LITR 265 – Shakespeare
Performance Analysis Paper
STURM UND DRANG
Plot & Characters
The story begins in the year 1851, somewhere in Mississippi. The voice-over narration of Gideon Prosper (Peter Fonda) paints a rather laconic picture of his life—he was born into a well-to-do family of plantation owners. The picturesque, generally carefree serenity that Gideon Prosper called life, however, was to take a turn for the worst. The world turned topsy-turvy when that dreaded rider of the Pale Horse, Death, came for his beloved wife in the form of a feverish illness. Long prior to his wife’s passing, Gideon had inherited the plantation; he still resided there with his younger brother Anthony (John Glover), daughter Miranda (Rachel Crouch) and the slaves. Gideon gave Anthony the run of the plantation after his [Gideon’s] wife died, though he remained the true owner of it. To Anthony, not all is right: He feels Gideon unfit to be owner of the plantation, since Gideon spends much of his time studying magic from a slave of his. Moreover, Anthony doesn’t agree with Gideon’s kindness towards the slaves.
While Mambo Azaleigh (Donzaleigh Abernathy), one of the slaves, teaches Gideon magic, everyone else is having fun at a social gathering. Suddenly one of the slaves shouts to Mambo Azaleigh that her son Ariel (Harold Perrineau Jr.), is being beaten, on orders from Anthony. After freeing Ariel, Gideon rebukes Anthony for stealing from the slaves after an admission from the chef, Wilifred Gonzo (Dennis Redfield). Gideon then explains that he will be reassuming his role as overseer of the run of the plantation.
The next morning, Gideon secretly unshackles Ariel, who flees into a murky swamp. Anthony tracks him down, fires at him and leaves him for dead; Anthony then has the sheriff arrest Gideon for supposedly aiding a criminal in escaping. Mambo Azaleigh quite literally saves Gideon from the hangman’s noose, but she becomes the victim of the sanguineous Anthony.
Fast-forward to 1863, now mid- to late-Civil War era. It is post-abolition, but the land is still marked with the crimson hues of bloody warfare. The scene is first set at the headquarters of the Union Army, then to a swampy region. Gideon briefly returns to his role as unseen storyteller, explaining that he has long since been exiled from his own plantation; he now lives on the small island of a bayou with Ariel and his daughter. Miranda (now Katherine Heigl) is 16 years old. Ariel and Gideon disagree over whether or not Gideon is too controlling of his daughter. The slave then claims to his master that he ought to be free because of the Emancipation Proclamation; Gideon reminds him that he taught him to read, write and such, but Ariel doesn’t want anything but his freedom.
Ariel, thanks to Gideon’s magic, takes the form of a small raven to survey the swamp and surrounding areas. When Ariel finds out that Anthony is pretending to side with the Union Army to work as a Confederate spy, Gideon asks him to help exact revenge on his brother. Gideon creates a magical storm to slow things down and, with any luck, bring Anthony into his grasp. Among other things, the violent squall throws a Union captain onto the island’s shore, unconscious. Gideon, hoping to intercept his brother, transforms Ariel into an old man—whom the lost Anthony and company will follow.
Miranda has an encounter with Gator Man (John Pyper-Ferguson), an inhabitant of the bayou and Gideon’s slave pro tempore. When she explains she is neither afraid nor judgmental of him, he reacts with lust towards the girl. This earns him a sharp warning from Gideon, who later tells Miranda that it is time for them to leave the place they know as home. Her father tells her the truth about how things used to be, justifying his former untruthfulness by claiming it was to keep her safe.
While Ariel is beginning to lead Anthony and company into Gideon’s grasp, Gator Man soon gets his chance to even the score with Gideon by helping plan an ambush. Both claiming personal vendetta against Gideon, they conspire to kill.
Meanwhile, Miranda has discovered and cared for the washed-ashore Captain Frederick Allen (Eddie Mills). The captain and the daughter feel something for one another, but Gideon plays interference. Capt. Allen says that the responsibility to the war comes before his own feelings. Resolutely, Miranda decides that her own feelings prevail over her father’s demands and chooses to help guide the captain back to his regiment.
Anthony’s ambush proves a successful one and appears to kill Gideon. Ariel finds the lifeless body and, with the assistance of a vision of Azaleigh, restores life to him. Miranda and Capt. Allen have since departed; upon hearing of her weak father, she decides to return to help him. Anthony and company capture both of them and Ariel. It is late, so everyone is kept together for the night to rest. (Does this sound more than a little like King Lear?!)
