Prospero's Books

Prospero's Books is a 1991 British avant-garde film adaptation of William Shakespeare's The Tempest, written and directed by Peter Greenaway. Sir John Gielgud plays Prospero, the protagonist who provides the off-screen narration and the voices to the other story characters. As noted by Peter Conrad in The New York Times on 17 November 1991, Greenaway intended the film “as an homage to the actor and to his "mastery of illusion." In the film, Prospero is Shakespeare, and having rehearsed the action inside his head, speaking the lines of all the other characters, he concludes the film by sitting down to write The Tempest.” [3]

Prospero's Books
Prospero's Books poster.jpg
Theatrical poster
Directed byPeter Greenaway
Written byPeter Greenaway
Produced byMasato Hara
Kees Kasander
Katsufumi Nakamura
Yoshinobu Namano
Denis Wigman
Roland Wigman
CinematographySacha Vierny
Edited byMarina Bodbijl
Music byMichael Nyman
Distributed byMiramax Films
Release dates
  • 30 August 1991 (1991-08-30) (United Kingdom)
  • 15 November 1991 (1991-11-15) (United States; limited)
  • 6 December 1991 (1991-12-06) (Australia)
Running time
129 minutes
CountriesUnited Kingdom
Budget£1,500,000 or £2.4 million[1]
Box office$1,750,301[2]

Stylistically, Prospero's Books is narratively and cinematically innovative in its techniques, combining mime, dance, opera, and animation. Edited in Japan, the film makes extensive use of digital image manipulation (using Hi-Vision video inserts and the Quantel Paintbox system), often overlaying multiple moving and still pictures with animations. Michael Nyman composed the musical score and Karine Saporta choreographed the dance. The film is also notable for its extensive use of nudity, reminiscent of Renaissance paintings of mythological characters. The nude actors and extras represent a cross-section of male and female humanity.


Prospero's Books is a complex tale based upon William Shakespeare's The Tempest. Miranda, the daughter of Prospero, an exiled magician, falls in love with Ferdinand, the son of his enemy; while the sorcerer's sprite, Ariel, convinces him to abandon revenge against the traitors from his earlier life. In the film, Prospero is Shakespeare himself, conceiving, designing, rehearsing, directing and performing the story's action as it unfolds and in the end, sitting down to write the completed work.

Ariel is played by four actors: three acrobats—a boy, an adolescent, and a youth—and a boy singer. Each represents a classical elemental.[citation needed]

The BooksEdit

The books of Prospero number 24, according to the production design, which outlines each volume's content. The list is reminiscent of the lost books of Epicurus.[4]

  1. A Book of Water
  2. A Book of Mirrors
  3. A Book of Mythologies
  4. A Primer of the Small Stars
  5. An Atlas Belonging to Orpheus
  6. A Harsh Book of Geometry
  7. The Book of Colours
  8. The Vesalius Anatomy of Birth
  9. An Alphabetical Inventory of the Dead
  10. A Book of Travellers' Tales
  11. The Book of the Earth
  12. A Book of Architecture and Other Music
  13. The Ninety-Two Conceits of the Minotaur
  14. The Book of Languages
  15. End-plants
  16. A Book of Love
  17. A Bestiary of Past, Present and Future Animals
  18. The Book of Utopias
  19. The Book of Universal Cosmography
  20. Lore of Ruins
  21. The Autobiographies of Pasiphae and Semiramis
  22. A Book of Motion
  23. The Book of Games
  24. Thirty-Six Plays


Production and financingEdit

Gielgud is quoted as saying that a film of The Tempest (with him as Prospero) was his life's ambition, as he had been in four stage productions in 1931, 1940, 1957, and 1974. He had approached Alain Resnais, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Orson Welles about directing him in it, with Benjamin Britten to compose its score, and Albert Finney as Caliban, before Greenaway agreed. The closest earlier attempts came to being made was in 1967, with Welles both directing and playing Caliban. But after the commercial failure of their film collaboration, Chimes at Midnight, financing for a cinematic Tempest collapsed.[5]

