Shakespeare's plays, which sit firmly at the center of the Western literary canon, have proven a rich source of inspiration for numerous films. The Tragedy of Macbeth alone gave rise to Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece Throne of Blood (1957), Orson Welles' expressionistic adaptation from 1948, and Roman Polanski's starkly gothic interpretation from 1971. We have Mel Gibson as Hamlet, Laurence Olivier and then Kenneth Branagh as Henry V, and Woody Allen's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982), to name but a few.
Two particularly fine films, which could not be more different from each other, look to Shakespeare's late romance The Tempest for their genesis. At the center of this play is the scholar and sorcerer Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, whose brother Antonio -- with the help of Alonzo, King of Naples -- has usurped his dukedom, banishing Prospero and his daughter Miranda to a remote island. There Prospero finds Ariel, an ethereal, fairylike spirit, and Caliban, an earthy, primitive, uncivilized creature, and both become Prospero's servants.
Fortune brings Prospero's enemies near, and he conjures a storm that shipwrecks the royal entourage on the island. Summoning all his powers, Prospero deceives and confounds the hapless party, his tricks and illusions playing havoc with reality until all is made clear at the end.
In Prospero's Books (1991), postmodern filmmaker par excellence Peter Greenaway has managed a seemingly impossible feat. That is, to create a sumptuous visual feast that celebrates the written and spoken word. At the center of Greenaway's film is the eminent British actor John Gielgud as Prospero. As much about authorship as language, the film offers us a Prospero who puts pen to paper and commences writing the text of the play, even as we hear Gielgud's resonant, musical voice uttering the first line -- "Boatswain!" -- repeating it, savoring it, allowing it to echo, until the miraculous and magical nature of language becomes self-evident.
Achieved through mastery of language, Prospero's power and predominance are established by having Gielgud speak all of the lines, leaving no doubt as to who possesses authority. If somewhat less than a god, Prospero nevertheless is a creator of worlds.
As the title suggests, Greenaway chooses to focus on Prospero's books -- inventing 24 volumes depicted through the use of computer animation and video. These tomes, which slip just beyond the border of logic and the possible, provide some of the most arresting visual and conceptual images in the film. "The Book of Water" contains "drawings of every conceivable watery association" and "as the pages are turned there are rippling waves and slanting storms." "A Book of Mirrors" "has some 80 shiny, mirrored pages, some opaque, some translucent ... some covered in a film of mercury that will roll off the page unless treated cautiously." "An Atlas Belonging to Orpheus" is "full of maps of hell" which are "scorched and charred by hellfire and marked with the teeth of Cerberus."
Yet Greenaway's most startling choice is his use of dancer Michael Clark to play Caliban. Sleek, supple and unclothed, Clark's pure physicality provides a striking contrast to Prospero's language-dominated reality, subverting the word even as it is being celebrated, suggesting another realm of being beneath, or perhaps beyond, Prospero's.
If Greenaway's cinematic text is highly stylized and flamboyantly theatrical, with an emphasis on pageant and spectacle, then Paul Mazursky's The Tempest (1982) is located in a far more quotidian yet no less enchanting cosmos.
In Mazursky's film, Prospero becomes Philip Dimitrious (played by filmmaker John Cassavetes), a successful, middle-aged architect. When we first see Philip, he is awakening on a remote and rocky Greek isle. "It's all here," he says to his dog, "beauty, inspiration, magic, serenity. Not to mention silence, amazement, intimacy and enchantment."
The film unfolds as a series of flashbacks that tell how Philip came to the island. He seems to have had it all -- a beautiful and talented wife (played by Cassavetes' real-life spouse, Gena Rowlands), a well-paying job and a stylish apartment. But midlife madness compels him to throw it all away, and he goes off to Greece with his teenage daughter (Molly Ringwald) to wander and dream, eventually pairing up with an attractive, would-be singer named Aretha (Susan Sarandon), who becomes his Ariel-like counterpart.
But Philip's wife is never too far away, now partnered by Philip's former boss Alonzo, a wealthy and hilariously hypochondriacal businessman, played with a delicate balance of bombast, gusto and old-world European charm by Vittorio Gassman. The low comedy is provided by Raul Julia as Kalibanos, portrayed as a lusty, clarinet-playing, rustic buffoon.
What Mazursky has done is take the various elements present in the original play and transpose them into a contemporary fable that acknowledges the unfathomable complexities of human relationships, while awakening us to the everyday magic that's inherent in simply being alive.
As experiencing this film is similar to having a charming, pleasant dream, we might recall, as did Caliban, "that when I wak'd/I cried to dream again."