Prospero's Books

France/Italy/Japan 1991, 125 mins
Director: Peter Greenaway

Prospero’s Books is a version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest starring John Gielgud. Shakespeare’s play centres on Prospero, Duke of Milan, who has been deposed by his brother, Antonio, supported by Alonso, King of Naples, and now lives on an island with his daughter, Miranda. Opening with a storm in which the corrupt brother and his courtiers are shipwrecked on the island through Prospero’s magic. The Tempest shows Prospero’s staging of an action in which he intends to take his revenge on his usurping brother.

Initially approached by Gielgud, who has cherished the idea of putting the enigmatic drama on screen for some time, Greenaway rapidly transformed the play into his own idiosyncratic vision. The film picks up on a brief mention in the text of 24 books from his library which Prospero is permitted to take into exile. These desert island volumes become an abstract counterpoint to the story, like the number count from one to 100 in Drowning by Numbers. While remaining faithful to Shakespeare’s text, Greenaway has put the words of all the characters into Prospero’s mouth for the first two-thirds of the film.

The results are fascinating, and sure to polarise viewers of Greenaway’s work even more than any of his previous films.

Peter Greenaway on ‘Prospero’s Books’
One of the reasons we have called the film Prospero’s Books rather than The Tempest is to indicate to an audience that it is not a straight attempt to reproduce a familiar text. One of my many interests was to pursue the 24 books that Gonzales, Prospero’s loyal courtier, supposedly put into the bottom of the leaky vessel in which Prospero was sent out into exile. That idea, I suppose, really holds the material together.

And it seemed quite logical from there to consider The Tempest very much as a text, as something written. So what happened in the end is that I made the 24th book The Tempest itself. So the whole film is structured around the idea of Shakespeare/Prospero (Gielgud) sitting in his cell on the island writing the play that you see.

The first word of the play is ‘Bosun’, which is a very interesting word because it is one that is never written down. It was used by seamen who were basically illiterate, so that when they came to write the word down it was ‘boat-swain’. It’s a nice opening point about the topsy-turvy use of oral and written language.

So the film opens with Gielgud sitting at his desk experimenting with the word ‘Bosun’, and you see it written up on the screen many times. The evocation of that word in conjunction with the first book of the film, which is the Book of Water, supposedly put together by Leonardo da Vinci, sets the film off. Right at the beginning, then, the audience knows we are at the origins of the play, and I make no attempt at straight illusionism.

At the end of the film the books are all destroyed. What happens, then, is that the apocryphal books – which of course never exist – are created in the first minute and destroyed in the last minute of a two-hour film. They are there only for the film, which I think is an intriguing idea.

Following this so far? Good. Because it gets worse. In addition to the labyrinthine complexity of its narrative, Prospero’s Books is visually the most dense of Greenaway’s films, thanks largely to the first extensive use of high definition television (HDTV) processes for the big screen. HDTV uses twice as many lines as conventional television to achieve better resolution, higher contrast and a wider range of colours. The resulting image – which also has a wide, cinema-like screen ratio – can be manipulated using all the sophisticated techniques of video editing: slow motion, superimposition, and animation.

Shot on 35mm film, Prospero’s Books is being edited using a combination of conventional film techniques and television post-production. Greenaway has edited three separate versions of the film which run in parallel and will ultimately be mixed together into a single two-hour narrative. He has spent a month in Japan using state-of-the-art HDTV editing facilities provided by the television company NHK. In order to test the potential of the technology, NHK contributed about £2 million worth of editing time free of charge (representing more than the entire production budget of about £1.5 minion).

The high definition techniques allow Greenaway to unite the sumptuous cinematography evident in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover with the sophisticated image manipulation of his television production of Dante’s Inferno_. Greenaway is wary of the film being seen as a ‘technological freak’, but believes he has only scratched the surface of the technical possibilities.

