“This is as strange a maze as e’er men trod
And there is in this business more than nature
Was ever conduct of: some oracle
Must rectify our knowledge.”–Alonso, “The Tempest” [V,I]
DIRECTED BY: Peter Greenaway
FEATURING: John Gielgud
PLOT: Prospero, a magician trapped on an island with his daughter and native spirits, conjures a tempest to wreck a king’s ship on his shores. Once the monarch and his party are in the wizard’s power, he puts into place an intricate plan to restore himself to his former position. The text of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is followed faithfully, but is supplemented with peeks at twenty-four lavishly illustrated volumes in Prospero’s magical library.
- Prospero’s books are mentioned only a couple of times by Shakespeare in “The Tempest.” In the first act of the play, Prospero says that before being shipwrecked on the island he salvaged certain volumes from his library “that I prize above my dukedom.” (The implication in the scene is that Prospero was so concerned with his studies that he neglected courtly politics and fell victim to a conspiracy to oust him). Later, Caliban speculates that Prospero’s magical powers come from his books. In the play’s final scene, Prospero throws a book(presumably his collection of magic spells) into the ocean.
- John Gielgud, who played Prospero in four major theatrical productions, had a lifelong dream of starring in a film adaptation of “The Tempest.” Over the years he approached Alain Resnais, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Orson Welles about directing the project, but all of the plans fell through for various reasons.
- Prospero’s Books was shot entirely on videotape rather than film so that Greenaway could digitally manipulate the images, making it one of the very first digitally produced films.
- The movie was filmed entirely in a studio in Amsterdam and contains only interior shots.
- Greenaway made a 23-minute short for British television, “A Walk Through Prospero’s Library,” commenting on the film’s opening three and a half minutes, in which he explains the one hundred (!) mythological references in the parade that occurs as the opening credits roll.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Prospero’s Books contains dozens, if not hundreds, of lush, luscious, baroquely structured, interlaced images, and yet it’s the acres and acres of nude flesh that you remember most. Still, the most shocking image illustrates Prospero’s volume called “An Anatomy of Birth”: a pregnant woman peels back a flap of skin from her torso to reveal the gooey fetus, and beating organs, within. According to the narrator’s description of the tome, “…the pages move, and throb, and bleed. It is a banned book.”
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s an (almost) all nude adaptation of “The Tempest”; that should be enough for you. If it’s not, then consider the fact that a narrator constantly interrupts the story to describe the contents of Prospero’s magical books, including such tomes as “An Atlas Belonging to Orpheus” (“when the atlas is opened, the maps bubble with pitch”) and “A Book of Travellers’ Tales” (illustrated with “bearded women, a rain of frogs, cities of purple ice, singing camels, Siamese twins”); Greenaway shows us the contents of each book in a transparent overlay or a window that opens on top of the main action. If that’s still not enough for you, recall that the fairy slave Ariel is played by three separate actors, the youngest of whom urinates nonstop, and that a team of white horses suddenly wanders onto the set during Miranda and Ferdinand’s courtship scene. Your high school English teacher would not approve. This is acid Shakespeare.
Short clip from Prospero’s Books
COMMENTS: In 1979, Derek Jarman produced an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest that featured a naked adult Caliban breastfeeding from his obese mother Sycorax and a climactic wedding presided over by a jazz singer and dancers in sailor suits. Fellow avant-garde Brit Peter Greenaway saw that production and thought to himself, “I can do that better… weirder… nuder!” He got his chance in 1991 when, riding a modest wave of arthouse success from 1989’s controversial The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, he was approached by Sir John Gielgud to adapt of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Gielgud had wanted to play the role on film for over thirty years, but the projects always fell through; with Gielgud attached and Greenaway a hot name, financing the film was not an issue. For thematic (and possibly egotistical) reasons it was decided that Gielgud would voice all the characters (with a few minor exceptions), essentially reading the play as one long monologue voiced by Prospero as he imagines the play’s action in real-time. Greenaway meanwhile let his imagination run wild, seeking out new software and technology to incarnate the phantasmagorical visions teeming inside his head. The result was, to say the least, bold.
