|Directed by||Peter Greenaway|
|Written by||Peter Greenaway|
|Produced by||Masato Hara|
|Edited by||Marina Bodbijl|
|Music by||Michael Nyman|
|Distributed by||Miramax Films|
|Budget||£1,500,000 or £2.4 million|
Prospero's Books is a 1991 British avant-garde film adaptation of William Shakespeare's The Tempest, written and directed by Peter Greenaway. Sir John Gielgud plays Prospero, the protagonist who provides the off-screen narration and the voices to the other story characters. As noted by Peter Conrad in The New York Times on 17 November 1991, Greenaway intended the film “as an homage to the actor and to his "mastery of illusion." Sir John's Prospero is Shakespeare, and having rehearsed the action inside his head, speaking the lines of all the other characters, he concludes the film by sitting down to write The Tempest.” 
Stylistically, Prospero's Books is narratively and cinematically innovative in its techniques, combining mime, dance, opera, and animation. Edited in Japan, the film makes extensive use of digital image manipulation (using Hi-Vision video inserts and the Quantel 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, reminiscent of Renaissance paintings of mythological characters. The nude actors and extras represent a cross-section of male and female humanity.
Prospero's Books is a complex tale based upon William Shakespeare's The Tempest. Miranda, the daughter of Prospero, an exiled magician, falls in love with Ferdinand, 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 is Shakespeare himself, conceiving, designing, rehearsing, directing and performing the story's action as it unfolds and in the end, sitting down to write the completed work.
Ariel is played by four actors: three acrobats—a boy, an adolescent, and a youth—and a boy singer. Each represents a classical elemental.
Gielgud is quoted as saying that a film of The Tempest (with him as Prospero) was his life's ambition, as he had been in four stage productions in 1931, 1940, 1957, and 1974. He had approached Alain Resnais, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Orson Welles about directing him in it, with Benjamin Britten to compose its score, and Albert Finney as Caliban, before Greenaway agreed. The closest earlier attempts came to being made was in 1967, with Welles both directing and playing Caliban. But after the commercial failure of their film collaboration, Chimes at Midnight, financing for a cinematic Tempest collapsed.
"I don't know whether Greenaway ever saw me in it on stage, I didn't dare to ask him," Sir John told Conrad, who noted that the actor recalls his previous Prosperos in the book Shakespeare -- Hit or Miss?: “At the Old Vic in the 1930's he played the character as 'Dante without a beard'; in 1957 for Peter Brook he was 'an El Greco hermit', disheveled and decrepit; in 1974 for Peter Hall he was a bespectacled magus; now, for Mr. Greenaway, in a film that is a blitz of cultural icons, he is Renaissance man, exercising a universal power through the volumes in his library but confounded by his own sorry mortality.”
“I was glad I knew the part so well, because there was so much going on in the studio to distract me,” Sir John recalled, “I had to parade up and down wearing that cloak which needed four people to lift, and with papers flying in my face all the time. And it was terribly cold in the bath." Sir John spent four frigid days during the winter naked in a swimming pool, to choreograph the shipwreck with which the film begins.
The film made £579,487 at the UK box office.
This was the last of the collaborations between director Peter Greenaway and composer Michael Nyman. 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 & Two Noughts. The soundtrack album is Nyman's sixteenth release.
|Soundtrack album by|
|Recorded||PRT Studios and Abbey Road Studios, London|
|Genre||Soundtrack, Contemporary classical, art song, Minimalist music|
|Michael Nyman chronology|
In his 17 November 1991 article for The New York Times, Peter Conrad observed “…the performance is also a revelation of Sir John himself: simultaneously noble and naughty, a high priest and a joker, contemplating at the end of a long life the value of the art he practices.”
Aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports 67% approval of Prospero's Books, with an average rating of 5.9/10 and a critical consensus that reads: "There is no middle ground for viewers of Peter Greenaway's work, but for his fans, Prospero's Books is reliably daring." Roger Ebert gave the work three stars out of four and argued, "Most of the reviews of this film have missed the point; this is not a narrative, it need not make sense, and it is not 'too difficult' because it could not have been any less so. It is simply a work of original art, which Greenaway asks us to accept or reject on his own terms."