That night, Gideon magically appears before both Gator Man and Anthony (the latter thinks he is seeing a ghost); Gideon demands the return of what is rightfully his but Anthony tells him how little there is left. Once the next day has come, Miranda convinces Anthony to spare Capt. Allen’s life, which he does; Miranda and Ariel are taken downriver on a raft with Gonzo and Anthony. Capt. Allen seeks out Gideon, who soon regains enough of his magic to save Miranda and Ariel. They escape, and return to Gideon.
Ultimately, with the assistance of an illusion created by Gideon, the regiment of the Union Army with whom Capt. Allen is traveling manage to defeat a wave of Confederate soldiers at the Battle of Vicksburg. Anthony is captured along with Gonzo and Gator Man. Gideon forgives Gonzo and Gator Man; he then is about to fire on his brother when he realizes that it won’t solve anything; he offers forgiveness, but Anthony refuses, so Gideon agrees to have him hauled off as a traitor to be sentenced in military court.
As they are moving out of the bayou, Gideon agrees to the marriage of Miranda and Capt. Allen. He frees Ariel and returns Gator Man’s rightful territory to him. Gideon decides his days of spells are over, and drops his magical items into the murky waters forever.
Back to Basics
On the whole, the movie was relatively poorly cast. In addition to the fact that the entire story and its characters have been dropped into the middle of the 19th century around the time of the Civil War, there remains much more to contrast to Shakespeare’s original story. Gideon Prosper is, of course, the Prospero character, who owns Prosperity Plantation. Antonio is rewritten as Anthony and Ariel retains his name—except he is a black slave, not a spiritual denizen of an island. Mambo Azaleigh is completely new to the plot, the closest thing in the play being Prospero’s books of magic (unless she was based on the unseen character of Sycorax). Caliban has been turned into Gator Man, perhaps one of the most inane and unimaginative names ever conceived. Frederico is Captain Allen; Miranda stays in the original role; minor characters are either written out of the play or drastically modified.
Prospero vs. Gideon Prosper
Some of the biggest differences between the written and filmed version of the story arise in the characters, predominantly Gideon Prosper. The movie’s director, Jack Bender, has done an ample job of maintaining some continuity; Shakespeare certainly didn’t create Prospero as simply the wronged protagonist but as a hardly flawless (nor even truly powerful) man whose own egocentricity manages to get the best of him at times. As human nature so often dictates, Gideon’s primary response to having been wronged is evening the score. He also deals with conflicted emotions; deep down, he knows (and ultimately admits) that Ariel is right—Miranda is a young woman and he will not always be able to have power over her.
Yet for a character who seemed so powerful and authoritative in the play, the role of Prospero is performed quite differently. His power comes from the teachings of a Mambo priestess—and faith is what keeps the magic from fading; it fuels it. Gideon is much more human in the film, in part because he is not invisible to others. So while Prospero’s magic bordered on the omnipotent, Gideon has been written more as a man capable of average magical capabilities but still quite vulnerable.
Partly to blame for the problem is Fonda. While some like his naturally understated screen presence, it seems out-of-place, even if it is meant to make him seem more human. And although it may be due primarily to Fonda’s own interpretation of the role, the Gideon/Prospero is given a minimalist nature. He has a voice bordering on milquetoast quality, and his face is apparently capable of conveying about as many different emotions as a doorstop. The script for Fonda’s character is mediocre at its "zenith" (if it even has one) and monotonously soporific at its worst.
Miranda vs. Miranda Prosper
Katherine Heigl, who plays Miranda in the film, is a person who, at least this time, doesn’t quite have the sort of charisma one would expect from the type of character that is Miranda—one of the roles lucky enough to avoid getting diluted by insipid scripting. Heigl isn’t a poor choice for the role, though it seems that Miranda ought to be acted (more so than she actually is portrayed) as a young woman who begins to develop a certain joie de vivre as she experiences the real world rather than just the secluded one she’s known. On a related note, however, the Miranda we are given in the film may be beautiful in a down-to-earth sort of way, though she seems oddly absentminded at times.
Heigl does have a strong on-screen chemistry with Perrineau’s Ariel, who seems conflicted: He realizes that Gideon is not being straightforward with his daughter and wants her to hear the truth she deserves to know. On the flip side of the coin, however, Ariel still sidesteps Miranda’s queries about what the world is really like, likely out of fear of how the master might react.
Miranda’s relationship with her father seems a little strained at times but then again, so is their relationship supposed to be for the majority of the story. As time progresses, however, things change between father and daughter; both Heigl and Fonda seem to grow more comfortable in their interactions once the Gideon-Miranda relationship evolves. As Gideon comes to realize that he cannot always be in control of his daughter, she gains a deeper level of respect or affection for him when he is almost killed.
