From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Prospero's Books (1991), written and directed by Peter Greenaway, is a cinematic adaptation of The Tempest, by William Shakespeare. John Gielgud is Prospero, the protagonist who provides the off-screen narration and the voices to the other story characters. Stylistically, Prospero's Books is narratively and cinematically innovative in its techniques, combining mime, dance, operatic set pieces, and animation. The film makes extensive (and pioneering) use of digital image manipulation (using the Paintbox system), often overlaying multiple moving and still pictures with animations. Michael Nyman composed the musical score and Karine Saporta choreographed the dance. The film is also notable for its extensive use of nudity, displayed with a naturist ethos in keeping with the work's key themes. (i.e. The nude actors and extras represent a realistic cross-section of male and female humanity.)
The daughter of Prospero, an exiled magician, falls in love with the son of his enemy, while the sorcerer's sprite, Ariel, convinces him to abandon revenge against the traitors from his earlier life. In the film, Prospero stands in for Shakespeare, and is seen writing and speaking the story's action as it unfolds. Prospero's Books is a complex tale based upon William Shakespeare's The Tempest.
Ariel is played by three actors — a boy, an adolescent, and a youth. Each represents a classical elemental. The boy represents water, and is shown perpetually urinating. Conservative movie critic Michael Medved attacked the scene of Ariel urinating from a swing in "The Urge to Offend" chapter of his book Hollywood vs. America.
- Director Peter Greenaway and composer Michael Nyman acrimoniously ended their longstanding work relationship while making Prospero's Books. Most of the film's music cues, (excepting Ariel's songs and the Masque) are from an earlier concert, La Traversée de Paris and the score from A Zed and Two Noughts.
- John Gielgud said a film of The Tempest (as Prospero, as he had been in four stage productions in 1931, 1940, 1957, and 1974) was his life's amibition. He had approached Alain Resnais, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Orson Welles about directing him in it, Benjamin Britten to compose its score, and Albert Finney to be Caliban, before Greenaway agreed. The closest the earlier attempts came to being made was in 1967, with Welles as both director and as Caliban to Gielgud's Prospero, but after the commercial failure of Welles and Gielgud's Shakespearean film collaboration, Chimes at Midnight, financing for a cinematic The Tempest collapsed.