Critical Writing: “Autobiography through Adaptation”


Autobiography through Adaptation:

Roman Polanski’s Macbeth as Projective Test

All art is autobiography. People like to say that. All art is self-portrait—people like that one as well. The sentiment comes in many forms, but the core of it is always the same: we can’t create things separate from ourselves. For some, this is a freeing notion, because it allows them to say the things about themselves they might otherwise feel unable to say; for some, it is a disconcerting one, because it risks them saying things they intend not to say. Either way, though, the mirror-like quality of creation is one that has been adopted by many literary critics—and, just as much, by psychologists. When people can’t or won’t put words to things directly, the underpinnings of “art is autobiography” provide another way in.

Regarding the emerging form of cinema, Walter Benjamin writes, “The film has enriched our field of perception with methods which can be illustrated by those of Freudian theory” because before Sigmund Frued’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life, “a slip of the tongue passed more or less unnoticed” (235). Freud’s work drew attention to previously-ignored verbal missteps and other subtle cues of unconscious feelings and beliefs, and it is here that Benjamin’s analogy comes into play, because the format of film differs from that of the stage play in a key sense: “The motion picture magnifies the human figure to the extent of disjoining it. … Contrary to the stage, with its unchanging frame through which must move actors whose dimensions cannot vary, the motion picture focuses attention on, and compels analysis of, the actor. In moments of human stress, the camera will scrutinize the face, the eyes …” (Grossvogel 49). Essentially, the camera has the unique ability to direct an audience member’s focus to minute physical cues—the twitch of an eyebrow, the curl of a lip—that would pass unnoticed in all but the most intimate of stage venues, and in doing so, film is able to function as Freud’s work did, by making note of what might at first seem unnoteworthy, or might simply go unnoticed.

Film can connect to Freud’s work in a second way, however. Freud’s psychodynamic approach to psychology was particularly attentive to the unconscious, which by nature is difficult to access at will. A therapist can ask, “Do you have thoughts of suicide?” and reasonably expect a patient to be able to answer; “Do you have a subconscious preoccupation with your mother?” is another matter. These questions must be address obliquely, and to do this, psychodynamic practitioners came up with projective testing. Essentially, a patient is given something vague, and they interpret it in part by projecting subconscious feelings onto it. The most familiar projective test is the Rorschach “inkblot” test, where, in addition to noting the actual images clients report, clinicians “pay attention to the style of the responses: Do the clients view the design as a whole or see specific details? Do they focus on the blots or on the white spaces between them? Do they use or ignore the shadings and colors in several of the cards? Do they see human movement or animal movement in the designs?” (Comer 94)

A related, though less common, form is the Thematic Appreciation Test (TAT), and while film can sometimes relate to the Rorschach test, its connection to the TAT is much clearer. The TAT presents clients with illustrations of people in ambiguous situations—for instance, a young woman with a strange expression and an old woman standing behind her, seeming to smile. Clients then tell a story about the image: what led to this point, what’s happening now, what the characters are experiencing emotionally, and how it will end. A key aspect of the test is that “people will always identify with one of the characters on each card, called the hero,” and that because of this, the stories they tell may “reflect the individuals’ own circumstances, needs, emotions, and sense of reality and fantasy (95). It is this that brings us to Roman Polanski, and to Macbeth.

Polanski’s adaptation of Macbeth came out in 1971, his first project after the death of his wife. Critic James Morrison observes that “Polanski’s life encompasses experiences that represent the full range of horrors that the twentieth century had to offer, from Nazism and the death camps to Stalinism and the thought-police, to the ravages of postwar counterculture and their woeful discontents, as manifest in the Manson family’s murder of Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, in 1969 …” (16). While it would be unreasonable to say all echoes of Polanski’s life in his work are subconscious, or that the rich, layered story of Macbeth is the same as a single ambiguous illustration of a few people, as David Grossvogel puts it, “Macbeth is … a drama of vesture and concealment” (46). This means that even though much of Macbeth is laid out by Shakespeare, because of its nature, we can nevertheless examine Polanski’s adaptation with attention to his projections onto the original play.

In terms of what form the projection might take, David Grossvogel suggests,

One definition of a classic might be its ability to impose its own integrity on potential “interpreters.” Polanski has been directed by Shakespeare’s words to the extent that they construct the trajectory of a well-known and expected action. But to the extent that, in the process of creating this trajectory, the words also create images and the possibilities of images, Polanski chose to make of his camera the translation of a more personal vision: he felt free to be a creator in his appreciative detailing of Shakespeare’s structure, not in the recreation of that structure. His camera was allowed to make its own analyses only within the expected framework. (50)

That is to say, Shakespeare provides Polanski all the same license he provides stage directors, and Polanski’s camera provides him tools to zoom in on the story of Macbeth. However, some prominent and telling differences exist between the textual Macbeth and the film.