Ariel and Caliban vs. Ariel and Gator Man
Ariel and Caliban have undergone significant changes, though not as much as Prospero. As Ariel and Gator Man, they are people rather than spirits; Ariel remains mostly true-to-form inasmuch as both versions of the story maintain his quest for freedom. As Shakespeare wrote him, Caliban’s personality is basically that of an ugly mask concealing… a genuinely ugly person underneath. Or at the very least, a brutish, uncivilized individual.
As far as the role of Ariel is concerned, Harold Perrineau Jr. actually doesn’t give too bad of a performance. Every so often, he seems to slip out of character for a moment and misplaces the "black slave" tonality he gives to the role (one film critic described him as acting and sounding more like a "modern urban black man" than a slave). While Ariel also does not have a particularly memorable script, his interaction with Gideon and Miranda is well-executed. Some of the subtexts, such as Ariel’s state of subjugation to his master, are explored, and Ariel is written as a character driven by his ideology of freedom. This is where Perrineau and his script transcend the otherwise-nebulous quality of the film as a whole.
The character of Gator Man is a curious one; of all the roles, it seems to have made the least successful transition from play to movie. He remains in the role of slave to a master (Gideon) but his significance is diminished. In the original story, he was a more complex villain; he has previously attempted to rape Miranda and later conspires to have Prospero killed. He was in a Byzantine power struggle with whomever might come between him and the object of his almost hedonistic desires.
John Pyper-Ferguson—employing his native Australian accent and affecting the persona of the impulsive, uninhibited Caliban figure—does what he can with the role and should not be faulted for his performance, since in this instance the actor is not the problem. His character is written true-to-form: driven by self-gratification and savageness. Even the name "Gator Man," while hackneyed, is appropriate enough to represent his animalistic behavior. To a large extent, the reason his character fails is because it is so one-dimensional; his character is never developed nor given any plausible motive. Gator Man is essentially a plot device with little to no rationale for his presence.
Antonio vs. Anthony Prosper
Analyzing the character of Antonio is a rather daunting task, as he has been turned into a man who has more devious schemes than he does character. Certain facets of his personality are evident: he is a calculating, conniving, malevolent little man who will—and does—commit murder to get his way. He acts polished and refined when the situation dictates such; he feigns loyalty and will lie outright.
Casting Antonio as a Confederate double agent actually worked well, considering how well the job fits his personality. John Glover seems born to play a villain, especially considering his apparent mastery of the art of sneering (and small handlebar moustache). There is not much more that can be said about Glover’s performance which would be particularly noteworthy, although the character itself is a bit intriguing.
One of the two most significant scenes with Anthony takes place a little while after he has fatally shot his older brother in the swamp. After being brought back to life and healed, Gideon pays a visit to Anthony, who first thinks he is seeing a ghost and then decides he is dreaming. Gideon demands the return of the plantation and confronts his brother with his deeds. Anthony shoots back, "I may be a murderer and a traitor, but what are you? A crazy old hermit. So ingrown and selfish that you’d rather be emperor of mosquitoes and alligators. Rather bring up his daughter in a fetid swamp than fight for her!" Although Anthony nonchalantly downplays his own actions, he makes a point which later comes back to haunt Gideon. As much as Anthony does not take genuine responsibility or show remorse for what he has done, Gideon ultimately comes to realize that there was a degree of truth in what was said.
The confrontation between the brothers is not repeated until the end, when Gideon has to decide Anthony’s fate. Although he has express permission from the Union generals to kill the traitor, Gideon cannot bring himself to do it. The war will only truly be over, he says, when brother forgives brother (also alluding to the North and the South as brothers). Forgiving Anthony, he offers to make peace with him, but Anthony refuses. In the play, the meeting between Antonio and Prospero is also one of forgiveness; Antonio gives up his dukedom to his brother again but is never really repentant for what he has done.
Prospero’s Magic vs. Gideon Prosper’s Magic
The topic of magic in the tales told is more important than it may initially seem. In the film, it is used to represent a number of themes which are introduced yet never explored or developed to any worthwhile extent. In fact, compared to the play, the use of magic is so poorly executed that it underlies or is related to almost every aspect in which the movie flops.
First, take the introduction of magic in the film. It begins with Mambo Azaleigh as she teaches magic to Gideon Prosper. This actually works well, since if the story is going to be moved into a time of slavery, it makes a lot of sense to tie in the theme of magic with the slaves and their native Africa. Donzaleigh Abernathy, as Azaleigh, quite possibly has the most charisma of anyone on the cast. Unfortunately, perhaps she should have spent a little more time teaching Gideon how to look like a professional: Fonda’s random hand-flailing makes him look more like an ambidextrous orchestra conductor on a caffeine rush than an adroit magician.
