December 14, 1998 12:00 PM

NBC (Sun., Dec. 13, 9 p.m. ET)

NBC describes this TV movie as “based on Shakespeare’s classic story”—as opposed to “Shakespeare’s classic play.” A press release contains this quote from costar John Glover, apparently designed to reassure Shakespeare-phobic viewers: “People are a little intimidated by the language, but we don’t have the language.” Will someone explain to us why this is a good thing?

With the poetry out, what’s left is the fantastic plot, incongruously adapted to Civil War times. The magician Prospero has become Gideon Prosper (Peter Fonda), a benevolent Mississippi plantation owner exiled on a bayou island after being usurped by his evil brother (Glover). The character of Ariel (Harold Perrineau Jr. from Oz) is now Gideon’s black servant, sometimes transformed into a bird. When Gideon uses his magic to affect history on the battlefield, the whole thing seems cuckoo.

The low-key style that served Fonda so well in his Oscar-nominated Ulee’s Gold role doesn’t work for Prosper/Prospero, who needs a charisma that the actor can’t provide. The script gives Fonda two lines of actual Shakespeare at the end, and we admit he seems less than comfortable with the language.

Bottom Line: The Bard’s magic gets lost in the translation

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