) – Kurosawa appropriates the basic narrative and characters of the play to a film that takes place not in Scotland in the 16th century, but to feudal Japan. How does Kurosawa’s appropriation of Shakespeare work as an adaptation of the play Macbeth? Furthermore, how does the examination of other, more textual adaptations of Macbeth inform Kurosawa’s film as a work of adaptation?
In the first part of this essay, I will examine some of the features and complexities involved in adapting a work of art – in this case a great literary work – to screen. What is at stake? What informs adaptation, especially in a case such as this one? In what adaptive context should we view Throne of Blood? Its interplay of different art forms, for example, is clearly important to viewing the film, but there is a clear question of how strongly the film should be regarded simply as adaptation, or taken on its own terms. Furthermore, when extending to works such as Polanski’s Macbeth, the context under which the play is adapted changes dramatically.
In the second part, I will examine Throne of Blood more closely on its own terms, as well as extending upon the ideas in the first part in specific relation to the film. How do these ideas of adaptation interplay with Kurosawa’s film? Can Throne of Blood be separated from its place as an adaptation of a great work of art, or must it be seen in the context of its place as an adaptive work?
In the third part, I will extend upon the idea of adaption, and of adapting Macbeth to more textual screen translations, mainly Roman Polanski’s 1971 version and Orson Welles’ 1948 version. How were those adaptations informed, and what insights can we glimmer by comparing it to a less-textual adaptation such as Throne of Blood?
The Complexities of Adaptation
It goes without saying that in adapting one work to another, there are many complexities that need to be taken into account. The subject is extremely broad, and can be approached from numerous different frameworks. But as Dudley Andrew states, “Unquestionably the most frequent and most tiresome discussion of adaptation (and of film and literature relations as well) concerns fidelity…” This is certainly true, and requires one to ask what the term “fidelity” even means. Does it mean fidelity to “feeling”? To, in the case of something like Macbeth, the basic textual themes present? As Andrew goes on to say, “Fidelity of adaptation is conventionally treated in relation to the ‘letter’ and to the ‘spirit’ of a text, as though adaptation were the rendering of an interpretation of a legal precedent.” This is exactly the problem: despite the continued desire to put the concept of adaptation within a framework of 1:1 conversion, such cannot ever truly be the case. Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto makes a similar argument to Andrew, saying that adaptation is associated too strongly with the idea of “fidelity,” and going on to say that, “Yet fidelity is a misleading and unproductive notion because it establishes a hierarchical relation between original and adaptation, and also because it assumes that there is some uniform set of standards for comparing two artworks in different media.” Demanding fidelity is problematic not only because adaptation from one art form to another is never as simple as plainly putting the text to the screen. There are no standards one must follow in order to properly adapt a work, and as Yoshimoto adeptly points out, such a demand creates issues of hierarchy between two arguably separate – yet inherently interconnected – works that should be taken on their own terms.
In a case like Throne of Blood, this issue of fidelity, or lack-there-of, clearly plays a part. The film is not a textual adaptation. By that I mean to say that the film is not simply a “performance” of Shakespeare’s Macbeth on screen. Kurosawa appropriates the narrative, the characters, and certain thematic elements from the play and transposes them into his own aesthetic vision. No longer does the story take place in Scotland. No longer does the story involve a man named Macbeth, but a warrior named Washizu (Toshirô Mifune). These are basic elemental changes, and yet the film is clearly heavily drawn upon Macbeth. Andrew deals with this very concept when he speaks to the translation of a novel – another narrative work – to film:
Narrativity is the most solid median link between novel and cinema, the most pervasive tendency of both verbal and visual languages… Narrative codes, then, always function at the level of implication or connotation. Hence they are potentially comparable in a novel and a film. The story can be the same if the narrative units (characters, events, motivations, consequences, context, viewpoint, imagery, and so on) are produced equally in two works.
In this most basic sense, we can recognize Throne of Blood as an adaptation based not on some vague idea of fidelity to a source material, but in the narrative codes recognizable in both works. The basic plot, characters, and situations and circumstances are all recognizably linked between the two. Cases like this, in order to be successful, rely “on the issue of fertility, not their fidelity” (49), and fall under what Andrew calls the “Borrowing” mode of adaptation. He specifically places adaptations of Shakespeare within this “Borrowing” mode, partly because of the well-known and “mythic” quality associated with such works. Shakespeare’s Macbeth clearly fits into this framework, in which he further argues such works need to be analyzed “to probe the source of power in the original by examining the use made of it in adaptation.”
