Macbeth (and five less obvious examples of Shakespeare on the big screen)
“If you believe in things that you don't understand, then you suffer”, or so sang Stevie Wonder in the lyrics to his 1972 hit 'Superstition'. Like most sensible people, Stevie understood that most popular superstitions have their origins in stories that are rather more mundane than their preceding legends might suggest; the idea that it's bad luck to spill salt, for example, goes back to the days when the mineral was relatively difficult to get your hands on - it was even used as currency in some early civilisations, and nobody likes losing money.
So it is with Macbeth. For centuries, the idea that this particular Shakespearean play brings bad luck has been circulating in the theatre world and beyond, so much so that many actors will not speak its name, referring to it instead simply as 'The Scottish Play'. Many have spread rumours of the supposed 'curse' of Macbeth, with some citing stories of injuries that occurred while performing it, while others attributed this supposed bad luck to the incantations of the play's three witches, which some believe to include an actual curse written into the script – either by the Bard himself or by others, depending on who you believe.
The real reason behind the 'curse' though dates back to the days of repertory theatre, when most towns would have at least one venue to entertain the locals. If the current play was tanking, or if the venue itself was in financial trouble, it was common for a theatre to switch to a production that was guaranteed to bring in audiences and, more often than not, that meant Shakespeare - particularly Macbeth, which always went over well with the paying public. So, if you heard the name 'Macbeth' in or around your theatre, either your current play was getting binned or you were soon to be out of a job.
It's a version of events that would probably appeal to Justin Kurzel, the director behind a new big screen adaptation of Shakespeare's most feared work that arrived in cinemas last year. Starring Michael Fassbender, who gives a mesmerising performance in the title role, Kurzel's adaptation of Macbeth resists the temptation to transplant the action into the modern era and instead sticks fairly closely to the source material, setting the story as it was intended in a feudal Scotland where Macbeth receives a prophecy that he is to be king. At the suggestion of his wife, Lady Macbeth (played here by Marion Cotillard), the Scottish nobleman takes the decision to speed things along a little by murdering the throne's current occupant with the intention of installing himself as a replacement. As ever though, things don't quite work out the way he imagined.
Alongside Fassbender and Cotillard is a cast that includes Paddy Considine, David Thewlis and David Hayman, as well as a horde of little-known but promising actors filling out the film's smaller parts. Kurzel's film is an intense and brooding account of Shakespeare's famous tale and even purists will have plenty to to get excited about, particularly Fassbender's performance – which, for our money, is as good as any you'll see in this role. Sure, it's a well-worn narrative and it's hardly the first time Shakespeare has been a hit on the big screen, but not every film based on his work carries its original title and you might be be surprised at some of the well-known films that were based on the playwright's work.
You can find the trailer for Macbeth below and you'll be able to get your hands on a copy when it arrives in stores on DVD & Blu-ray on Monday (February 1st – you can pre-order yours at the top right of this page). Until then, check out these five films below that you may not know were based on Shakespeare's plays...
My Own Private Idaho
Gus Van Sant's 1991 film is remembered mostly for featuring a stunning performance from River Phoenix which not only earned the young actor much deserved acclaim, but also proved to be one of his last when the actor died tragically at the age of just 23. Van Sant had written a draft of the screenplay as early as 1975, loosely basing the story on the narratives from two Shakespearean plays; Henry IV and Henry V. In Van Sant's version, the young Hal (Henry V) is transformed into a gay street hustler named Mike (Phoenix), but despite the setting the film is still just as much about a journey of personal discovery as Shakespeare's original.
West Side Story
Perhaps one of the more obvious examples, West Side Story's tale of lovers from rival gangs is directly lifted from Romeo & Juliet, replacing the rival families of Monatgues and Capulets with the rival gangs of the Jets and the Sharks. Based on the stage musical of the same name with music and words by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, the film copies the play's setting of the upper west side of New York City in favour of the original story's Italian location, but leave aside the singing and dancing and it's the same old story under a different name.
One of the more surprising films to be based on a Shakespeare play is the groundbreaking 1956 science fiction film Forbidden Planet. On face value it might be tricky to trace a story featuring a talking robot on a distant planet back to the work of a 16th century playwright, but look a little deeper and you'll realise that many elements of the film's storyline are very close to those of The Tempest. It's certainly not one for the purists, but as the first ever film to feature a completely electronic soundtrack (composed by Bebe and Louis Barron) it has enough reasons in its own right to be regarded as a classic, even without the Shakespeare connection.
Akira Kurosawa is probably the most important director in Japan's history and his influence has spread throughout Hollywood and beyond, but even though his work often depicted elements of Japanese culture, his influences included a wide range of literature and more than one of his films were based on Shakespeare's work, including his own reworking of Macbeth in the form of his 1953 film Throne of Blood. Perhaps the best-known of these though is his final work, the 1985 masterpiece Ran, which based largely on the power struggles featured in the storyline of King Lear.
10 Things I Hate About You
Gil Younger's 1999 film starring Heath Ledger is another to based on a Shakespearian play. In the film, Ledger's character takes one for the team and begins romantically courting the dislikable sister of a girl his best friend has fallen in love with, all in the hope of convincing their father to allow them out on dates. If that sounds familiar, it's because the idea is basically the same as the one featured in The Taming of the Shrew, albeit set on a college campus and aimed squarely at a teenage audience. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Younger's film proves that the medium is always less important than the message.