O Boy

O (2001)
Dir. Tim Blake Nelson
Starring Josh Harnett (Hugo), Mekhi Phifer (Odin/”O”), Julia Stiles (Desi)

Thursday night’s film was “O”, the teenage (or “teensploi”, as they call it) adaptation of Shakespeare’s play “Othello”. In the Shakespearean play, the plot goes something like this: Iago, an ensign in the Venetian army, is jealous of his general Othello’s happiness (Othello is the titular Moor of Venice), and convinces him that his wife Desdemona is cheating on him with the lieutenant Michael Cassio. Much gossip and backstabbing ensues, and the play ends with Othello, broken-hearted at his wife’s supposed betrayal, killing Desdemona and then himself. Iago goes unpunished. The primary themes of the play are jealousy, racism and betrayal, and these themes are echoed in the film adaptation “O”, the plot of which is as follows: Odin “O” James is the new star player on his high school basketball team. He’s dating the Dean’s daughter Desi Brable, and life is good. However, his friend Hugo becomes jealous when Hugo’s father, the coach of the basketball team, declares that he loves O like his own son (in fact, we see very clearly that the coach treats O much better than Hugo). As revenge for stealing the affections of his father, Hugo concocts a scheme to make Odin think that Desi is cheating on him with his friend Mike, and, as a result, Odin kills Desi and then himself.

I cannot describe how little I have to say about this film. Having read the play many years ago, studied it in depth in high school, and seen it both on stage and in the 1995 film adaptation starring Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh, it was very easy to see the small changes made by director Tim Blake Nelson in order to make the story fit the high school setting. Instead of fighting wars, the characters play basketball. Instead of feeling jealous because the lieutenant Cassio is promoted instead of him, the Iago character is jealous because Othello/Odin is stealing his father’s affections. Venice becomes a boarding school. But really, the story itself has changed very little. The central themes of jealousy, racism and betrayal are all there, still intact, and the action plays out in very much the same way as Shakespeare’s stage play.

Oh Beware, my lord, of jealousy. 'Tis the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.

Oh Beware, my lord, of jealousy. 'Tis the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.

In Thursday night’s lecture, the professor touched upon the topic of Shakespeare’s plays as a source of inspiration for numerous teensploi adaptations. As it so happens, I wrote my mid-term essay abstract project on that very topic, and so I shall reiterate the central points here because I feel that “O” is a prime example of exactly what I was talking about:

Shakespeare’s works contain prevalent themes which are especially applicable to the lives of modern teenagers. By basing teen films on Shakespeare’s works, filmmakers can use the Shakespeare name (practically a brand unto itself) to attract an audience, add a semblance of culture to their films, and explore ideas that, in Shakespeare’s time, applied to most everyone, but in a modern setting apply most directly to youth and the social microcosm of high school. These themes are:

1. Romance: It is common knowledge that romance is attractive to the teenage female demographic, and Shakespeare’s works are rich with romance. Shakespeare’s works, adapted into such films as 10 Things I Hate About You, She’s the Man, Get Over It, O, High School Musical, West Side Story and Romeo + Juliet contain such plot devices as love triangles and forbidden love, and are generally focused on couples coming together, or rather, people finding their mates. These plot conventions make for compelling viewing for a teenage female audience. Making love a matter of life and death, as well, is an appealing notion for the teenage mind.

2. Social Groups and Gender Roles: Shakespeare’s works frequently contain social groups in conflict with one another, such as the warring families in Romeo and Juliet. These different social groups can easily be adapted into cliques much like those found in high school. Issues such as racism can also be explored using the preset warring groups in Shakespeare’s source material.
Shakespeare’s works often also focus on women facing restrictions imposed on them by their parents or society, and although the modern woman does not face the same restrictions she did in Shakespeare’s day, the modern teenager must still follow her parents’ and school’s rules. Finally, Shakespeare’s works frequently feature a male character that is new to the community of the story who, by the film’s conclusion, is paired with the female protagonist. This outsider, a man of mystery, is appealing to the teenage girls in the audience, and is an easy match for the common teen film archetype of “the rebel”.

3. Lies and Mistaken Identity: Disinformation plays a major role in many of Shakespeare’s works. Plot devices such as the spreading of malicious rumours and gossip, and confused identities (often through cross-dressing) are prevalent in a number of Shakespeare’s plays. Similarly, gossip and identity confusion are issues that teenagers face in high school.

4. Shakespeare as the establisher of the genre and its archetypes: The simplest explanation for Shakespeare’s works being adapted so frequently into teen films, most predominantly romantic movies, is that Shakespeare’s stories are not only timeless in their plotlines, but also the basis for so much of today’s views on romance and romantic comedies.

To conclude, Shakespeare’s works are prime material for adapting into teen films because not only do they already provide the basis for what we consider to be romantic, but the themes explored within Shakespeare’s works are themes that can easily be applied to a modern day setting. These themes apply particularly well to films with teenage protagonists because modern teens still face the same restrictions and problems that Shakespeare’s protagonists do. Finally, the themes explored in Shakespeare’s plays are timeless and one need not be familiar with the source material to understand them, while fans of Shakespeare also provide a broad demographic that may be attracted to films associated with his works.

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~ by sosayeththewatcher on June 14, 2009.

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