The Bard Transmogrified

"O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!"

by Eleanor M. Farrell

There have been many adaptations of Shakespeare's plays on film, from Hollywood epics to filmed stage plays to science fiction. Two very original new treatments, by two of today's most innovative independent filmmakers, are currently playing in theatres (if you don't live in a cinematically deprived area of the country).

The first of these is My Own Private Idaho, the free-form odyssey of two young street hustlers, into which Portland, Oregon, director Gus Van Sant audaciously drops plot elements, language, and dialogue structures from the Henry IV plays. (How many soliloquoies have you noticed in recent cinema?) Lines like "Why, you wouldn't even look at a clock, unless hours were lines of coke ... or time itself was a fair hustler in black leather" aren't exactly standard film script material, and some reviewers felt that the Shakespearian subplot of Idaho doesn't work. Even if this were so, Van Sant's kaleidoscopic vision, supported by surreal photography, peculiar music, and killer performances by River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, would still be a wonderful film. But I also think its twist on one of Shakespeare's more equivocal heroes has created a complex and satisfying characterization. When I first saw Henry IV, Part I, I was quite disturbed to find the dynamic and virtuous Hostspur defeated by Prince Hal, whose wastral-to-royalty conversion was very unconvincing. Van Sant's slumming Scott, in contrast, without any pretenses to virtue, nevertheless comes across as more consistent and more compelling.

British director Peter Greenaway, known for such lusciously photographed and convoluted films as The Draughtsman's Contract and Drowning By Numbers, has chosen the Bard's final play for his own initial sojourn into weird Shakespeare, titled Prospero's Books. This adaptation of The Tempest centers on the character of Prospero (played magnificently by John Gielgud) as Creator: of the palaces covering his island exile, of the circumstances bringing his enemies to the island, of the play itself, which Prospero is writing as the story unfolds. This is undoubtably, in a most literal sense, the most literary film ever made. Greenaway has structured it around twenty-four books that Prospero takes with him into exile - atlases, bestiaries, travelers' tales, cosmographies -- which are crafted using digital and high definition effects and superimposed onto the story. As lines of calligraphed text scroll up the screen, the action of the play proceeds, for the most part narrated by Gielgud over the movements of the actors. Nude spirits accompany the magician as he wanders through the paper-strewn rooms of his palaces, which appear like fully-realized pop-up creations out of the pages of his books. Prospero's Books is unbelievably dense. I spent the first half of the film completely awe-struck, trying to take in all of the images unfolding on the screen. (This film should be very popular on DVD, with its stop-frame capabilities!) Unfortunately, the boring parts of The Tempest are still boring, and Greenaway's narrative approach eliminates all characterization except that of Prospero himself. This is not a film for someone who is not familiar with The Tempest; indeed, perhaps not even for some who love the play in its more traditional form. But as a visual tapestry celebrating the joy of writing as an act of creation, Prospero's Books is a sumptuously rich treasure and a real cinematic milestone.

If this is all too strange, the most recent film version of Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson and Glenn Close, is now available on video. Spectacular Scottish settings, costumes to die for (if a little vague of period), and excellent performances by the two stars and an impressive supporting cast (most of whom, the males at least, have probably played the Dane themselves at least once during their careers) make Italian director Franco Zefferelli's production both accessible and dynamic.

Reprinted from Mythprint 29:1, January 1992.

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