"I don't know whether Greenaway ever saw me in it on stage, I didn't dare to ask him," Sir John told Conrad,[3] who noted that the actor recalls his previous Prosperos in the book Shakespeare -- Hit or Miss?: “At the Old Vic in the 1930's he played the character as 'Dante without a beard'; in 1957 for Peter Brook he was 'an El Greco hermit', disheveled and decrepit; in 1974 for Peter Hall he was a bespectacled magus; now, for Mr. Greenaway, in a film that is a blitz of cultural icons, he is Renaissance man, exercising a universal power through the volumes in his library but confounded by his own sorry mortality.”[3]

“I was glad I knew the part so well, because there was so much going on in the studio to distract me,” Sir John recalled, “I had to parade up and down wearing that cloak which needed four people to lift, and with papers flying in my face all the time. And it was terribly cold in the bath." Sir John spent four frigid days during the winter naked in a swimming pool, to choreograph the shipwreck with which the film begins.[3]

The film was screened out of competition at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival.[6]

Box OfficeEdit

The film made £579,487 at the UK box office.[1]


This was the last of the collaborations between director Peter Greenaway and composer Michael Nyman. Most of the film's music cues, (excepting Ariel's songs and the Masque) are from an earlier concert, La Traversée de Paris and the score from A Zed & Two Noughts. The soundtrack album is Nyman's sixteenth release.

Track listingEdit

  1. Full fathom five* – 1:58
  2. Prospero's curse – 2:38
  3. While you here do snoring lie* – 1:06
  4. Prospero's Magic – 5:11
  5. Miranda – 3:54
  6. Twelve years since – 2:45
  7. Come unto these yellow sands* – 3:44
  8. History of Sycorax – 3:25
  9. Come and go* – 1:16
  10. Cornfield – 6:26
  11. Where the bee sucks* – 4:48
  12. Caliban's pit – 2:56
  13. Reconciliation – 2:31
  14. THE MASQUE+ – 12:12


Michael Nyman BandEdit

Prospero's Books
Soundtrack album by
  • 12 November 1991 (1991-11-12)
RecordedPRT Studios and Abbey Road Studios, London
GenreSoundtrack, Contemporary classical, art song, Minimalist music
ProducerDavid Cunningham
Michael Nyman chronology
String Quartets 1-3
Prospero's Books
The Michael Nyman Songbook
Professional ratings
Review scores
Allmusic      link



In his 17 November 1991 article for The New York Times, Peter Conrad observed “…the performance is also a revelation of Sir John himself: simultaneously noble and naughty, a high priest and a joker, contemplating at the end of a long life the value of the art he practices.”[3]

Aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports 67% approval of Prospero's Books, with an average rating of 5.9/10 and a critical consensus that reads: "There is no middle ground for viewers of Peter Greenaway's work, but for his fans, Prospero's Books is reliably daring."[7] Roger Ebert gave the work three stars out of four and argued, "Most of the reviews of this film have missed the point; this is not a narrative, it need not make sense, and it is not 'too difficult' because it could not have been any less so. It is simply a work of original art, which Greenaway asks us to accept or reject on his own terms."[8]


  1. ^ a b "Back to the Future: The Fall and Rise of the British Film Industry in the 1980s - An Information Briefing" (PDF). British Film Institute. 2005. p. 28.
  2. ^ Prospero's Books at Box Office Mojo
  3. ^ a b c d e Conrad, Peter (17 November 1991). "From a Vigorous Prospero, A Farewell Without Tears". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 7 August 2021.
  4. ^ Prospero's Books: A Film of the Shakespeare's The Tempest, Peter Greenaway, Four Walls Eight Windows (October 1991)
  5. ^ Sir John Gielgud: A Life in Letters, Arcade Publishing (2004)
  6. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Prospero's Books". Retrieved 12 August 2009.
  7. ^ "Prospero's Books (1991)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 27 January 2017.
  8. ^ Ebert, Roger (27 November 1991). "Prospero's Books Movie Review (1991)". Retrieved 27 January 2017.

External linksEdit