The Tempest (1998) poster

The Tempest (1998)


USA. 1998.


Director – Jack Bender, Teleplay – James Henerson, Based on the Play by William Shakespeare, Producer – James Bigwood, Photography – Steven Shaw, Music – Terence Blanchard, Visual Effects Supervisor – Rob Duncan, Visual Effects – Computer Film Company/Framestore, Special Effects Supervisor – Ray Bivins, Production Design – Stephen Storer. Production Company – Bonnie Raskin Productions/NBC Studios.


Peter Fonda (Gideon Prosper), John Glover (Anthony Prosper), Harold Perrineau Jr (Ariel), Katherine Heigl (Miranda Prosper), John Pyper Ferguson (Gator Man), Eddie Mills (Captain Frederick Allen), Dennis Redfield (Wilfred ‘Willie’ Gonzo), Donzaleigh Abernathy (Azalea), Jon Huffman (Captain Grant), Tom Nowicky (Captain Sherman)


Mississippi, 1851. Gideon Prosper is the owner of Prosperity Mansion but has turned the running of the estate over to his brother Anthony. He prefers to spend his time learning the ways of voodoo magic from the slave woman Azalea. Prosper then discovers that Anthony is beating the slaves, including Azalea’s son Ariel. After Prosper exposes this, Anthony has him dragged away by the sheriff to be hung. However, Azalea uses magic to free Prosper, leaving Anthony to think that he is dead. Prosper flees into exile on an island in the bayous accompanied by Ariel and his young daughter Miranda. Twelve years later. Miranda has grown to womanhood and is lusted after by the island’s original owner, the vulgar Gator Man, although she is innocent in all ways regarding the other sex. Prosper refuses to let Ariel leave, transforming him into bird form. Meanwhile, Anthony approaches the oncoming Union armies and offers to lead them through the swamp (not telling them that he is planning to betray them). As they travel into the bayous, Prosper sees them coming and conjures a tempest to wreck their boat. Anthony then encounters Gator Man who promises to lead them to Prosper if he can have Miranda. Meanwhile, Miranda encounters the Union guide Captain Frederick Allen and falls in love with him.

This is quite an interesting adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (c1611). The successes of Kenneth Branagh’s adaptations of Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993) and Hamlet (1996) led to a renaissance of big-budget Shakespeare screen adaptations throughout the late 1990s/early 00s featuring A-list stars. A number of these offered quite radical reinterpretations of the originals – 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), a teen update of The Taming of the Shrew; O (2001), a modernised version of Othello; the BBC tv series ShakespeaRe-Told (2005), which redid a number of Shakespeare plays in modern setting and dialogue; even the animated Gnomeo & Juliet (2011), which conducted Romeo and Juliet with talking garden gnomes.

The Tempest has undergone a number of interesting screen adaptations over the years too, including Derek Jarman’s The Tempest (1979), Paul Mazursky’s modernised Tempest (1982), Peter Greenaway’s eccentric Prospero’s Books (1991) and Julie Taymor’s visually enthralling, gender-flipped The Tempest (2010) with Helen Mirren as Prospero, although none of these were quite as radical as Forbidden Planet (1956), which transplanted the play into outer space.

This version comes here from James Henerson, a veteran tv writer who has worked on shows like Bewitched (1964-72), I Dream of Jeannie (1965-70) and The Flying Nun (1967-70). Henerson’s unique idea is to transplant Shakespeare’s story into the midst of the American Civil War. This sets up some striking and unusual resonances – Prospero now becomes a plantation owner who learns his magical arts from the voodoo of his slaves; his exile comes after a bitter quarrel with his brother, whereupon he seeks refuge on a tiny island in the bayous, leaving himself thought dead. Rather than an imprisoned spirit, Ariel becomes a slave that Prosper has bound to him, regularly transforming him into animal forms to go out and scout. Miranda is written fairly much as she is in Shakespeare, although is given an at times rather silly performance from Katherine Heigl several years before her breakout on tv’s Grey’s Anatomy (2005- ). Although the reconception that would have Shakespeare spinning in his grave is surely that of Caliban as John Pyper Ferguson’s Gator Man, a swampland hillbilly of brutishly crude means who is sexually fixated on having his way with Miranda.

Prosper (Peter Fonda) and Miranda (Katherine Heigl) in The Tempest (1998)
Prosper (Peter Fonda) and his daughter Miranda (Katherine Heigl)

One suspects that were Shakespeare a writer working for film and tv today, many of his scripts would be dumped or rewritten for lacking the sort of pat resolutions and arcs that modern audiences expect. To this extent, Henerson has expanded the story of The Tempest out to conform more to modern storytelling expectations. The first thirty minutes is taken up by a preamble that sets Prospero/Prosper’s exile up before we even get to the events that make up the play. There is no equivalent of John Glover’s brother in the play – the role has been created to give the story a standard villain.

The conflicts of the play have been expanded out with more of an action emphasis and a good deal of hunting around the swamps. The end of the story has also been rewritten to allow Prosper to obtain a standard revenge against his evil brother. Prosper also gets a modern character transformation arc where he is allowed to come to a realisation of the errors where he uses his magic to take sides in the Civil War, to free Ariel and return the island to Caliban.

With Shakespeare’s The Tempest being a production for stage, Prospero’s magic is something that is seen very little. Many classical versions of the play are carried by the words and performances and have no displays of magic whatsoever. By contrast, the magic here is brought much more upfront and there are numerous instances of it on screen. However, the film has made the mistake of bringing this too upfront as all we then get is a series of disappointingly cheap-looking morphing effects.

Director Jack Bender has made a great deal of television between 1980 and the present, although not many theatrical films. His one other notable genre film was Child’s Play 3 (1991). On tv, his other occasional forays into genre material include the Halloween special The Midnight Hour (1985), the L. Frank Baum biopic The Dreamer of Oz (1990), the teen slasher Killing Mr Griffin (1997) and the time travel film Rewind (2013).

Trailer here

Full film available here

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