| The literary classic “Othello” by William Shakespeare has stood the test of times as a tale of revenge, deceit, and tragedy. “O” by Lions Gate Entertainment is an attempt to connect that classic to a modern audience as well as turn a tidy profit. Unfortunately, in transforming the play to fit in a modern setting, producers and scriptwriters had to take creative license that alters the flow of the plot and deflates the primary characters. The movie bears a unique insight into the gradual madness of its protagonist, as well as the relationship he shares with friends. Nevertheless, Shakespeare’s catastrophic collision of cacophonous characters with their controversial conspiracies needs more precision to bring out their counterfeit charms, or lack thereof. While the dumbing-down of this teen movie clone neutralizes some of the confusion of the original, the loss of Shakespeare’s flowery dialogue, replaced by upper class white kid pseudo-ghetto Ebonics, flattens out in an attempt to develop emotion through the use of body language and innuendo.
The plot of Othello is a simple one from the reader’s perspective. Othello chooses Michael Cassio, a competent but untried officer, as his Lieutenant, leaving the ambitious Iago, an experienced veteran of numerous engagements, to the dicey position of Ancient. While it is still an honored position, one whose possessor has the ear of the general, it is not what Iago feels is due him, and he resents that. He makes it his life’s mission to undo Othello in the worst possible way. From the instant the play begins and Othello has whisked Desdemona away, Iago has a clear, if not completely spelled out agenda to thwart his commanding officer. Once in Cyprus, that plan takes full fruit, and Othello falls under his spell. In “O,” the cheering crowd gives the primary character Odin a chance to choose between one friend and another to be his number two guy on the basketball team, and he chooses Mike over Hugo. Hugo becomes insanely jealous of what he feels is a grave injustice, and prepares himself to subvert Odin.
The difference between the two plots has positive and negative connotations. On the one hand, Odin’s tale explains the events that lead to Hugo’s hunt for revenge and develop a strong emotional connection with the common moviegoer. This is one of Shakespeare’s greatest failings in “Othello,” that he insinuates that Othello is a great man, and his love for Desdemona is real, but the reader never really gets deeply involved in the proof of these allegations. On the other hand, because Lion’s Gate chose to make the characters late teens, students at a prestigious upper class college in a primarily white community, the strength inherent in their positions in society is greatly diminished. Othello is a powerful man with an enormous responsibility on his shoulders, and despite his skin color commands respect from the Duke and senators of Venice. Iago is a brilliant strategist who has studied the art of military conquest for the vast majority of his forty-seven years. Desdemona is the privileged but noble-hearted daughter of Senator Brabantio, and Michael Cassio is a keen mathematician and an accomplished swordsman. “O” required a number of changes in order to compensate for there illustrious backgrounds.
Part of the change came directly in the form of background. Odin Jackson came from an orphan background, a former drug user with a police record. He has nothing except a talent at basketball that is, at least to the all white team on which he plays, uncanny. His skill has earned him the respect of the town, but more, the love and admiration of Coach Duke. Because of the coach's inordinate affection for Odin, he smoothes over the protagonist’s desire for Desi, a possible source of contention in a stifling upper class community. For not being the best, his father shuffles Hugo to the side, and this becomes the primary origin of the antagonist’s hate for Odin. The fact that Odin chose Mike for the honor of back up man is merely the last of an uncounted number of subtle straws placed on Hugo’s back. Where Iago had a legitimate gripe and no one to complain to who could fix the situation, Hugo does not seem to be any better at basketball than any other player on the team, so his angst already begins to seem unjustified and immature. Where Iago had every facet of every maneuver on all sides carefully thought through, Hugo’s entire plot to defeat Odin seems inadequate and impulsive, yet always “coincidentally” successful.
Another aspect of change in this version of “Othello” comes in from the inner nature of the characters themselves. Michael Cassio earned Othello’s respect for his trustworthiness and his friendship to the general. Even when Othello’s suspicions get the better of him, Michael pursues his friendship with the man, trying desperately to salvage not only his position, but also the relationship he believes still has a chance. In truth, Othello had not lost affection for his friend. Othello cannot instantly forgive him because Cassio attacked the former Governor Montano in his chase for Roderigo. He tells Desdemona as much before he begins to take Iago’s hints at their infidelity seriously. Mike of “O,” on the other hand, receives a minute amount of razzing from Rodger, and in his drunken state tries to skewer him with a bottle of Jim Bean. As Odin begins to suspect Desi and Mike of more than friendship, the audience never becomes privy to their conversations. Therefore, Mike’s earnest pursuit of forgiveness never reconciles him with the movie watcher. In another incident, Mike blatantly attacks Rodger with the help of some nameless fellow, flicking his ears and calling him a faggot. If Cassio had behaved in this fashion, his eventual elevation at the end of “Othello” would have seemed all the more tragic, unpleasantly so. The final nail in Mike’s coffin is the disparaging attitude he shares with Hugo while Odin listens nearby. Othello had only been convinced of Cassio’s disrespect through a lack of context for his friend’s words, but Mike is an unredeemable cad who, if not deserved, at least partially brought his fate upon himself.
If Desi had said anything besides “I always been straight with you, O!” during the scene where Odin demands to see the scarf he gave her, it would have slipped under the radar of plausibility. Unfortunately, it brought forth a painful realization that forever afterward tainted the movie. So much, the words of Shakespeare flowed out of the mouths of the characters with romanticism (with a big R), that the form in itself helps the story to endure criticism of its somewhat thin plot and implausible deeds. In “O”, the movie glosses over those words with modern expletives, bickering, and only rarely metaphor. The rest was strictly to the point, save for the frame of the movie where Hugo explains his perspective of Odin, and how he wishes he could be like him. This alone does not make up for the gaps in speech that strengthened the subversive nature of Iago, able to manipulate Roderigo without the nobleman even realizing his manipulation. When Hugo urges Rodger to action, Rodger is edgy and uncertain, but Hugo’s intimidation keeps the young man in line. Indeed, when Hugo sends Rodger to the final game where Odin looses his cool, Rodger is oblivious to the shark-infested (or Mike-infested if you prefer) waters into which he is being thrown.
The culmination of these factors results in a total that is ambitious, but falls short of the mastery of Shakespeare. There are factors that make the movie worth seeing, once. There are moments where the classic and the movie adaptation gel, where one is as close as the two will ever come to similitude, and it is in those moments that the movie shines. The tragic outcome of Othello suffers from the “Hot young stars, and hip sound track” that are advertised on the back of the movie box as a funeral procession might suffer from birthday hats, confetti, and noisy party favors. One does not mix well with the other. If one never intends on reading Othello and mourns the loss of the WB’s “Dawson’s Creek,” “O” would make an excellent stocking stuffer this holiday season. Otherwise, Mikhi Phifer and Julia Stiles at least have careers to fall back on as this movie slips into obscurity.