The headline-grabbing feature of Prospero’s Books is, without a doubt, the nudity, which is in every scene in the film. The in-movie explanation for the flesh is that all of the spirits of the island, who are invisible to everyone except Prospero, are naked, presumably because they are primal, uncivilized souls. The out-of-movie explanation is simply Greenaway’s appreciation of the human form, and his desire to have this film look like a Renaissance painting come to life. The nudes come in all shapes and sizes; some have dancer’s figures, others are Ruebenesque. None of the nudity is erotic, however, and after a while these figures who appear in the background of almost every scene almost become human wallpaper; their bodies form the texture of the movie. It helps the anerotic ambiance that the nude figurants traipse across a classical landscape where everything is made of marble, with arches and colonnades even spouting in the fields of wheat. In contrast to the nude spirits, the humans are often clad in ridiculously baroque fashions: Gielgud variously sports various silk robes capped by a succession of bizarre headgear including a white shower cap, a hat with a penile protrusion on top and ear flaps that taper into knee-length braids, and an enormous royal blue sombrero. The noblemen who shipwreck on the island all wear exaggerated white ruffled collars and massive floppy-brimmed hats. It is unclear whether the bizarre costuming is meant to parody civilized man’s impracticality contrasted to the simple splendor of nature, or is simply the result of a wardrobe budget gone as bonkers as the rest of the production.
The assortment of nudes and dandies cavorting among the lusciously classical sets would be thrilling enough for the eye, but Greenaway piles extravagance upon extravagance when he introduces the books. They are illustrated like 16th century manuscripts and overlaid on screen, but the director also frequently animates some of the action. Images are often laid one on top of the other, boxes pop in the middle of the screen displaying action that contrasts with what’s filing the rest of the frame (scenes of water nymphs rescuing the capsized sailors underwater, for example, shown in a semitransparent rectangle laid over a blazing forest of candles burning in Prospero’s study as he ponders the castaways’ fates). The result is an intensely dense and layered (some would say cluttered) visual field. This style is evident in the startling segment illustrating “An Anatomy of Birth.” It begins with a scene of Renaissance doctors standing around a woman’s nude body laid out on a slab; pictures of the book, open to spreads depicting human anatomy, flash on screen. These pictures themselves morph and breathe. As pages continue to flicker before us, the camera pulls back to reveal that the image we were watching of the doctors is itself a picture in a frame being observed by three nude women. The camera then swivels to focus on a pregnant woman who peels back her skin to show her own throbbing womb. The film is layers upon layers, boxes inside of boxes, hidden things revealed.
Greenaway’s visual debauchery overwhelms the contributions of Gielgud, and of Shakespeare. Gielgud’s vocal instrument is as authoritative as ever, but despite delivering almost every line in the script, he is almost a ghostly presence in the film rather than its soul. His words are often distorted or fed through an echo chamber, especially when he speaks Caliban’s lines. He becomes more the narrator of Greenaway’s dreams than the central character in the drama. The tale itself fades away almost to irrelevance. If you are not already familiar with the outline of “The Tempest,” events here will make little sense. The plot is highly refracted and distorted, as if it is being seen in one of the pages of Prospero’s “Book of Mirrors.” Greenaway dramatizes the tempest that wrecks Alsonso’s ship by showing Ariel, Prospero’s sprite slave (played here by a small boy), urinating on a toy boat floating in the magician’s indoor swimming pool. Shakespeare’s tale of an exiled wizard manipulating the world around him to restore his lost estate becomes a frame for the video auteur; Greenaway paints a series of surrealistic living canvases inspired by episodes from “The Tempest,” accompanied by narration from Sir John Gielgud.
