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'This Guy Had Really Done A Great Job Before I Started': Jo Nesbo's 'Macbeth'

The Hogarth Shakespeare series has been having a little fun with the Bard in recent years, reimagining the plays for a 21st-century audience. The latest edition is a retelling of Macbeth by Jo Nesbo, the Norwegian author widely celebrated as the king of Nordic Noir.

Of course, it's not the kind of mystery novel he usually writes — after all, everyone knows how this one ends.

"This is definitely not a who's-done-it mystery," Nesbo says. "In the case of Macbeth, the mystery is Macbeth himself. What is driving him? Why does this hero become a villain and a murderer?"

He spoke with us about how his new adaptation came to be.

Interview Highlights

On being offered a Hogarth Shakespeare book

My first reaction was automatically to turn down the offer. Though I was very flattered, it was — I never write anything based on other peoples' ideas. That's half the fun of being a writer, is to come up with the idea and develop the idea. But I said that if I can have Macbeth, I'll do it. Because Macbeth, as a story, has been a big influence on my own writing — and it was probably the first classic play I actually read.

And it was the idea of having someone established as the hero at the start of the story, and then gradually — or not even gradually, quite quickly actually — making him the villain. So it was interesting to see how far I was willing to go to try to excuse Macbeth. And that is what makes Macbeth still feel fresh and modern.

On sitting down to re-cast Macbeth

Well, the first thing I decided was to throw overboard all the prose and all the famous quotes from the play. I wasn't interested in trying to be Shakespeare. What I wanted was a just a story — the skeleton of that story. And I never seen Macbeth as the perfect story. It does have flaws. And maybe that's one of the reasons why it's so fascinating. It doesn't really add up, with the three witches and the prophecies — you know, are they really needed for a story? And when I sat down and I started working on it, I realized that it's the reason why it's a masterpiece. Everything that's in there are needed for the story.

On setting Macbeth in a city where the police commissioner is the true seat of power

In this city, which is run by a couple of drug cartels, all the politicians are corrupt, the police force is corrupt. So the power struggle in this city is not about being mayor — it's about being chief of police. In this city, there's a new sheriff in town: Duncan. He is going to set things straight, he's going to fight corruption. So there's light in the end of the tunnel. But there is also two drug cartels competing with each other. And one of them is the drug cartel of Hecate, and he is proposing to this young officer [Macbeth] — who is the hero of Duncan, the new police chief's SWAT squad — he is proposing that if you kill Duncan for us, because we are worried that Duncan will fight corruption a little too much, if you can do that for us, we will make sure that you will be chief of police. So this is the choice that this young — and to begin with, idealistic — young police officer has.

On the play's dueling interpretations of witchcraft and supernatural fate vs. people making their own choices

In the play, you could argue that when Macbeth is first approached by the witches, his initial reaction is that he gets scared. It's as if he already knows he will have this opportunity, and he knows what he is going to do. In my story, it's more like a deal that he makes. But he is drawn between his idealism and his thirst for power — his personal ambition. And he is trying to come up with the logic to combine the two. Now, in Macbeth's case, both in my novel and in the play, what you suspect and what you feel is that he is really driven by personal ambitions, but feeling bad about it. He has to come up with some excuse.

On translating references like daggers or Birnam Wood to a 1970s urban setting

So normally, when I wrote my own novels in the Harry Hole series, I will spend maybe a year writing a synopsis. And when I write a story, I will stick to the synopsis, from start to the end. And in many ways the only difference here was that a guy named William had written this synopsis for me. Of course there was certain things that I had to develop and think about. But like the thing with the dagger, you can play around and change that to gun, or something else. But really, those are just details. Those are not the difficult things. The difficult thing when you write is to make the psychology of your characters — to certain extent, make logic at some points, maybe not make logic like real humans. And those things were already there. Like, yeah, this guy had really done a great job before I started.

Ian Stewart and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.