The first departure we encounter—one that will persist throughout the play—is the death of the initial Thane of Cawdor. In Act I, Scene 4 of the play, Duncan asks Malcolm is the traitorous Cawdor has been executed, and Malcolm responds,

I have spoke
With one that saw him die, who did report
That very frankly he confessed his treasons,
Implored your highness’ pardon and set forth
A deep repentance. Nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it: he died
As one that had been studied in his death
To throw away the dearest thing he owned,
As ’twere a careless trifle. (3–11)

In the film, however, the speech picks up at line 7 (“Nothing in his life …”) as a dialogue between Malcolm and Donalbain, because we do not need to be informed second-hand that Cawdor has been put to death, having witnessed it moments ago.

This trend will continue throughout the film—while many of the significant deaths in the play occur offstage, Polanski embraces them, and the violence that accompanies them. When Duncan is killed, Macbeth does not exit and then reenter, bloodied, as he does in Act II, Scenes 1 and 2; instead, we follow Macbeth into Duncan’s chamber. In an almost sensual scene, Macbeth uses the tip of a dagger to lift the sheet away from Duncan, touching the blade to his bare chest. We see him retreat, then see Duncan wake, Macbeth pounce on him and stab him in the chest several times. Duncan flails, kicking his crown to the ground, and manages to tumble out of bed, but before he can muster a cry for help, Macbeth drives the blade deep into his throat. Although from the beginning, Polanski was known for having a “taste for black humor and interest in bizarre human relationships,” (German) Macbeth is much more openly violent than any of his preceding films.

A child given a series of TATs over a period of time whose stories switch abruptly to violent and explicit deserve a second look, because this shift may represent a shift in the child’s life as well. Different people will respond differently, of course, although general themes do appear, but in the case of the child, we have a baseline evaluation, and the same is true for Polanski. Even Rosemary’s Baby, which had the option to be at least close to, in not quite as bloody as Macbeth, is much tamer in that regard. It is true that Macbeth is a story stained by blood and violence, but Polanski’s directorial decisions while adapting it—along with his decision to adapt it (as opposed to other plays, for instance)—might speak to the sudden spike of violence in his personal life.

Similarly, we might suggest that the dynamic between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth reflects Polanski’s feelings on his own marriage, recently ended by his wife’s death. William Shaw criticized Polanski’s Macbeth, accusing him of “reducing the complexity of Macbeth’s character. Polanski has presented us with a callous, indifferent murderer before we have had a chance to witness the necessary stages in his moral and psychological degeneration. … Polanski distracts us from the interior conflict of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, thereby diminishing his tragic stature. … His impending catastrophe does not fill us with awe or pity. In fact, his death brings relief, even exultation” (Shaw 212). In the eyes of Shaw and others, Macbeth lacks nuance, little more than an “unmitigated demon, more fascinated with violence as an end than as a means” (212).

Conversely, Lady Macbeth is portrayed much more tenderly than the play might otherwise suggest. Although she retains some of her ambitious and manipulative characteristics—still, for instance, questioning Macbeth’s manhood when he hesitates to kill Duncan—they seem more like the effects of girlish fantasy run away, as if she dreams of being queen the way young girls dream of being princesses. When Lady Macbeth sleepwalks, Polanski has her do so in the nude. As critic James Morrison suggests, this is a nonsexual nakedness, one that conveys “a terrible, hovering anxiety concerning how prone these bodies are to injury” (117). It is vulnerability in its most literal form, and we are invited to feel for Lady Macbeth much more than we do for the new King. We first see her when she receives a letter from her husband, telling her of his encounter with the witches. She is immediately striking, because unlike the washed-out wilderness and battlefields and stone, she wears a vibrant blue dress and has long, red hair, with a healthy redness as her face lights up with intrigue. The last time we see her alive, she has returned to the letter, this time drained of color—a beige dress and pale skin, and in the dim light, her hair looks more a dull blonde—and trembling. Where the guilty Macbeth’s demise feels warranted and his death feels earned, Lady Macbeth’s decline and ultimate suicide make us ache for her.

Ewa Mazierska writes of several key events in Polanski’s life:

The first of these … episodes encourage us to see Polanski predominantly as a victim, although we can also register an undertone of guilt on the part of Polanski, a common feature among those who survived while others of their kind (members of the same nation or family) perished …. In the case of his mother’s death, his guilt was exacerbated by Polanski’s father, who held the boy responsible for her disappearance even after the war, when he was miraculously re-united with his son …. Polanski himself admitted to feeling guilty for not being with his wife when the Manson gang attacked her in their rented house …. (30)

Indeed, although Polanski sometimes considered himself a victim (for instance, when accused of raping a 13-year-old girl, he at first insisted he was a victim of the girl and her mother’s greedy attempt to get money out of him {30}) there are clear indications of guilt on his part. When addressing the press after his wife’s death, Polanski said, “All of you know how beautiful she was, but few of you know how good she was” (“Roman Polanski: Personal Quotes”).

These feelings are echoed in Polanski’s characterizations of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Randal Robinson observes that, “as Shakespeare’s play and Polanski’s film both remind us, identification with a hated aggressor can bring not only pride but also self-loathing and weariness,” (105) suggesting that although the tragedies of Polanski’s life leading up to Macbeth had aggressors so hated their use in film would be cliche—Nazis and ritualistic cult killers—the feelings surrounding this could be much more complicated. Macbeth is guilty, and unsympathetic, perhaps reflecting Polanski’s own sense of guilt and the self-hatred.