I have heard cinema aficionados wrinkle their noses at the mention of Prospero’s Books, calling it a failure or even an embarrassment without bothering to explain further. If pressed, many will charge that it’s “obscure” or “pretentious.” Of course this is true, but that’s hardly a flaw (we like pretentious around here). Such complaints are merely a roundabout way of grumbling that the movie is “weird” in an intellectualized way. On a more refined level, Prospero haters may be upset at Greenaway for stealing the spotlight from his supposed co-collaborators, Gielgud and Shakespeare; they may feel that the balance is off, that it’s too much the director’s show. In regards to the Bard, such arguments come dangerously close to interpretational protectionism. Shakespeare’s reputation is pretty much unshakable at this point in his career; if anything, his plays need a little shaking up every now and then. There may be more to that contention in the case of Gielgud, whose lifelong dream of playing Prospero onscreen becomes almost a sideshow to another man’s showboating. Gielgud, however, handpicked this avant-gardist instead of a conventionalist to direct the role. To his credit, he wasn’t afraid to gamble on an artistically chancy project at the end of his career. Gielgud knew that Prospero’s Books would be an odd film that drew attention to its own style, rather than the play-it-safe BBC-styled adaptation he could have opted for. When it became obvious that Greenaway was possessed by the project, I like to think that Gielgud was happy to play a supporting role and feed the hot hand. Prospero’s Books is luscious and audacious, recklessly lovely and out-of-control in the way that only truly inspired mad art can be. Shakespeare’s never been so weird, and his good name is even better for it.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“‘Prospero’s Books’ really exists outside criticism. All I can do is describe it. Most of the reviews of this film have missed the point; this is not a narrative, it need not make sense, and it is not ‘too difficult’ because it could not have been any less so. It is simply a work of original art, which Greenaway asks us to accept or reject on his own terms.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)
“…the work of a footnote fetishist. Even the Bard himself would be at sea with this version of ‘The Tempest,’ an unfathomable flood of intoxicating imagery, a banquet of beauty so rich and overripe it is ultimately indigestible… an unimaginably lush screenscape that occasionally feels like a trippy hippie light show inspired by Ecstasy.”–Joe Brown, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)
IMDB LINK: Prospero’s Book’s (1991)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Prospero’s Books – The Prospero’s Books page at petergreenaway.org.uk has critical quotations, links to articles and some (unfortunately very small) stills, but it also contains the full descriptions of all 24 books
PROSPERO’S BOOKS Program Notes – This primer on the film by Chale Nafus for the Austin Film Society’s “Essential Cinema” series contains a synopsis of “The Tempest” and lots of background information
A Prospero for the Ages – John Gielgud discussed his role in Prospero’s Books in this 1991 interview with The Los Angeles Times
Watch Brows Held High: Prospero’s Books – Humorous video review of the film by Kyle Kallgren
Prospero’s Books: A Film of the Shakespeare’s The Tempest – Greenaway’s published screenplay, with stills and sketches from the director
DVD INFO: Prospero’s Books is a truly sad case. Even the movie’s harshest detractors confess that it is a visually dense and astounding film, meticulously composed with a painter’s eye. And yet, in Region 1 at least, the movie is not only not available on high-definition Blu-ray, it’s only available on DVD in a cheap, washed out, cropped version that looks like a transfer from the VHS edition. Who cuts the sides off of a Peter Greenaway movie to make it fit on 4:3 TV screens? The only people who will be buying or renting this movie are film buffs who demand utmost video fidelity. This bargain-basement edition comes from “Allied Artists” (buy) and, to add insult to injury, is out-of-print and overpriced as well. We don’t know why Prospero’s Books lacks a proper release in North America, but there must be legal rights issues involved.
The situation is a little better overseas, or for Americans with multi-region PAL video players. still, Prospero’s Books is not even available in Greenaway’s native Great Britain. A Swedish single-disc version (buy) is said to have good picture quality, and is at least presented in the proper 1.78:1 aspect ratio. An Australian Greenaway 8-disc box set (buy) contains the film along with the Certified Weird Pillow Book, The Draughtsman’s Contract, A Zed & Two Noughts, Drowning By Numbers, 8 1/2 Women, The Baby of Macon (a seldom seen movie that is even rarer than Prospero’s Books), and a Greenaway documentary.
(This movie was nominated for review by “Irene.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)