Making thrillers out of classics: adapting Shakespeare’s Macbeth

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This morning I announced on my website that at the end of the month Audible will releasing a novelization of Shakespeare’s Macbeth written by me and David Hewson, and performed for audio by the inestimable Alan Cumming. Macbeth, A Novel, has proved itself an exciting project for lots of reasons and in my next few posts I want to single out features of the process for discussion from the writer’s perspective.

I want to start with the question that will already be in some people’s minds: why do this at all?

Shakespeare is generally recognized to be the word smith par excellence, a master story teller, the king of character, and a bastion of both the theatre and education. Surely, wading into those particular waters is just asking for trouble?

As a Shakespeare professor, no one feels these things more than I do. I love Shakespeare’s words and am deeply suspicious of those modern English “translations” which sometimes find their way into the high school classroom. If we aren’t looking at the original language, in all its richness and complexity, what’s the point?

But that argument doesn’t apply here. Shakespeare in the classroom is about his work as he wrote it. The play itself is the point of study and students should therefore get it unmediated. Our purpose was quite different. David and I wanted to tackle Macbeth as a story, not as something to be studied, we wanted to come at it fresh, to defamiliarize the tale and its characters so that our audience would be caught up in the drama of the thing without the difficulty, archaism and attendant cultural baggage of the original.

And to be clear, we weren’t setting out to replace Shakespeare’s play. In fact, I think we’re doing something along the lines of what Shakespeare himself did most of the time, retelling a familiar story in his own voice, supplying his own special spin on the characters and events. To put it in more contemporary terms, we wanted to do what theatre directors always do, approaching the play as something from which we would make something new which had artistic cohesion and interest value in its own right. We wanted to make more than a pale reflection of the original, but also wanted to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater (Macbeth as CEO of Scotland Corporation, say, or as drug kingpin of the Thanes gang).

In short, we wanted to keep the frame and setting of Shakespeare’s story but adapted the specifics for our own purposes. So our version is still Medieval, but we wanted to discover the story’s characters, its world (real and quasi supernatural) for ourselves, inspired by what Shakespeare had given us, but not limited by that. We wanted to add and inflect. We wanted to dip into historical sources Shakespeare passed over, not in the pursuit of greater historical authenticity, but in pursuit of story, a story which would be—had to be—different in our telling of it because our audience was different from his and would be receiving this Macbeth in an entirely different genre.

Plays, after all, are all dialogue. You may get the odd stage direction or location note (though both of these are generally editorial in Shakespeare), but practically all the information on the page comes through speech. We don’t see the landscape or the battles which traverse it except in the occasional word picture, and we don’t see inside the character’s heads. One of the assets of Shakespeare, part of what makes his work so flexible, so prone to evolve, is that we have no authorial voice insisting what things mean, what characters are thinking. Even soliloquy is speech, and therefore less than entirely trustworthy.

So part of what we had to do was rethink the form of the story and tap into what the novel permits which a play is less suited to. In short, we wanted to take a story known the world over and make it new in part by embracing our form—the novel—over his—the play. Consider, for instance, the simple matter of page count. Plays are short, and Macbeth is shorter than most—less than 20,000 words! A novel is likely to be four or five times that, which suggests a considerably broader canvas. Yes, our version of Shakespeare’s scenes would be longer because we would need to supply more than simply what people said, but plodding through the play scene by scene wasn’t going to work. Our story needed to be larger.

To give an example, the play begins with two short scenes, neither of which involve the title character or his wife. One is a glimpse of the witches which establishes them as a presence, the other is the account of a battle in which Macbeth did noble service for King and country. The first scene is cryptic, unsettling, the second is talky, expository. Both rely on capable performers on stage to be effective, and neither would work in a novel without significant rethinking.

So we show the battle. We get to watch it as it happens, and apart from the thrill of the thing, we get to establish the world in which Macbeth lives, a world which is violent and deeply political and defiantly male, a world of loyalty and camaraderie, suspicion and ambition, valor and cowardice, all revealed in the din and heat of combat.

Our first scene was similarly used to establish not just the world of the witches, but also that which no play can clearly give but which we knew would be crucial to our telling of the story: landscape. Shakespeare’s Scotland is vague, and though the play is dotted with place names pulled from historical sources, the play has precious little which feels truly Scottish about it. The play is about people and kingship. We wanted to root those things in place, to make the crown not simply an abstract of power, but something emblematic of the land itself. Next time, I’m inviting David Hewson, my co-author, who has a particular gift for writing location, to speak to this subject more directly. I think you’ll find his insights fascinating.

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19 comments to Making thrillers out of classics: adapting Shakespeare’s Macbeth

  • This is HUGE! AJ has been hinting (evil man) that he had a big secret in the works, not telling anything, and then *this*! He finally whispered to a *very* few of us that today was announcement day and we have been on pins and needles. I’ll be tweeting about this right now! Whoot! Alan Cumming!

