With the release of O, Shakespeare’s intense play Othello gets a distinctively modern update, centering around a prep school’s black basketball star, Odin, his white girlfriend, Desi, and the jealous teammate Hugo, who wants to break them up. We asked our writers how they thought the movie held up against the play, who did the best acting job of the three leads, and what is their favorite Shakespearean teen movie.
Hollywood.com: Here we are once again, another Shakespeare play getting a teen update. Did the story of Othello work in a modern adaptation?
Kit Bowen: Unfortunately, no. Othello really works best in an adult world rather than a teen-age one. You never truly buy into Odin’s all-consuming feelings toward Desi. I mean, honestly, in the story they’ve only been going out for four months. And the issues at stake in the original Othello deal with war and the fate of a country, not on whether Odin gets a basketball scholarship to a major university. The relevance of O doesn’t measure up to the play.
Noah Davis: Making Shakespeare’s play Othello, which was written in 1604, appear to be torn from yesterday’s headlines is no small achievement. The series of shootings in American high schools, particularly in Colorado’s Columbine High, ironically kept O from being released earlier. Had the filmmaking team thrown caution to the wind and released O, say, one week after the Columbine tragedy, the impact would have been stunning, and thus a teen update would have worked better. Shakespeare wrote his play for the masses–the groundlings who could not read, but given the absence of TV and movies held the stage to greater respect than we do today. So those watching O might consider Othello was much more timely to the mass audience of 1604 than it would be to all but a small, elite audience today.
Ultimately, I think the writers failed to convert it realistically to a modern teen outlook.
Hollywood.com: There were two (but perhaps only two) major departures from the original plot. One was to reveal Iago/Hugo’s motive, and the other was to make Othello/Odin’s race an issue. Was either a mistake, and if both, which was the bigger mistake?
Noah Davis: I think both were mistakes. It makes utterly no sense for the Iago character, Hugo–who, in the climax of the play, as here in the movie, falls into silence when his scheme has been carried out, thus maintaining the unknowability that is his hallmark throughout the play–to lay out his motives for us, which is what happens here. In a decision that’s even more damaging than making Iago/Hugo spill the beans, the writer and director have made the classic mistake of assuming that Othello is about race, an issue that, at most, is tangential to the play, which is first and foremost about jealousy.
Kit Bowen: Can I talk now? Geez, I guess we’ve hit the mother lode for Noah, folks. However, I agree with him to some extent. Obviously, when playing Iago in the play, the actor can go two ways, either playing it straight and serious or playing it for the devious and maliciously wry imp that he is. That’s the beauty of it. However, in O, Josh Hartnett has been directed to play Hugo straight and, as if the audience were not smart enough, is given a very clear cut motive of a son not loved by his father. Boo hoo. I think if they chose to play Hugo as an apathetic rich spoiled kid who just didn’t give a damn and did the whole thing for kicks, would have been much more interesting–and would relate better to this day and age. The race issue was completely unnecessary.
Hollywood.com: Of these teen remakes, which Shakespearean-themed movie have you thought worked the best?
Kit Bowen: My personal favorite was Baz Luhrmann‘s Romeo + Juliet. I thought the whole modern reworking was brilliant, and that Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes had the maturity to handle the roles. Loved the part when Juliet actually wakes up before Romeo takes the poison. I thought maybe, just maybe, this time the plan would work. But that’s because I’m a romantic.
Noah Davis: Romantic, shmomantic. Kit, you’re softer than the Pillsbury Dough-Boy. The best translation of Shakespeare to a teen setting is My Own Private Idaho. Gus Van Sant knew what to change and what to leave alone to make this work, and work well. Keanu Reeves was Prince Hal, a bumbling doofus who doesn’t know how to treat his true friends, and the scenes in the flop-house where he held court were a perfect mimicry of the parody device Shakespeare used in the play. River Phoenix gave a deep and moving performance, and the cinematography was excellent.
Noah Davis: Julia Stiles, who is now a veteran of three teen Shakespearean updates, does a fine job, even if she is hamstrung by the dialogue at times. Josh Hartnett had the right look for the high school dreamboat in The Virgin Suicides, but, so far, he hasn’t given any indication of being an actor. He simply doesn’t have the depth or sense of ominous mystery to pull off Iago. He acts entirely with his overhanging brow and clenched jaw, and he very quickly becomes a drag. Mekhi Phifer has some nice relaxed moments, especially cuddling in bed with Stiles. But this Othello has been drained of humor and sexy playfulness. Finally, he’s as uninteresting as all upright young men usually are.
Kit Bowen: Ms. Stiles is certainly the standout because of her experience, but her Desi isn’t the strongest performance she’s given in a Shakespearean context. That would have to be Kat in 10 Things I Hate About You, which is a juicier part for her by far. Phifer phones in the performance, but honestly, how can you take Othello and turn him into a prep school basketball star? Hartnett, on the other hand, was a victim of bad direction. I believe he could have turned in something more compelling if he was motivated to do so. He had something in his eyes that was creepily similar to the Iago I’ve seen on stage.