More than a dozen variations of "The Tempest" have been made over the years, and finding a decidedly fresh angle while retaining the true message of the story always poses a challenge. Short of casting Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead, any Shakespearean production is sure to be a hard sell, especially on television.

More than a dozen variations of “The Tempest” have been made over the years, and finding a decidedly fresh angle while retaining the true message of the story always poses a challenge. Short of casting Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead, any Shakespearean production is sure to be a hard sell, especially on television. Still, NBC appeared a tad bit reactionary in pulling “The Tempest” from its November sweeps lineup after another of its literary adaptations, “Crime & Punishment,” performed dismally in the ratings.

What makes this production universally appealing is that it lacks the pretenses that usually come with a literary-based telepic. Writer James Henerson plays on such ’90s issues as lost faith, selfishness, vengeance and loyalty to propel this Civil War-era saga. Viewers looking for a condensed Cliffs Notes version of the Shakespearean classic are sure to be baffled by this eclectic drama, but ultimately will be rewarded with a captivating and astutely cast film.

Henerson and director Jack Bender understand the ultimate appeal of Shakespeare’s work, and aren’t specifically looking to educate or enlighten, although that is certainly a possible side effect. The real goal here is to entertain.

Henerson has transposed Shakespeare’s fairies and sorcery with Creole voodoo in 1851 Mississippi, a tactic that offers unique parallels to the original story of a man who sees his life only through his losses.

Peter Fonda stars as Gideon Prosper, a man blinded by sorrow over the death of his wife, who lets the family plantation fall under the reigns of his unscrupulous brother Anthony (John Glover). His devotion to books and the study of magic costs him his home and fortune, and he’s forced to flee to a remote island in the Bayou with his young daughter Miranda and the runaway slave Ariel.

Flash to 12 years later, on the eve of the battle of Vicksburg. Gideon, still distracted and self-absorbed, spends all his energy trying to protect the now-grown Miranda (Katherine Heigl) and Ariel (Harold Perrineau Jr.) from what they want most — to go out and live in the world on their own. Ariel, bound to Gideon by magic and loyalty, wants to fight for the Union, while Miranda, sheltered and lonely, longs to find companionship.

When Frederick Allen, a young Union soldier, finds his way to their secluded island, Gideon is forced to reckon with the world that he has abandoned.

Fonda’s Gideon is both stoic and passionate, distracted and self-absorbed. Gideon’s power comes, not just from magic, but from his own life experience — it just takes him a while to realize it.

Glover is relentlessly evil as Anthony Prosper, and his heinous crimes are committed with such banality, it makes his portrayal all the more frightening. One of the best scenes in the film is the confrontation between Anthony and Gideon, with both actors clearly relishing their roles.

Perrineau is terrific as Ariel, but structurally, his character — a fairy in the original, a slave in this version — is the weakest link in this adaptation. At once loyal to and bitter at Gideon, his enslavement contrasts with Gideon’s benign nature, and the issue of his slavery becomes a sticking point in an otherwise smooth-flowing plot.

Heigl is appropriately charming as Miranda, displaying the right amount of naivete and curiosity that is crucial to her character. Eddie Mills is the greenest of the supporting players, but it works within the context of the lovestruck Frederick. As Gator Man, the Bayou native who lusts for Miranda, John Pyper-Ferguson is an ill-placed source of humor in what is an otherwise straightforward drama.

Bender tends to linger over bloodied Civil War battle scenes, but for the most part keeps the action moving at a crisp and satisfying pace. Tech credits are superb.

The Tempest

Drama; NBC, Sun. Dec. 13, 9 p.m.

Production

Filmed on location in Charleston, S.C., for Bonnie Raskin Prods. in association with NBC Studios. Executive producers, Bonnie Raskin, Jack Bender; co-producers, Todd Sharp, Ronna Slutske; producer, James Bigwood; director, Jack Bender.

Crew

Writer, James Henerson; editor, Steve Lovejoy; camera, Steve Shaw; production design, Stephen Storer, art director, Jack Ballance; costume design, Van Broughton Ramsey; visual effects, the Frame Store; casting Susan Edelman, Mary Buck. 2 HOURS.

Cast

Gideon Prosper - Peter Fonda Anthony Prosper - John Glover Ariel - Harold Perrineau Jr. Miranda - Katherine Heigl Gator Man - John Pyper-Ferguson Frederick Allen - Eddie Mills Willy Gonzo - Dennis Redfield Ezeli - Donzaleigh Abernathy
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