  • Never read MacBeth and I don’t think I’ve watched the whole thing either, though I’ve read a number of other Shakespeare plays on my own, and of course there’s dozens of versions of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet in movie media, most of which I’ve seen. Also seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream (I like the one with Mickey Rooney as Puck), Othello, Much Ado About Nothing, and I’m sure there are others. Be interesting, I think, to read a novelization of MacBeth.

  • Thanks, Faith. You have no IDEA how hard it has been not to say anything about this for 11 months. I’m bursting with stuff to say about the project and how it came to be! All in good time, I guess.

    Daniel,
    this might be a good ‘gateway drug’ for you! Part of what we had in mind from the outset was that this must appeal to people who wouldn’t ordinarily gravitate to Shakespeare and were thus missing out on a really compelling story. I’m hoping our take on it will be exciting for fantasy readers, thriller fans and folk who read historical fiction.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Cool beans! I must admit, when you first said ‘novelization of Macbeth’, my first thought was something pretty dry. But with all of the ideas and possibilities you’ve laid out in this post, I see how it could turn into something really quite fantastic since, as you say, the source material is quite rich. Will there also be a print version of the novel coming out for us non-audio-leaning people?

  • Hep, yes, I think I can say that the book is many things, but it’s not dry! As to a traditional “book” format, we signed a 1 year exclusive with Audible, so any print version (paper or electronic) wouldn’t be available till next summer at the earliest unless, for some reason, Audible opted to waive that part of the contract. Because the project has been kept secret until now, we haven’t landed a traditional publisher yet, though I hope that will change over the next few months.

  • A.J., this sounds totally cool; not only the finished project, which I can’t wait to check out, but also the process. Looking forward to hearing more about how this became a reality, from an artistic standpoint and a business one. My immediate thought is this: When I did ROBIN HOOD, I felt like I was playing with someone else’s toys. But taking on MACBETH — you must have felt like you were playing catch with someone else’s Ming vase . . .

  • Can’t wait to learn all the details of putting this project together. I think you were smart to go with Macbeth, BTW. It was the play that turned Shakespeare from something I was required to read in class into something I found exciting on its own. I suppose the story is far more accessible — filled with unbridled ambition, murder, intrigue, fantasy/horror — than some of his other works which require more knowledge of the stage or the time period. So, yes, Macbeth = great gateway drug! I’m sure Bill is thrilled to know that’s how we see his work sometimes.

  • David,
    I think my theatre background helped break down the intimidation factor some because directors and actors are faced with a version of this problem constantly. An actor can only deliver a line one way, after all, so the rehearsal process is really an infinite number of choices which steadily reduce the production’s range of possibilities (similarly infinite) to one. You can’t worry too much about getting it “right” since you are producing a new art object, albeit one keyed to a textual original. Obviously what we were doing was different and I have no doubt that it won’t please everyone, but there’s a lot of stuff in there I’m really proud of, and I guess that’s all I can hope for.

    Stuart,
    yes, that’s why it was one of those ideas that seems obvious as soon as it occurs to you, which is why we were surprised to find it hadn’t really been done before. Battles, domestic intrigue, murder and witchcraft? It’s a no brainer!

  • This is great, AJ; both the insight into the process and the project itself. I CAN’T WAIT to see what you’ve done with it.

  • That’s wonderful news! I used to do a lot of Shakespearean acting in High School, and though we never did Macbeth, it was one of my favorites to watch and read. I’m excited to see how you’ve adapted the work to fit the story, particularly in reference to point of view and setting.

    Would I be right in assuming Shakespeare’s dialog for MabBeth is in the novel?

  • Thanks, Ed. Will be interested to hear what you think.

    LScribe,
    no, none of Shakespeare’s text is in our version. It’s a brand new telling of the story. People who know the play well may occasionally hear echoes of the play, but for the most part I think this will feel completely fresh.

  • Oh, that’s going to be fun. :) I can’t wait to see how the characters’ voices come across!

  • That is so cool. Congratulations!

  • This is so exciting! Can’t wait to hear it – Lady MacBeth has fascinated me since High School. Why did you guys go with an audiobook as a first medium instead of a print book? I’d love to see MW posts about the whole process, including this decision.

  • Thanks, Laura!

    Sarah, that’s probably a post in its own right, though it has as much to do with some serendipitous conversations as it does a real strategy. We knew Audible were hunting for original material that tehy could really get behind and we liked the idea of retaining a performative dimension to the story given its theatrical origins.

  • Great, thanks AJ (and David H)… now I have the urge to go read Macbeth again!

    Your take-off sounds like a lot of fun, too! I love the idea and look forward to your telling us more about the mechanics of the project.
    And of course, now I’ll have to plan a road-trip of sufficient length so I can download an listen to your Macbeth.

  • Wayne McCalla

    That’s great A.J. I will download a copy when it comes out. Can’t wait to hear it.

  • I know what I’ll be spending my audible credits on this month…. 😉

    Congratulations! What a great project!

  • Lyn, Wayne and Theresa,
    thanks for the encouragement. I look forward to hearing what you guys make of the thing itself when it’s out.