This is the mode under which I am approaching Throne of Blood. Simply regarding it in the context of whether it is “faithful” to Shakespeare’s play misses the point entirely, and forces one into a corner in which one can give only one of two answers: either it is faithful, or is not. Regardless of the supposed fidelity of an adapted work to its source, one must consider the various aspects at work in the adaptation, as well as how those aspects work in the context of the adaptation itself, separate from the work upon which it is based. I reject the notion that critics such as Frank Kermode and John Gerlach take, in which Throne of Blood is just “an allusion to, rather than a version of, Macbeth,” and that the film is somehow an unsatisfactory adaptation of the play because it “does not fully translate Shakespeare’s tragedy into a new medium.”
Throne of Blood as Adaptation
At the most basic level, Throne of Blood changes a number of details of the original play. One would assume that such details are important, but they do not get to the heart of why the film is “regarded by many as the best adaptation of Shakespeare’s work into film” despite the fact that “among many Shakespeare adaptations it departs from Shakespeare’s text most radically.” Part of this has to do with what I spoke of previously regarding the recognizable narrative connotations. But I believe that more than that it has to do with the fact that Kurosawa does not simply take the text of Shakespeare’s play and transplant it on screen, but rather uses the play to inform larger cinematic issues at work. “Faithfulness to a form, literary or otherwise, is illusory: what matters is the equivalence in meaning of the forms.” ((Yoshimoto, p. 269)) As such, it is difficult to engage Throne of Blood in terms of its supposed fidelity to Shakespeare’s text. One issue that is consistently brought up in critical analysis of the film is its cultural relation: the concept of transforming a Western work to a Japanese aesthetic vision.
One way in which we can see this at work is in Kurosawa’s use of Noh Theater to inform the story he is telling both visually and narratively. The characters – Washizu, Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), the Witch (Chieko Naniwa), etc. – are depicted as wearing masks familiar to Noh Theater. One example is, as Yoshimoto explains, “the witch in the woods first looks like the mask called yaseonna (old lady) and later appears with the face of the mountain witch yamauba.” Both Asaji and Washizu can be seen to “wear masks” of Noh, and aspects such as the sound design and shot composition can be said to have been influenced by Noh. As Donald Richie notes, “There are, for example, almost no close-ups. Kurosawa has said that this was because of the Noh influence where, naturally, everything is seen in full.” We must ask why Kurosawa chooses to use Noh Theater as such an influence on the film.
The Witch in Throne of Blood, the first encounter. Here, the yaseonna (old lady) mask of Noh Theater is evoked.
The Witch, portrayed near the end of Throne of Blood, with the face of yamauba, “the mountain witch.”
The most basic and obvious answer is simply to draw attention to the theatrical origins of the source material. “Noh provides an interesting solution to the problem of adapting theater to film.” But this does not engage, nor does it answer, the question of why he would use Noh as such a large basis in adapting Macbeth. One possible answer is in Kurosawa’s interpretation of the play and in his reason for adapting it into Throne of Blood. When asked as to why he wanted to adapt Macbeth, he said that, “I keep saying the same thing over and over again. Why—I ask—is it that human beings cannot get along with each other, why can’t they live with each other with more good will?” Kurosawa seems to be implying a repetition of a state of nature through history, a repetition of the human condition – that we are unable to progress past the basic idea of kinship among man. If the theme of repetition were indeed one of the driving forces behind his adapting Macbeth, then it would certainly explain his use of Noh to some extent, as well as some of his other cinematic choices.
Noh Theater involves a certain aspect of repetitiveness that leads to an associative recognition. Take something like the sound design Kurosawa employs in the sequence in which Asaji and Washizu murder the Great Lord. The entire scene is punctuated by a deathly silence, yet each of Asaji’s movements makes a specific sound. Her kimono brushes against itself so that each step repeats the same swishing sound. Moreover, each of her steps is a deliberate movement that draws directly upon the Noh Theater style itself; its purpose is specific. “She moves, heel to toe, as does the Noh actor.” This is clear as well in the way that both Asaji and the Witch speak, which is tonally repetitive, almost monotonous. However, even visually the film evokes this theme of repetition. In one scene, Washizu and (Akira Kubo) get lost in a dense fog, in which they travel from one part of the screen to another, each “transition” marked by a cut in the film. This is repeated a total of twelve times. If Kurosawa wanted simply to express the idea of being lost in the fog, this seems excessive. However, combined with these other elements, the arguably excessive repetitiveness of the scene feels more purposeful and less arbitrary. This is solidified by the fact that the film begins and ends on the same note, “The chorus at beginning and end, the battles during the first scenes and the last, the two views of the ruins of the castle—all of this suggests repetition and the same actions endlessly, mindlessly repeating themselves.” This ties directly into Kurosawa’s personal worldview, and his interpretation of human history. And this repetition of violence, murder, and deceit is not one exclusive to Kurosawa’s interpretation of Macbeth, as Polanski’s adaptation clearly demonstrates.