Working in conjunction with Tom Phillips on A TV Dante, there seemed to be a way through television to engender a whole series of new ways of making pictures, which I was much more familiar with in terms of painting and draughtsmanship than I was with cinema. It was an ability primarily to reorganise the screen ratio, to play with colour in a way you can’t in the cinema, and to extend and reshape the elements of the pictorial imagination, which you can do easily in painting. There was a time when I believed that the cinema had an ability to use all the letters of the alphabet and TV could only use the vowels. I don’t believe that to be the case any more; I think TV has its own vocabulary, its own alphabet. So what I wanted to do in Prospero’s Books is to make the first tentative steps towards an expanded cinema which uses television vocabulary but still hangs on to the cinematic idea of creating images which are bigger, noisier, louder, more engulfing than you are.

It’s a terrible admission to make, but I do feel for me that cinema has somehow ceased to be a spectator sport. I get tremendous excitement out of making it rather than out of watching it. I suppose on another level it is like trying to regain those first days of the cinema when the audience rushed out because they thought that the waves coming in were going to wet their feet.

The play would certainly seem to start off as a revenge drama, with Prospero in the first five minutes ranting about his past and vowing revenge. But then two-thirds of the way through, almost without prior warning, the situation is broken open completely and there is a moment of truth when Prospero decides to forgive everybody. We have actually used this as a pivotal moment in the film, and for my purposes I am very happy with that sudden change of heart. But you must not be misled into thinking that this is psycho-drama. It is a drama of conceits and allegories and metaphors, and under these terms a sudden change of heart can no doubt be seen to be relevant to all the other concerns of the play.

There is a deliberate amalgamation or confusion between Shakespeare. Gielgud and Prospero – they are, in effect, the same person. It is Shakespeare’s last play, his farewell to illusionism, his farewell to playing games, his farewell to all this anti-naturalism. Gielgud at 87 is obviously near the end of his life, and he has had an incredibly long theatrical career. So in terms of English classical theatre, it is his goodbye to illusionism, to costumes, to dressing up, to playing games. And of course within the confines of the play itself this is exactly what Prospero does – in the famous last speech he actually turns to his audience and begs their forgiveness and abandons his magic before he leaves the stage.
Peter Greenaway talks to Adam Barker, Sight and Sound, May 1991

A Walk Through Prospero’s Library
Greenaway revisits the opening of Prospero’s Books.

Director: Peter Greenaway
Production Companies: Allarts Enterprises, Cinéa, Caméra One, Penta Pictures
In association with: Elsevier-Vendex Film Beheer, Film Four International, VPRO, Canal+, Nippon Hoso Kyokai
Financial Assistance: Eurimages Conseil de l’Europe, Stichting Produktiefonds voor Nederlandse Films, Heldring & Pierson Pierson
Executive Producers: Kees Kasander, Denis Wigman
Producer: Kees Kasander
Producers (NHK): Yoshinobu Numano, Katsufumi Nakamura
Co-producers: Philippe Carcassonne, Michel Seydoux
Associate Producers: Masato Hara, Roland Wigman
Production Manager: Karin van der Werff
Production Co-ordinator (France): Brigitte Faure
Production Co-ordinators (Netherlands): Sophie Lambo, Kayo Yoshida
Location Manager: Marty De Boer
Assistant Directors: Gerrit Martijn, Sophie Fiennes, Edith Hazelbach, Paul Marbus
Casting (UK): Karen Lindsay Stewart, Polly Hootkins
Screenplay: Peter Greenaway
Based on the play The Tempest by: William Shakespeare
Director of Photography: Sacha Vierny
Camera Operator: Chris Renson
Technical Supervisor: Hideichi Tamegaya
Technical Director: Masuo Yamaguchi
Book Design: Han Ing Lim
Book Design (Grasswork): Daniel Harvey
Calligraphy: Brody Neuenschwander, Agnes Charlemagne, Ellen Vomberg
Editors: Marina Bodbyl, Marina Bodbyl
Production Designers: Ben van Os, Jan Roelfs
Art Department Production: Eljo Embregts, Wilma Schuemie
Set Decorators: Ben Zuydwijk, Rick Overberg, Wendy Valentijn
Wardrobe: Dien van Straalen
Wardrobe (Milanese Ruffs): Maggie McMahon
Wardrobe (Milanese Hats): Jacques Janssen
Wardrobe (Prospero’s Cloak): Emi Wada
Prospero’s Creatures: Ellen Lens
Make-up: Sara Meerman, Brigitte Pleizier, Anniek Widdershoven, Mariël Hoevenaars, Gaby van der Meijden, Petra Harte
Special Make-up Effects: Sjoerd Didden
Titles Processing: Cineco B.V., Imagica D-Shop
Infography: Eve Ramboz
Opticals: Image Creations
Music: Michael Nyman
Music Performed by: Michael Nyman Band
Ariel’s Songs Performed by: Sarah Leonard
Music Producer: David Cunningham
Choreography: Karine Saporta
Choreography (Caliban): Michael Clark
Sound Recording: Garth Marshall
Sound Transfers: Hackenbacker Sound & Video
Sound Re-recording: Edward Colyer, Brian Saunders
Sound Editor: Chris Wyatt
Digital Sound Editing: Nigel Heath
Dialogue Editor: Shirley Shaw
Footsteps Artists: Jack Austin, Jean Sheffield, Anneli Daniell
Acrobatic Advisers: Martine Le Roy, Stephane Dupre

