“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.