Adaptation Series 1.4: The Tempest

In my last year of University, I reluctantly decided to take a Shakespeare course because it seemed like one of those things that one “just had to do” in the pursuit of an English degree. To my good fortune, I had an eccentric and excellent professor who liked to show movies/clips in her lectures. The first play she taught was Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s earlier and lesser-known plays. I loved it, but I was fonder of the film version we watched afterwards: Titus, an imaginative, audacious, and truly cinematic translation of Shakespearean verse. Released in 1999, Titus featured Anthony Hopkins in the title role and had a strong supporting cast of Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Colm Feore, and Harry Lennix. Titus was also the directorial debut of Julie Taymor, who found success on stage with her play of Titus and, most notably, her Broadway rendition of The Lion King.

Julie Taymor’s Titus is among my favorite pieces of Shakespeare on film. It ranks up there with Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, a Samurai interpretation of King Lear. Therefore, I was quite excited when I learned that Taymor was making another Shakespeare film, The Tempest. Moreover, I was doubly excited because I realized this at the end of my Shakespeare course. By then, The Tempest was my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays.

Anthony Hopkins in Titus
My favorite Shakespeare film merged with my favorite Shakespeare play? It sounds like a dream! How appropriate, for as Prospero, the protagonist of The Tempest, says, “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on.”

The Tempest is a dreamy play itself. One of Shakespeare’s Romances, The Tempest has a surreal magical quality. Prospero is a magician of the highest order and he relishes the power that comes with it. Furthermore, Prospero’s alchemic talent is an act of restoration: he was previously the Duke of Milan until his brother, Antonio, usurped the throne and exiled Prospero and his daughter, Miranda, to a remote island.

All the action of The Tempest occurs on the island save for the opening sequence in which Antonio and his crew are shipwrecked in a storm. The island also has a mythical force opposite to Prospero – the unseen witch Sycorax. The dual forces, Prospero and Sycorax, create an interesting analogy on whether the right to rule is inherited or learned: While Sycorax is a native sorcerer, Prospero gained his supernatural wisdom through books and formal education. Additionally, after arriving on the island, Prospero submits the island to his authority and enslaves Sycorax and her son, Caliban. The Prospero-Sycorax/Caliban tension puts a spin on what gives one the right to rule, as Prospero essentially does to them what Antonio did to him and Miranda.

Prospero’s desire to assert his power through performance is more evident through his reluctance to relinquish his powers. Even the speeches in which Prospero offers to retire his staff have a prevailing sense of conjuring. Consequently, many Shakespeare scholars have interpreted Prospero’s retirement as an image of the Bard’s farewell to the stage. Although it is often dangerous to read a protagonist as a stand-in for the author, this play is most touching when read as such. The Tempest is believed to be Shakespeare’s final ‘solo effort’ play – circa 1611 as evidenced by documentation of a performance for the King. Additionally, the allusions to the Globe Theatre and the performing arts are unmistakable. Prospero’s staff is also a nice metaphor for the pain it gives Shakespeare to put his pen to rest. Prospero’s epilogue speech, “Now my charms are all o’erthrown, / And what strength I have’s mine own …” is especially heartfelt if read as Shakespeare’s adieu. (I’ve heard of many an English teacher who has recited this speech in his or her final lecture.) In Taymor’s film, however, such a reading into the protagonist may not come so easily. This is because the magician in Taymor’s film is not Prospero, but Prospera.
Tacking the role of Prospera is Helen Mirren. At the least, it will be a treat to see the great actress tackle a role that has mostly been reserved for men. (Vanessa Redgrave once played Prospero at the Globe Theatre, but as neither man nor woman.) Apparently, Mirren approached Taymor about putting this new spin on The Tempest, and the two agreed that it made for an enlightening project. In an interview with Anne Thompson, Taymor expresses that to overanalyze the gender swap is to make much ado about nothing. (See video at the end.) Taymor notes that very little about Prospera changes from Shakespeare’s inception, save for a tweaking of her backstory. One does wonder, however, what the switch will do to the “Miranda complex” within The Tempest. The “Miranda complex” is a feminist/colonialist theory, coined by literary critic Laura Donaldson, in which Prospero’s ability to retain dominance over his daughter comes from a subjugation of his slave Caliban. By emphasizing the “barbaric” aspects of Caliban, Prospero dissuades Miranda from aligning herself with Caliban (for Caliban is forever plotting against Prospero). Additionally, in the very act of “protecting” Miranda, Prospero makes her his submissive. The “Miranda complex” has an incestuous undertone, especially since the “other” in the triangular relationship often poses a threat to Miranda sexually. A similar power dynamic occurs when Miranda falls in love with Ferdinand, Alonso’s son, who is among the stranded seamen. Despite Taymor’s reluctance, Prospera’s gender will surely elicit much scholarly debate, especially in this regard.

