The thin line between tragedy and dark humor.
William Shakespeare’s Macbeth has always been considered one of the literary worlds most celebrated tragedies. It is arguably the darkest and most gruesome of his plays. The protagonist, Macbeth, is the poster child for tragic hero, “a literary character who makes an error of judgment or has a fatal flaw that, combined with fate and external forces, brings on a tragedy” (www.dictionary.com). And until recently we were satisfied with that At the Cannes Film Festival in 2001, a low budget comedy was unveiled. It was called Scotland, PA. This film was written by a first-time director, Billy Morrissette, and depicts the familiar story in a surprisingly different form.
The premise of the plot is held in tact but the setting is shifted several hundred years, to the 1970s. The characters’ names even remain familiar. The dialogue is contemporary English yet you can still recognize the similarities in conversation. Major themes from the original work – revenge, guilt, self doubt, fate, and prophecy still exist in this manipulated adaptation. “He (Morrissette) is able to make an interesting point about how the difference between tragedy and comedy is often how the material is viewed by the audience”.(Berardinelli)
Prior to Morrissette’s Scotland, PA, Roman Polanski brought his adaptation of Macbeth (1971) to the silver screen. This more traditional adaptation follows the plays blueprint. The setting remains unchanged, as well as the plot and dialogue. This movie was made soon after a horrifically traumatic events in Polanski’s life, the heinous murder of his pregnant wife by members of the Charlie Manson family’. The film may have been a therapeutic outlet for him. The extremely gory murder scenes may have been a result of his attempts to deal with his pain and show give insight into the horror that filled his life at the time. Polanski’s adaptation definitely added a horror flick tone with the gruesome portrayal of despicable violence.
The most notable difference in the portrayal of Mac and Pat, in Scotland, PA versus the portrayal of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, in Macbeth, is the atrociousness, or lack of, with which we view them and their crimes. Mac and Pat seem to be less despicable than Macbeth and Lady Macbeth for several reasons. One key reason is the omission of the ordered murder of Macduff’s family in Scotland, PA. This idea is mentioned but immediately shot down. This scene is included in Polanski’s version and is definitely the most horrifying of the films many gruesome murders. This element is key in developing the audience’s view of Macbeth and his reprehensible crimes. This scenes absence teamed with the accidental manner in which Mac commits the plotted murder of Duncan aid in securing a less contemptible opinion of Mac.
Another reason we find Mac and Pat to be less evil is because of their real-world disposition that most college kids can relate to – they are “not bad people – we’re just underachievers that have to make up for lost time.” This puts a comedic spin on their situation and consequently, the crimes they commit. Not to mention they are struggling for the seat of power over (DUN DUN DUN..) a local fast food restaurant that, for the most part, they deserve. Their manager is incompetent and incapable of accepting responsibility. This is illustrated immediately during the first scene in the restaurant where he is instructing Pat on how to make an ice cream cone. Kids in the store engage in a food fight and he sneaks into the bathroom to avoid the situation. Macbeth, who practically runs the store anyway, quickly throws the kids out to the applaud of the rest of the patrons. The slow motion dramatics in this scene made it hilarious and should be noted.
As mentioned earlier, the manor in which Duncan’s murder is carried out helps us to form a more sympathetic view of Mac. Mac and Pat have Duncan bound and gagged in the kitchen. Mac and Pat are then startled by the appearance of the witches and Duncan’s chair is tipped over forcing him helplessly into the fryer. It leaves the open the possibility that Mac may not have even been able to go through with the murder if Duncan hadn’t fallen into the greaser. Although both versions, and the play, have Macbeth overwhelmed with worry and doubt over the conspiracy to the point where Macbeth is ready to call it off. That is until Lady Macbeth takes control and pushes him to commit the deed.
Polanski’s scene, on the other hand, depicts a much more cold-blooded murder all together. Macbeth, having Duncan as a house guest, creeps through the darkness into his bed chamber and stabs him repeatedly while in his bed. This adds a greater level of contempt to the audience’s perception of the crime. Not only is there no question of Macbeth’s ability to commit cold blooded murder, but the fact that he attacks his victim when he is most vulnerable – in his sleep – makes the deed seemingly even more dishonorable.
Both adaptations are true to the play in respects to the manor in which Macbeth fluctuates between spells of bloodthirsty actions to secure his power and periods of depression and guilt. Another thing they have in common is the influence Lady Macbeth has over her husband. In both adaptations there is a common trend that Lady Macbeth is more ambitious, more decisive, and more capable of action than is Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is constantly pushing and realigning Macbeths plan of action to match that of her own. After all, she is the mastermind behind their evil deed. Lady Macbeth is aware of her position as motivator, and even states in the play that she wishes she were a man so that she could carry out their plan herself. Even in Scotland, PA, Pat is continuously directing and instructing Mac in all of their actions pertaining to the murder and cover up. She tells Macbeth to get the safe combination, to stop him from escaping, and talks him through virtually the entire process.
The major difference in the two works is presentation and context. This relates directly to the representation of the main characters. By keeping the premise but altering the way the course of events occurs gives the audience a different insight into the development and representation of the characters, particularly Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Both adaptations were very well done, particularly Scotland, PA. It shows that, with a little tweaking, comedy can be found in even the most bloody and tragic of stories.
Dictionary.com. 2005, Lexico Publishing Group, LLC. 3/8/2005 .
Macbeth 1971 – Review @ EOFFTV. 2000, 3/8/2005 .
Phillips, Brian and Douthat, Ross. SparkNote on Macbeth. 9 Mar. 2005 .
Review: Scotland, PA. 2002, 3/8/2005 .