A summer movie, an old play—Tempest of the Southern Wild?

by John Geddes

The most singular movie of the summer, Beasts of the Southern Wild, didn’t last all that long in theatres (at least not in my hometown, Ottawa), but it’s been rattling around in my head for an extended run.

The critically acclaimed film, set off the southern coast of Louisiana, attracted plenty of thoughtful commentary after its American director, Benh Zeitlin, took the Caméra d’Or for best first feature at Cannes last spring.

Poking around online, though, I can’t find anything on the movie’s echoes of The Tempest. If anybody knows of a smart article touching on how this new story might relate to Shakespeare’s last complete play, I’d be grateful for a link.

The parallels are far from exact, but still, I would say, more than close enough to be worth thinking over.

In Tempest, Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, lives on an isolated island with his daughter, Miranda. Having studied and mastered magic, he conjures a mighty storm to shipwreck his old enemies on the island. But his goal isn’t vengeance: Prospero schemes to restore Miranda to her rightful position in the civilized world beyond their shores.

In Beasts, Wink, a self-reliant outsider, lives on an exposed patch of bayou turf outside the New Orleans levee with his daughter, Hushpuppy. Scoffing at warnings to clear out before a storm, he hunkers down to weather the deluge. Like Prospero, his motivations are pure: he wants to show Hushpuppy how to survive and love their home.

I’ve sketched the stories in a way that, of course, exaggerates their symmetry. But beneath the related storylines and settings, it’s the interactions between fathers and daughters that are most striking. Prospero and Wink are powerful figures, perhaps misguided, but admired by their little girls.

When Miranda despairs at the damage her father’s storm seems to have inflicted, Prospero says, “I have done nothing but in care of thee —
Of thee, my dear one! Thee, my daughter.” And when Wink feels the need to reassure Hushpuppy, he says, “I’m your daddy, and it’s my job to take care of you, okay?”

But a good part of the tension in both the play and the movie comes from our suspicion that the fathers might be out of their depths, even out of their minds. Prospero thinks he can control everything with magic; Wink figures there’s nothing nature or civilization can throw at him that can’t withstand.

The daughters, on the other hand, are in their different ways embodiments of purity. Hushpuppy is a tough little character, but it’s impossible to detect ill will in her. Miranda is filled with concern and sympathy, and the longing for companionable society and love. In each of their cases, what they need is evidently beyond the sandy shores of the island or the soggy fringes of the bayou.

My point in raising all this isn’t to encourage obsessive side-by-side comparison of the two dramas.  But I think considering the old play might bring the original qualities of the new movie into a different sort of focus.

The stark distinctions matter as much as the rough similarities.

In the end, Prospero memorably renounces his magic and goes back to being a normal man, whereas poor Wink—it’s pretty much evident from the outset—isn’t going to get off anywhere near as lightly. In Tempest, Miranda’s famous first impression of the castaways from the world beyond is joyful awe: “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in it!” If you’ve seen Beasts, you’ll smile with me at the thought of how Hushpuppy might narrow her skeptical eyes and scrunch up her mouth if ever she heard such soft-headed gushing.

But the obviously important differences between the central characters and the ways things turn out for them shouldn’t diminish our interest in the shared elements of the two tales. There’s something about the father/daughter relationship, especially with no mother around to complicate (or simplify?) matters. And something about the isolated settings, and the conflicted sense, in both the play and the film, of outside civilization as both a potential threat to a self-contained paradise and a possible source of a satisfactory resolution.

As well, there’s just something universally exhilarating—no matter how badly your roof leaked or who washed up on your shore—about the morning after a really good storm.




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