Lady Macbeth, meanwhile, is often cited as one of literature’s more conniving female villains, but Polanski treats her almost gently, perhaps colored by an enduring sense of his wife’s goodness. Lady Macbeth will never be a saint, but Polanski’s interpretation of her might be as close as she can get.

Getting the opposite treatment is Ross. As Shakespeare blogger S. A. Markham puts it, Ross “in the play is a pretty insignificant character, one who, let’s be honest, could be removed.” He speaks a total of 39 times, and roughly half of these are simple one-line interjections or clarifications. (Macbeth, for reference, speaks 146 times, and even many of his one-liners are potent, such as II.ii.14: “I have done the deed. Didst thou not hear a noise?”) In Polanski’s film, however, Ross becomes a more prominent, more sinister character. He serves, for instance, as the unnamed third murderer sent after Banquo, and he leaves Macduff’s castle vulnerable to the impending attack that leads to the slaughter of Macduff’s wife, children, and servants. (The death of Macduff’s son is one of the few significant ones that does occur on stage in the play, and interestingly, the death of his wife shortly thereafter is handled off screen by Polanski. Perhaps Polanski’s avoidance of both the deaths of women stems from an attempt to distance himself from his wife’s murder.) Ross’s easily shifting and emphatic loyalties, first to Macbeth and then to Malcolm, suggest that he is driven by no higher morality than the pursuit of self-interest.

For Polanski, this might reflect a more general world view—for instance, a cynicism regarding the intentions of people that goes beyond that already in the play.

A similar tone comes through at the film’s end, which is a small but highly significant departure from that of the play. Shakespeare’s text concludes with Malcolm’s speech as he takes on the crown, but Polanski skips this, instead showing Donalbain, his brother, riding through the rain in a scene that echoes Macbeth’s first encounter with the witches. Donalbain stops at the same spot, and, hearing their chanting, dismounts and goes toward them. There are several implications of this. It throws off confidence in Malcolm’s reign, suggesting that although Macbeth is dead, the ruthless ambition and capacity for betrayal lives on. It goes a step further, though, in suggesting the beginning of a repetition very similar the story that just played out. Not only are these human characteristic inescapable, but the patten of Macbeth’s actions might be followed by Donalbain, and then by another, and then by another.

It also gives more power to the witches, and more malice—while in the play they could conceivably be predicting the future while playing no part, the film implies that perhaps they have a way of luring the power-hungry to them and setting them on a destructive path. This last fits with much of Polanski’s work, in which he “typically deals with narratives of the occult in some literal sense, returning again and again to the domains of the secret, the hidden, the underground, of covert operations and submerged machinations” (Morrison 4). The witches’ nature is still ill-defined, but it seems, in Polanski’s ending, much more pervasive and malicious. In ways, much of the pain in Polanski’s life resembles this, in that it stemmed from a seemingly inhuman, surreal evil. Morrison later adds that “[w]hat underscores the melodrama in Polanski is that the film is not about liminal spaces, border states, the blurred line between waking or sleeping, or any of the other such readings that have attached themselves to the play. In its nightmarish vision of a world in flux, the film eliminates any middle ground” (115). The evil deeds of the characters, in a sense, are representative of an unflinchingly dark power in the world.

If a child were to tell this story, any psychoanalytically-trained therapist would call the parents in for a long talk.


Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. 2007 ed. New York: Schocken Books, 2007. Print.

Comer, Ronald J. Abnormal Psychology. 7th ed. New York: Worth Publishers, 2010. Print.

Forker, Charles R. “Symbolic and Thematic Impoverishment in Polanski’s Macbeth.” Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 25 (2012): 191. Print.

German, Yuri. “Biography for Roman Polanski.” IMDb. IMDb, n.d. Web. 17 December 2012.

Grossvogel, David I. “When the Stain Won’t Wash: Polanski’s Macbeth.” Diacritics 2.2 (1972): 46–51. Print.

Markham, S. A. “What did Roman Polanski do With Macbeth?” What’s It All About, Shakespeare? whatsitallaboutshakespeare.blogspot.com. 12 September 2012. Web. 16 December 2012.

Mazierska, Ewa. “The Autobiographical Effect in the Cinema of Roman Polanski.” Film Criticism 29.3 (2005): 28–45. Print.

Morrison, James. Roman Polanski. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007. Print.

Polanski, Roman, dir. Macbeth. Perf. John Finch and Francesca Annis. Columbia Pictures, 1971. DVD.

Robinson, Randal. “Reversals in Polanski’s Macbeth.” Literature/Film Quarterly 22.2 (1994): 105–108. Print.

“Roman Polanski: Personal Quotes.” IMDb. IMDb, n.d. Web. 17 December 2012.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Ed. Burton Raffel. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. Print.

Shaw, William P. “Violence and Vision in Polanski’s Macbeth and Brook’s Lear.” Literature/Film Quarterly 14.4 (1986): 211–213.

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