Washizu and Miki lost in the fog in Throne of Blood.
But as Yoshimoto argues, “the film’s possible sources, whether Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Noh, traditional Japanese ink painting, or Japanese history, do not solve interpretive questions arising when we see the film but raise more questions that need to be dealt with in our interpretation of the film.” He goes on to make a few points that should be engaged seriously. Cultural capital, he argues, plays a crucial role. “The original play by Shakespeare,” he notes, “functions as the objectified cultural capital, which is appropriated by Kurosawa to make a new cultural product.” This is the essence of the film’s presence not as simply a text-to-screen translation, but as a thematic and aesthetic transposition of one work to another. This is exactly why so much is made of the relocation of the story geographically. What precisely does this mean as an aspect of adaptation? Although the simple answer would be to say he is simply attempting to “Japanize” the story, I believe this misses the point to a large extent. Yoshimoto argues that the film, as an adapted work of Shakespeare, uses visual imagery to present things that Shakespeare does textually. “What is crucial here is that the replacement of Shakespeare’s poetry with visual image has little to do with the film’s ‘Japaneseness.’” Instead, the transposition to Japan gives Kurosawa a specific “in” to adapting theater to film. “Unlike Macbeth,” Yoshimoto goes on to say, “it is far less dependent on language.” In this way we can understand Kurosawa’s explicit use of Noh imagery and conventions to evoke things within Shakespeare’s text visually. “As Bazin argues, the cross-media translation or adaptation is always a transformative process, in which there is no place for the fetishistic attempt to reproduce the original’s formal features (e.g., Shakespeare’s text).” In this way, we can see that Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is one such transformative work, in which his use of, and evocation of, certain aspects of Japanese art and culture are used not to assert the supposed “Japaneseness” of the film, but to simply elucidate themes, ideas, and issues he finds within the story and characters of Shakespeare’s play.
Transformation From Text to Screen
Throne of Blood is a prime example of cinematic adaptation from a literary work, for all the reasons I have discussed thus far, as well as others that are beyond the scope of this essay. Yet because Shakespeare is so frequently adapted, and Macbeth one of the most frequently adapted of his plays, being considered one of his greatest works, it begs the question of how one adapts the play outside of the sphere of Kurosawa’s one film. Roman Polanski’s Macbeth is one such film that can help answer this question. Unlike Throne of Blood, it is a more directly textual adaptation; it uses the actual text of Shakespeare’s play to inform the film. The dialogue spoken is taken directly from the play; the characters and their circumstances are, for the most part, as they are in the play with a few minor changes (Ross’s character, for one, is expanded, but mainly only in presence, not, for example, in additional dialogue). How does Polanski go about adapting a theatrical work to a cinematic sphere?
One point regularly pointed is the way that Polanski appropriates the theatrical soliloquy for cinematic use. In theater, the soliloquy is used as a way for a character to voice to the audience his or her inner thoughts, to give some idea of said character’s motivation in a given circumstance. Most adaptations of Shakespeare to cinema leave soliloquies intact as spoken dialogue, but not in Polanski’s Macbeth. Instead, these points of dialogue are mostly expressed through inner monologues in the same basic form of voiceover narration. Where once Macbeth openly speaks to the audience about the guilt he faces in potentially murdering his king, Polanski has the character merely thinkthe same lines. While some have argued that Polanski does this in order to give a sense of “psychological realism,” I would argue that he does so more to transform the theatrical to the cinematic. That does not discount the psychological thrust of the work. In Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, for example, “Polanski reportedly intended it as a visual sign of vulnerability. Shedding garments leaves one without a psychological shield…”
Macbeth in Polanski’s Macbeth, his soliloquy expressed through his inner thoughts. “Hear it not, Duncan, for it is a knell/That summons thee to heaven, or to hell.
