Taking Macbeth to the Movies

Allysonby Allyson Manchester, Sophomore English Teacher

When my English students opened their books this year to Act I scene i of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, they probably didn’t expect to end up in bumblebee costumes… or Yoda masks.

In Sophomore English, we spend three months investigating every corner (especially the dark ones!) of Macbeth. One of my favorite aspects about teaching English at Falmouth Academy is that our department emphasizes depth over breadth. We study only three major texts each year. This allows us time to read closely and tease out multiple interpretations of each literary work. We teach students how to sustain their attention on a single novel or play for an extended period of time—and, in turn, develop a meaningful relationship with it.

Macbeth 017In developing a meaningful relationship with Macbeth, perhaps no project provides better literary bonding time than the sophomores’ annual Macbeth Film Festival. As soon as we finish reading and writing about the play, the students take two full weeks to create their own film adaptations. Working in groups of 3-5, they use iPads, purchased via our Fund-a-Need campaign, to produce 20-minute films that transpose Shakespeare’s language and plot onto totally new contexts. The students prepare for this project by viewing other productions of Macbeth, such as Roman Polanski’s bold and brutal masterpiece and also the true-to-the-text 1983 BBC TV movie. The students analyze how each director finds the crux of Shakespeare’s play through very different routes.

Here are just a few of the themes that students took up in their own films this year:

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MacBEEth: This group of students reimagined Shakespeare’s characters as bees vying for power in a chaotic hive. As you can imagine, the bee theme opened up plenty of space for puns: Macduff was born of a “bee-section”; MacBEEth engaged in various “bee-headings.”

Macbeth Wars Clip from Falmouth Academy on Vimeo.

Macbeth Wars: Students picked up on the hype from the recent release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and gave Shakespeare an intergalactic flair. I especially enjoyed the film’s take on the famous “Double, double toil and trouble” scene—yes, there were three chanting Yodas.

Macbeth Film Noir Clip from Falmouth Academy on Vimeo.

Film Noir Macbeth: These students produced a memorable aesthetic through black and white cinematography, a jazzy soundtrack, and hilarious accents. Incidentally, this film also won the prize for “Best Picture” in our Macbeth Film Festival!

drone 010If you ask my students about the Macbeth film project, they will certainly acknowledge the rigor of the process—it requires them to write scripts, tinker with cameras and editing software, and memorize complex Shakespearean language. They experience myriad mishaps. For example, while one group of students was filming on a windy day, they ended up with a drone stuck on the roof!

As I helped to de-roof the drone, I thought about what makes the Macbeth film project “worth it.” What’s most important to me is that the film project allows students to design an entirely new frame for a play that takes place in eleventh-century Scotland. The images in Shakespeare’s tragedy—three witches casting spells on a foggy moor, a power-hungry queen attempting to wash hallucinatory blood from her hands, a band of soldiers advancing toward a castle behind the disguise of tree branches—seem to exist so far outside of the students’ personal experience.

After creating the films, however, the students discover that Shakespeare’s themes are shockingly pervasive. They learn how to take creative leaps with Shakespeare’s text, all while preserving his original language and content. I love how this project brings the students’ own voices and perspectives into conversation with a profound and playful bard from Early Modern England.

If you are as passionate a fan of Macbeth and filmmaking as we are in Sophomore English, make sure to check out Justin Kurzel’s version (starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard) that hit the box office in December 2015!

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