Jessica Lange as Tamora in Titus
Anyone skeptical about Taymor’s approach to Shakespeare need not worry. She has already staged The Tempest several times – and to much acclaim. Additionally, in the Thompson interview, Taymor describes some of her approach to the film and it sounds like she has a good handle on the material. In particular, her discussion of the costuming is quite intriguing: The film will feature the same anachronistic garb of Titus, which was an astute way of conveying the timelessness of Shakespeare. The costumes for The Tempest are by Sandy Powell, this year’s Oscar winner for The Young Victoria. Taymor describes all of Prospera’s outfits as being derived from materials found on the island, right down to the indigo dye. It’s also worth watching the interview to hear Taymor’s description on the make-up for Caliban – an earthy mud caking upon actor Djimon Hounsou – and her quips about Ben Whishaw as the invisible servant Ariel.

Across the Universe
Mostly, though, The Tempest should be well executed due to Taymor’s trademark visual flair. Her past films (Titus, Frida, and Across the Universe) each had a unique aesthetic palette that made each film an enriching and memorable experience. Moreover, The Tempest is particularly well suited for Taymor’s cinematic canvas because it is Shakespeare’s most fantastical play. One can only imagine how Taymor will envision the harpy banquet.

The rape of Lavinia in Titus
Furthermore, in Titus, Taymor succeeded in making the play accessible to moviegoers who are not fans of Shakespearean drama, and she did this largely through her artistic rendering of the material. In her introduction to Daniel Rosenthal’s book 100 Shakespeare Films, Taymor writes, “it is essential to complement the dialogue scenes with purely visual, visceral ones. This not only gives the audience a breather from hanging on every word but allows for the scope and the scale of the world to be delineated further.” In Titus, Taymor used the original verse (and retained a higher percentage of it than filmmakers usually do), but she balanced it with superimposed images and other visual tricks that used the imagery within Shakespeare’s verse to create a visual representation of the characters’ emotions, as well as the thematic qualities of the play/film. This feat makes Titus easier to unpack for any viewer that has difficulty following the verse.

Djimon Hounsou as Caliban
Finally, The Tempest must be seen simply because there hasn’t really been a definitive interpretation of the play onscreen. Yes, there is the Leslie Nielsen sci-fi farce Forbidden Planet, the John Gielgud vehicle Prospero’s Books, and the 1979 Derek Jarman gothic-punk version, but there is not a great version in the traditional sense of Shakespeare on film. As seen with Titus, however, “traditional” is probably the least appropriate word to brand Taymor’s approach. On the other hand, there really isn’t another film version of Titus Andronicus, either, and the film world certainly won’t suffer is Julie Taymor’s film is the sole cinematic connection. Will she work her magic once again? I dream of it.

The Tempest is the closing night selection of this year’s Venice Film festival. It opens in New York and LA on Dec. 10 and expands Dec. 17. (That means it will probably hit Ottawa by Christmas or early January…if we’re lucky.)


Taymor's interview with Anne Thompson:
Part 1

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Part 2

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