John Gielgud (Prospero)
Michael Clark (Caliban)
Michel Blanc (Alonso)
Erland Josephson (Gonzalo)
Isabelle Pasco (Miranda)
Tom Bell (Antonio)
Kenneth Cranham (Sebastian)
Mark Rylance (Ferdinand)
Gerard Thoolen (Adrian)
Pierre Bokma (Francisco)
Jim van der Woude (Trinculo)
Michiel Romeyn (Stephano)
Orpheo (Ariel)
Paul Russell (Ariel)
James Thierrée (Ariel)
Emil Wolk (Ariel)
Marie Angel (Iris)
Ute Lemper (Ceres)
Deborah Conway (Juno)
Mirale Jusid, Hélène Zellweger, Hélène Busnel, Florence Gielen (dancers)

UK/Netherlands/France/Italy/Japan 1991
125 mins


UK 1991
23 mins

A Zed & Two Noughts
Tue 18 Oct 18:10; Sat 5 Nov 17:40; Sat 12 Nov 17:40; Mon 21 Nov 20:40; Sun 27 Nov 12:15
Peter Greenaway: Frames of Mind Season Introduction
Wed 19 Oct 18:10
The Belly of an Architect
Wed 19 Oct 20:30; Fri 18 Nov 18:20; Tue 22 Nov 18:10; Sat 26 Nov 15:30
The Falls
Sat 22 Oct 13:50; Sun 6 Nov 14:40
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
Sun 23 Oct 15:30 (+ intro by Justin Johnson, Lead Programmer); Sat 12 Nov 14:55; Mon 28 Nov 17:50
Drowning by Numbers
Sun 23 Oct 18:00; Sat 19 Nov 14:30; Sun 27 Nov 18:00
Peter Greenaway Shorts Programme 1
Mon 24 Oct 18:10; Thu 10 Nov 20:40
Experimental Sound and Vision: Found Sounds, Lyrical Loops and Landscapes
Thu 27 Oct 18:15; Thu 17 Nov 18:15 (+ intro by author and musician David Toop)
Prospero’s Books
Tue 1 Nov 17:40; Sun 20 Nov 18:00
Peter Greenaway: Pioneer of Cinema
Sat 5 Nov 12:00-17:00
The Unreliable Narrator: Adventures in Storytelling, Documentary and Misinformation
Sun 6 Nov 12:40; Fri 25 Nov 21:00
A TV Dante: Cantos 1-8
Tue 15 Nov 18:20
The Baby of Mâcon
Wed 16 Nov 20:30; Fri 25 Nov 18:00; Mon 28 Nov 20:30
The Pillow Book
Fri 18 Nov 20:30; Thu 24 Nov 20:30; Tue 29 Nov 17:40
8½ Women
Sun 20 Nov 12:50; Wed 30 Nov 20:35

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