I haven’t caught Julie Taymor’s adaptation of The Tempest, and by the way it swiftly disappeared from the marquees of local moviehouses (while The Social Network is going on it’s fifth month in theaters), it looks like I’ll be waiting until it leaks on the Internet or shows up in Netflix. I have now seen five other versions that range from relatively strict adaptations to films that, at their surface, resemble the play in little more than use of the plot device of a father and daughter in some isolated circumstances. The Tempest is by no means a favorite of Hollywood and some of the screen versions, including a 1911 silent film, have become particularly difficult to track down. These five stand out in the The Tempest‘s filmography as the most popular, accessible, and interesting in their takes and plays on Shakespeare’s themes of sorcery, redemption, and theater as a conjured illusion.
After harmlessly (and rather comically) robbing a bank, “Stretch” Dawson (Gregory Peck) and his pack of bandits flee from a unit of garrison soldiers into an expansive stretch of salt flats–a clever inverse of a storm at sea. (Some of the film was actually shot in Death Valley.) Just as the robbers and their horses are about to die of thirst, they come upon a ghost town inhabited by an aging prospector (a witty play on “Prospero”) known only as “Grandpa” (James Barton) and his gun-toting granddaughter Mike (Anne Baxter). Tension ensues, along with 2 1/2 or so attempted rapes on Mike. The misogyny is actually quite difficult to take in the stride of historical context and even though we know Pecks’s character deserves to get the girl, he goes about it with a capricious morality.
Morality is what the movie’s all about, where in the play, it’s more or less an afterthought, as the all moral agency belongs to Prospero, who after a little meddling, is quick to forgive and forget. Prospero’s restoration of moral order is plotted and guaranteed from the beginning, and the upsetting of the order he restores happens at great distance from readers and audience members; completely off-stage and years earlier. There’s no question as to Prospero’s ability to restore it, only the slight question as to whether he will choose to act with or without vengeance, and if he’ll stick to his deal with Ariel.
Stretch and his men arrive only looking for water and food to, quite literally, get back up on their feet. But, once they learn Grandpa is sitting on a large cache of gold, their objectives shift. Grandpa lacks any sorcery to deter these thieves, so instead agrees to a deal they propose to split the gold 50/50. Of course, this doesn’t really seem fair to us, but we get the sense that everyone knows the game, and what will happen if a deal isn’t struck. The film’s moral compass takes the men at their word, and only shifts when Stretch’s gang departs from the agreement, as honor and sticking to one’s word are here far more important than lucre. Stretch, being the moral center of the film, puts his own life in danger to defend Grandpa and Mike and protect his honor from greed. He’s a lot like a film noir detective and, as you can see below, the photography often resembles noir’s visual conventions. Following a fatal shoot-out (but just for the bad guys) and an implied marriage between Stretch and Mike, moral is restored so much that Stretch even returns the money from the robbery that first sent him into the salt flats.
This 1950s drive-in scifi classic tears out most of the plot out of The Tempest, replacing Alonso’s ship with a flying saucer full of horny sailors on a rescue mission to the distant planet of Altair, and Shakespeare’s resolution of gentlemanly revenge with a literalization of popular Freudian psychology that today seems only worthy of a better episode of Star Trek. (Granted, there is the idea of creation by way of the mind; as a playwright authors things into existence, Morbius’s id begets a monster to act on its malice, but it’s never really explored–perhaps commercial concerns pushed it out.) One can’t help but laugh when the film’s astronauts talk about such things as “space pay,” but things get interesting, both within the contexts of adaptation and science fiction, when the play’s magic is exchanged for a mysterious, even mythologized, technology 2000 centuries old. The ancient secrets set down in Prospero’s tomes are here older than the human race itself. It’s not just an alien gadgetry, like Gort’s power over earth’s electrical grid or The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver, but something of mythic scale and age and of metaphysical power. Of course, for narrative purposes, it’s reduced to a series of electrical gauges and a robot that replicates whiskey, but Forbidden Planet‘s conflation of metaphysics and technology, its incorporation of archaeological ideas of ancients into science fiction, is a prototype for 2001: A Space Odyssey .
This dark, manic, claustrophobic, and highly sexualized British adaptation by Derek Jarman makes ample use of voice-overs (think Olivier’s Hamlet), heavy shadows, filters, and close shots. The language is there, but it’s heavily departed from. It’s notorious for a shot of Sycorax breast-feeding Caliban as Prospero narrates Caliban’s origins, as well as plenty of other nudity. Oh, and there are midgets too. Prospero’s magic is cleverly visualized with geometric diagrams drawn in the dilapidated manor/castle/barn that serves as his cell, but there’s just not a lot here. This is the most dated adaptation and its pornographic elements no longer have the artistic/shock value they might’ve once had.
With John Cassavetes, Molly Ringwald, Gena Rowlands, and Susan Sarandon, we can be thankful this lengthy script didn’t call for the actors to speak the original dialogue, even if we do have to listen to Susan Sarandon sing. Cassavetes’ Prospero or “Phillip” escapes to a Greek isle with his teenage daughter (Ringwald) and a randy “Ariel” (Sarandon) to hide from Miranda’s mother (Rowlands) and his former employer. The film shifts the narrative backwards, dwelling on the midlife crisis that pushes Phillip away from his wife and cushy job as an architect in the entourage of a New York casino mogul, who may or may not have mob ties. The movie is much more interested in how he got on the island than than how he gets off it and the a-wedding-makes-everything-alright ending that’s central to the play is obviously withheld, since the film is set in an age of custody battles and unfulfilling professional lives, not one of Machiavellian power plays and exile. The source of Phillip’s meteorological prowess is never explained, as Phillip is more interested in the plans to a theater he’s building and the baseball trivia he’s missing than ancient books of sorcery. Caliban becomes Kalibanos, played with great pizzazz by Raul Julia, the idiosyncratic native who prefers to sell souvenirs to the island’s visitors, rather than enlist them in a plot to usurp his master. This Caliban, unlike Shakespeare’s, is an emotional focus and is quite possibly the film’s most redeeming character, if only for his comic simplicity.
My favorite adaption, for its unique and highly artistic merger of film, dance, opera, and animation; gorgeous tracking shots, a fantastic pop-minimalist score by Michael Nyman, and elaborate mise-en-scène, Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books is actually less of an adaptation and more of a reading of the play, as nearly all the dialogue is narrated by John Gielgud as Prospero (which makes it difficult to follow without some familiarity with the text). Action is passed over for images accompanied by Gielgud’s narration. We watch Prospero writing out letters with a voice over–the camera paying a lot of attention to in the ink well, the pen against the paper–in lieu of speeches by characters. There’s a sense (partially due to the film’s spirit world being populated far beyond anything described by Shakespeare) that the whole thing is conjured up by the magic of storytelling. This, of course, sticks to the most popular critical line drawn from those famous words of Prospero’s towards the end of the play.
These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And, like the baseless fabric of vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with sleep
The film is obsessed with the text, and actually text itself; writing, books, calligraphy, book binding, paper, language, and words. Greenaway wrote in fanciful descriptions of the books in Prospero’s library (such as “The Book of Universal Cosmography”) that are narrated and pictured in interludes that punctuate the story. The whole movie got a real going over with an editing machine in Japan; passages from the text often scroll across the screen, pages from Greenaway’s versions of Prospero’s books are superimposed or appear in picture-in-picture like frames.