What complicates Macbeth as a piece of adaptation, however, is its inherent relation to Polanski’s own life. It was his first film released after the grisly murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, by the Manson Family. It would be extremely difficult for one to seriously argue that those experiences did not inform him in making the film. In fact, some critics, like John Orr and Elzbieta Ostrowska place a great deal of emphasis on Polanski’s personal experiences and psychology as a way to inform his filmmaking. The “bleakness in Polanski’s work comes from his life,” they argue. They place Polanski within a certain realm of the auteur theory, specifically contending that,
Polanski fairly consistently has chosen to engage precisely those works that resonate with this idées fixes and suit his directorial sensibilities. While Shakespeare’s Macbeth teems with murders, they typically occur off-stage, and the minimalist stage directions for Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking contain no reference to nudity; nor does Shakespeare’s Act IV, scene I, call for a subterranean coven of naked witches.
Lady Macbeth naked, her nudity expressing her vulnerability in Polanski’s Macbeth.
In this sense, Polanski’s specific adaptive form is greatly informed by his own personal experiences and his own life. Knowing the circumstances of when the film was made, and the circumstances of Polanski’s life at the time, how can one not associate the ultra-violent, nihilistic aesthetic of Macbeth with Polanski’s own life experiences? The murders in the play, such as those of Macduff’s family, which as Orr and Ostrowska point out all happen off-stage in the play, are gruesomely visualized in Polanski’s film.
Yet is this so far off from Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood? There is a comparative line between the two films, both of which suggest the “absurdity” of man’s repetitively violent and deceitful history and nature. However, whereas Kurosawa’s film ends with Washizu’s own men turning against him in what one could interpret as retaliation against such absurdity and the “restoration of social and moral order.” Polanski’s film ends by emphasizing the cyclical nature. It is here that Polanski’s Macbeth falls truly in line with the “Borrowing” mode of adaptation by adding a final scene, after the beheading of Macbeth, in which the new king goes to the same Witches who prophesied Macbeth’s rise and fall. What came before will come again.
What is even truer in comparing these two works is that, when comparing it to say, Orson Welles’ 1948 Macbeth, the idea of tragedy transforms. In Welles’ film, Macbeth is a much more sympathetic character. But there does not appear to be any real tragedy in either Polanski’s Macbeth or Throne of Blood. The death of the Macbeth character is not seen as the tragic fall of a great figure, as is the case in say, Hamlet. In Polanski’s case, it simply is, an act that has little to no meaning. In Kurosawa’s film, it is seen as a positive in that “moral and social order” is restored with the death of Washizu.
What I have discussed here is only the tip of a large iceberg of analysis. Adaptation of one art to film is a large issue that I have only begun to delve into. Despite the fact that issues of adaptation from literature to screen have somewhat been bastardized by the academic inclusion of film by forcing it in direct relation to literature with the movement of “Film and Literature” in academia, Dudley Andrew argues that, “The explicit, foregrounded relation of a cinematic text to a well constructed original text from which it derives and which in some sense it strives to reconstruct provides the analyst with a clear and useful ‘laboratory’ condition that should not be neglected.” Using a source work as a way in which to discuss an adapted work can allow one to not only elucidate issues of adaptation itself, but also illuminate themes, ideas, and cinematic aesthetics within the adapted work itself.
Yet there is no need or requirement to place an adapted work in direct relation to its source. As Yoshimoto clearly states, doing so regularly places the adapted work in hierarchical opposition to the source. This is problematic, as then issues of fidelity inevitably become involved. But what does it mean to be faithful to another work in one’s adaptation? If personal experience and psychological interpretation are somewhat inherently involved in the adaptation of any work, how can fidelity ever be properly achieved? Films like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) give the impression through their titles that they are somehow faithful to the source, that they are representing the source as the original author would. But is that ever possible? I do not know that it is. Even in cases in which the original author is involved, the very nature of taking a source, especially a non-visual source, and placing it in a visual framework inherently changes the work. Fidelity is a distraction and perhaps should simply not enter the equation.
The comparison of two films that adapt the same work to the same medium, in vastly different ways, show how varied adaptation can be. There is no right way to do it. I conclude on the following point, as expressed by Dudley Andrew:
Adaptation is a peculiar form of discourse, but not an unthinkable one. Let us use it not to fight battles over the essence of the media or the inviolability of individual artworks. Let us use it as we use all cultural practices, to understand the world from which it comes and the one toward which it points.