Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Prospero's Books

UK/French movie (1991). Allarts-Cinéa/Camera One-Penta/Canal+/Elsevier Vendex/Film Four/NHK/VPRO Television. Pr Kees Kasander. Exec pr Kasander, Denis Wigman. Dir Peter Greenaway. Mufx Sjoerd Didden. Screenplay Greenaway, published with additional material as Prospero's Books: A Film of Shakespeare's The Tempest * (1991). Based loosely on The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623) by William Shakespeare. Starring Tom Bell (Antonio), Michael Clark (Caliban), John Gielgud (Prospero), Orphéo (Ariel), Isabelle Pasco (Miranda), Paul Russell (Ariel), Mark Rylance (Ferdinand), James Thierree (Ariel), Emil Wolk (Ariel). 120 mins. Colour.

This astonishing movie's base plot is that of The Tempest, but almost infinitely elaborated, convoluted and distorted, to the extent that any summary would be, like the movie itself, almost incomprehensible to those without a reasonable degree of familiarity with the play. It is strange that a movie which has storytelling as a primary preoccupation should itself not attempt to tell a Story.

In jumbled Time, Prospero writes and tells (i.e., creates) the events while himself being, along with a fourfold Ariel, their major participant; almost without exception he speaks the parts of every character, the spoken lines usually being underlain by the character's own voice as if events have been cast into an Alternate Reality that can be experienced only via his sophisticated, magic-skewed Perception (or as if, possibly, they are entirely products of his [mis]perception). That said, Prospero is not the movie's central character: this role is reserved for his collection of Books. These are lost, apocryphal or fictional, with titles like An Atlas Belonging to Orpheus (which Maps, of course, Hell). They are also magical, although not grimoires. Prospero believes his powers derive from them, and his renunciation of Magic at the movie's end is allegorized by a shutting and then a destruction of them; but we, looking in on Prospero from outside (and, the movie hints, his jailers, for he is a part of the Story we all have in our mental/cultural hand-baggage), can see that the books are the powers: the powers are not his, but theirs. They, not he, are the Magus.

Visually PB is numbing, overpowering. Exploiting to the full both the new techniques made available by advances in video technology and his own almost obsessive attention to detail, Greenaway packs the screen with more images, almost, than it can be expected to hold: in a sort of visual cacophony, images and scenes are piled one over the other, superimposed on or jutting into each other often three at a time, intermingling with or smothering each other. There is a richness of visual quotes: often one is arrested by discovering that suddenly there has formed on screen a representation of some noted painting (> Fantasy Art) – particularly from the Flemish School and the works of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912). Frequently scenes themselves are presented to us framed as Pictures or as mirror reflections. In fact, Mirrors are another key preoccupation: one of Prospero's books is A Book of Mirrors, and it is frequently implied that all the hosts of Elementals are mirrors of the human mind; Caliban in particular is a reflection of Prospero, for the Monster does not even mouth his lines but instead dances his role, his words being rendered by his source, Prospero. And, in the midst of all the dazzling visual effects, much of what lies at the heart of the movie is in the form of a stage production.

The result of this near-chaos is a deeply magical movie – that is, a movie concerned at its core with the portrayal of Magic. Watching PB is a bewildering, confusing, almost shocking experience ... which is exactly what we might expect an encounter with magic to be.

And then there is the matter of the final book, the 23rd, the only one that refuses to be destroyed in Prospero's final renunciation. It is A Book of Thirty-Five Plays by Shakespeare, with space left for the 36th play, The Tempest, which Prospero at the last supplies. [JG]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.