Also, the use of magic claims to—but never does—explore a number of other subject areas that could have made the film a very intelligent one. Take Ariel and his transformations into a raven, for example. After Ariel claims freedom through the law under the Emancipation Proclamation, he says, "Massa Prosper, you turned me into a bird and I can fly as far as I want to. But when I wants to be a man, I have to come back so Master Prosper can release me. So, release me. Prosper, let me be a man" ("Tempest"). Is this supposedly introducing us to a commentary about freedom? Maybe, but rather than develop it further, it eventually winds up turning into an aimless afterthought involving Ariel’s hope of joining the Union army. Certainly, they are fighting for freedom as well, but the movie averts that point and makes it into an apparent anti-war statement and begins ranting about wars being "evil" and cryptically telling Ariel (when he talks about wanting to join the Union army) that "their war is not ours" and such incomprehensibly long-winded foolishness. Then at the end of the story, Ariel finally gets his freedom from his master, whom we are supposed to believe has come to some sort of moral realization throughout the course of the story.
Among the other ways in which magic plays into the story, there is the storm itself. The big question is, what is the tempest? Is it the storm Gideon brings to life; is it the disheveled quality of his new life in general? Or is it an inner conflict? Whatever it is, it doesn’t frankly matter. The storm lasts a few hours and only indirectly brings Anthony closer to Gideon. The extent of any inner conflict Gideon might have is left underdeveloped and underplayed; for all that he goes through, like the turmoil of seeing his daughter become independent, it’s all dismissed with a few clichés that are only there to try to make the film sound more intelligent while it focuses on its military "which-side-will-eventually win" saga.
Gideon Prosper’s intentional and ultimate "self-divorce" from his magic comes a little too late. Halfway through the story, he has realized that faith is what it takes to hold onto his magic; at the end, after using more sorcery to help the Union Army win at Vicksburg, Gideon is moving out of the swamp to go back to the plantation. He slips a magical ring off his finger and into the water, saying, "Now my charms are all o’erthrown… what strength I have is mine own." Whether or not he knows he’s quoting the Bard, it doesn’t matter; it’s appropriate to the conclusion, but the end doesn’t justify the means.
Overall Thoughts & Conclusion
If this film bothered to even try to attain some of the goals it aspired to, it might have worked. Such is not the case, however; with an unmemorable plot and unremarkable cast playing particularly forgettable characters, who could feel moved by the clever bits that do manage to stumble their way onto the screen? Roger Ebert once described "Dead Poets Society," another painful moviegoing experience, as "a collection of pious platitudes masquerading as a courageous stand in favor of doing something." His biting critique has proven itself quite appropriate for a made-for-TV movie produced years later.
For all the implications the film tries to bring up, it hardly manages to address any appropriately. The evaluation of a movie isn’t necessarily if it was "good entertainment"; in this case it was about what happened to a play that remains ageless because it transcends time. It’s still meaningful, purposeful; a magical tale of the highest order with a lot of meaning. What were Shakespeare’s underlying reasons or meanings for penning the play? We may never know, but in this case, there’s nothing but a vapid, watered-down frame of the original—and this one has absolutely no meaningfulness. Whatever it meant to say, it gets lost in its own pretentiousness and posturing. Better that the actors be run-of-the-mill than the story itself.
As for the rest of what’s there, well, what’s to say? The hit-and-miss attempts at character development, perhaps … at least in the original, the characters weren’t as one-dimensional as the paper they’re written on. We never know if the language being spoken by the characters is supposed to be taken at face value or not; is it to be taken in a connotative or denotative manner? We’re left all the more confused as to what the movie’s real message is. And if the writers liked Shakespeare so much, why do they proceed to make one last melodramatic mockery of it at the end by quoting one single line at the very end? To try to "tie up the loose ends" and wrap everything together in a nice little happy conclusion of a package? It doesn’t work that way—one snippet of Shakespeare isn’t going to save this Titanic from the iceberg. The Civil War twist is a clever idea, yet nobody did anything to it to make it memorable. So on the whole, if someone likes this willy-nilly film, great … it’s not total rubbish and is decent to watch if one doesn’t mind the inconsistencies and go-nowhere ideals. There exists a Latin phrase, tempus edax rerum, that means "time, that devours all things." William Shakespeare is one of the great exceptions; this film is not. There are some people making a big fuss over the movie, but it’s not deserving … it’s just a tempest in a teapot.
Ebert, Roger. Dead Poets Society. 9 June 1989. Chicago Sun-Times. 4
Shakespeare, William. "The Tempest." The Necessary Shakespeare. Ed.
New York: Longman, 2002. 821-50.
The Tempest. Dir. Jack Bender. NBC Studios, Inc., 1998.