‘In this last tempest’: Modernising Shakespeare’s 'Tempest' on Film

Anthony Miller


Though its supernatural spectacles might seem to suit it to the magical technologies of cinema, The Tempest has tended to resist direct translation to film. This resistance may derive from other features of the text. The play’s large-scale spectacle is balanced by the small-scale intimacy of many of its scenes, which gives it a character akin to chamber music. Shakespeare’s observance of the theatrical unities generates a rather small number of rather long scenes. The action of the play is premised on a once-only occasion, the opportunity offered to Prospero by Fortune to recover his dukedom. As they orchestrate the play’s action and mount its marvellous spectacles, Prospero and Ariel show an acute sense of their immediate audience, whose critical applause they are intent on winning. All these features suit the text to the live theatre rather than the cinema. Even the two film versions of the past twenty years that may be said to retain Shakespeare’s plot and words use them very freely: Derek Jarman’s The Tempest (1979) radically reorders the play’s action, while Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991) assigns almost all the speeches to Prospero.
An alternative response to the challenge of screening the Shakespearean text has been adaptation. Forbidden Planet (dir. Fred Wilcox, 1956) and Tempest (dir. Paul Mazursky, 1982) retell the story or rework the myth of The Tempest in a new guise.

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