Screen Jeers: ‘O’

Dan: I think it’s safe to say that everyone has at least a grasp of Shakespeare’s importance to the world of storytelling. His works have inspired writers, actors and audiences for centuries. In addition to the continuous stage adaptations, movies also like to take famous Shakespeare numbers and take a Hollywood whack at them. Sometimes, they are good. Sometimes, they are so-so. And sometimes, they are “O.”

“O” is a 2001 film adaptation of “Othello,” the tragic story of betrayal in Venician society and fiendish plotting from one of literature’s all-time baddies, Iago. In this movie, a high school basketball star gets done in by Josh Hartnett’s whispering. Now, I’m no expert, but I think Shakespeare has the edge in this one, wouldn’t you agree?

Caryn: While I was watching “O,” I was following along in my copy of “Othello” to see how closely the movie followed the source material. It followed it pretty well, but the changes made in the film made it a significantly weaker story than the original.

“O” was only 90 minutes long. “Othello” is obviously a much longer play, but it gives the audience time to grow sympathetic toward Othello and Desdemona and harbor contempt toward Iago and Roderigo. The weird sports/drama/Shakespeare/teen flick hybrid was certainly creative, but it lacked the impact that just reading “Othello” would give viewers. I imagine seeing “Othello” in its original Shakespearean form, language and all, would be pretty intense.

“O” tried to create the same intensity with guns, drugs and shady lighting, but it just seemed like a bunch of flashy, cheap tricks to make the film look edgy. The racial tension that was fairly prevalent in “Othello” just seemed forced in “O.”

What did you think “O” was trying to do? I feel like most Shakespeare plays just don’t translate well into a modern context.

Dan: A lot of movies like taking classic stories and shaping them into a more modern setting. The example most likely to be seen by the populace is “Romeo + Juliet,” the 1996 movie starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Claire Danes as the titular lovebirds. The screenplay uses the original 17th-century dialogue, but the movie is set in the modern day, making for some interesting contrasts, and not all for the worse. When one of the fathers asks to “fetch me my longsword,” he reaches for a large rifle with “Longsword” crafted on it.

Most adaptations, though, either go with a full-on modernization or a Renaissance revival. This is definitely one of the former, and it is something of a mess. Thing is, bringing a story like “Othello” into the modern world doesn’t mean you have to bring it down to high school drama levels. Iago’s devious plotting had no real purpose other than being pure evil, and it was ingenious. On the other hand, Hugo (renamed because no one is named Iago anymore and Hugo was clearly the best possible alternative) has actual motivation: His dad and coach, played by a constantly screaming and red-faced Martin Sheen, favors the more flashy, more talented Odin “O” James (Mekhi Phiffer), and Hugo feels he deserves more credit for his role. So he goes about hatching a brilliant plan to bring about O’s downfall … all because he wants his dad’s attention. Really? That’s the best we can do in bringing this classic tragedy into the 21st century?

I felt a lot of the time, the movie was trying to be overly pretentious to show it could compare with the brilliance of Shakespeare. Did you catch that, too?

Caryn: I think the movie was trying to be overly tragic (the lighting in most of the shots was jumping up and down screaming, “I AM DRAMATIC LIGHTING!!”) and it came across as pretentiousness. That “slam dunk competition” scene was downright foolish.

The real reason Iago wanted revenge on Othello was because he named Cassio his second-in-command instead of Iago. A similar thing happened in “O,” but the plot chose to focus more on the daddy issues as the root of Hugo’s discontent. Overall, very weak character motivation in the modernized adaptation. It certainly wasn’t strong enough for all of the killing that is required at the end.

Another Shakespeare play that’s molded into a sports movie/teen flick is “Twelfth Night” under the guise of “She’s The Man” from 2006, starring Amanda Bynes and Channing Tatum. Characters are renamed to make them more modern. There’s cross-dressing (your favorite comedic device, I know,) over-the-top acting and slapstick comedy. But why would you want to watch that nonsense when there’s a perfectly acceptable adaptation of “Twelfth Night” from 1996 starring Imogen Stubbs and Helena Bonham Carter?

I majored in English, took classes on Shakespeare and actually acted in a Shakespeare play in college (I was Viola in “Twelfth Night,”) and I have a lot more respect for films such as “Titus” with Anthony Hopkins and “The Merchant of Venice” with Al Pacino (even though they’re abridged.) Speaking in Shakespearean English, let alone memorizing a couple acts of a Shakespeare play is tough. I’d appreciate a dry, boring adaptation of a Shakespeare play, or even a community theater’s abridged, overacted “Shakespeare in the park” sort of gig over a modernized depravity of the Bard any day.

In other words, life would be much better without screenplay writers and directors choosing to fuse pop culture and Renaissance-era drama.

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