'The Tempest' and the crackpots Preview: NBC invents a preposterous remake of the Shakespeare classic. Whose idea was this mess?

December 12, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Some network ideas are so screwy you wonder how they ever made it to the screen.

NBC's "The Tempest" is one of them. It's billed by the network as "based on Shakespeare's classic story" and being "an inventive re-telling of the magical tale."

There is a lot of invention, I'll give it that. Shakespeare's tale of an enchanted island and a magician named Prospero is transplanted to the American South during the Civil War. Shakespeare's Prospero is recast as a plantation owner, Gideon Prosper, played by Peter Fonda.

Prosper learns a kind of voodoo magic from one of his female slaves. He is good to his slaves, and they like him, which is why the woman shares her magical powers. Yes, I too had hoped never to see another phony story about the good-hearted white master and his grateful slaves, but that's the way this story goes.

And it's a good thing Prosper has magical powers, because it is all he's left with after his evil brother, Anthony (John Glover), kills the voodoo priestess, shoots her son, Ariel (Harold Perrineau Jr.), and attempts to kill Gideon and Gideon's daughter, Miranda (Katherine Heigl). Gideon escapes to the swamps of Mississippi, where he creates a new and safe life for himself, Ariel and Miranda.

Until Anthony and the Civil War pay a visit. The details are too crackpot to try and explain, but they involve Anthony as a Confederate spy and the fate of the Union Army at the Battle of Vicksburg being in Gideon Prosper's hands.

I would have loved to be at the meetings in which this story was pitched to NBC.

In fairness, as strange a concept as it is, "The Tempest" is not as bad NBC's last "classic story," a remake of "Crime and Punishment" in October that reduced Dostoevsky to Columbo. The main reason it is not as bad is Fonda. His performance is so intense and focused that he almost manages to save the film. "Almost" being defined as you're never going to believe in the nonsense you are seeing, but you stay tuned to see how long Fonda can keep it from totally going up in smoke.

It went up in smoke for me when Perrineau, another fine actor, had to deliver a line thanking his master for teaching him not only how to fly but also how "to soar like an eagle." I would not have been surprised at that point to hear Bette Midler singing "Wind Beneath My Wings" accompanied by an Elizabethan lute.

Let us all pray this is the last "classic" NBC plans to inflict on us for a while.

'The Tempest'

When: Tomorrow night, 9-11

Where: WBAL (Channel 11)

Pub Date: 12/12/98

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