Spain/Chicago, Scotland/Japan: The perils of adaptation in "Carmen Jones" and "Throne of Blood"

(It should be noted that all of my posts are reflections on films and/or books in their entirety, and may not be suitable for the spoiler-wary.)

Last night was Otto Preminger's "Carmen Jones" (1954), a curiously inert translation of Bizet's opera to the screen. The problem was not at all with the liberties this film took, but rather with its fidelity. I know we are all fond of "Carmen," humming its tunes merrily away day in and day out, but perhaps the resonances of meaning generated by translating the narrative from the dry heat of 1830s Spain to an equivalently arid series of American military camps, bars and boxing rings would be better served by venturing farther from the plot and musix of the source. As it is you can feel the actors (who include Harry Belafonte and the lovely Dorothy Dandridge, whom I am sorry to say I found rather unmagnetic in this role) and the writers straining against precedent, aching under the strictures of confining, ill-fitting plots and melodies.

This was not at all true of the more liberal adaptation of "Macbeth" I saw several days ago, Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood" (from 1957, only a few years after "Carmen Jones" was released). First, some disclaimers: although I have seen "Macbeth" staged almost a dozen times, and am devoted to it as a reading experience, I have only ever seen one strong staging, oddly enough by a class of acting students in the found space of one of the Oxford college chapels. Perhaps it was something about the provisional quality of this performance, or about the contrast between the somber holiness of the space and the rottenness of the narrative, that gave this production the vitality that every other one has lacked.

As a result, it was not completely a surprise to me that I found "Throne of Blood" slightly underwhelming by comparison to the other Kurosawa films I have seen recently (Ran and Rashomon a couple of years ago, Seven Samurai and Yojimbo six months ago, along with the less compelling Hidden Fortress). The loss of Shakespeare's verse, with all its complexities, was surprisingly important to me, since I have always been a misfit English PhD (or perhaps a loyal Theater devotee) who admires Shakespeare as much for the complexity of his plot and character construction as for the intricacy and grace of his poetry. At times the substitution of visual poetry for literary was insufficient for my tastes, threatening to swallow the characterizations in boredom. But three moments were absolutely priceless additions to the long tradition of the Scottish play, and the last to the history of cinema:

1) The fact that Washizu and his wife Asaji (our feudal Japanese Macbeths, brilliantly played by Toshiro Mifune and Isuzu Yamada) plot the downfall of the Great Lord while surrounded on every side by walls soaked in a traitor's blood lends an almost theatrical claustrophobia to the scene, and both the play and film know that at its heart, this is a narrative about claustrophobia - the claustrophobia of success, of fulfilling your own fate and having to live within a blood-soaked destiny.

2) Kurosawa solves the famous problem of the Macbeths' (in)fertility (how subjunctive is Lady M's brain-bashing boast?), by having Asaji give birth to a still born child. The image, explicitly drawn out in the film, of her carrying the child dead inside of her comes to stand in for the entire narrative.

3) Mifune's brilliant, endless death scene cannot help but be compelling, horrifying, and also exhilarating to any viewer. The image of him trapped on every side by a ceaseless stream of arrows from the bows of his own men viscerally evokes the piercing claustrophobia of a joyless power. These are indeed "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."

"Carmen Jones" - **
"Throne of Blood" - ****

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