Juvenile Othello: Not that bad

Oh no, not another teen-update movie of a Shakespeare play.

That is the first thought that enters the mind. But after seeing O, the latest of a recent trend of movies that seem to want to capitalize off Shakespeare, one begins to think that they are not all bad.

In fact, this is the second adaptation starring Julia Stiles that had potential for disaster but proved successful. Stiles showed promise when she first tackled teen-age Shakespeare in 10 Things I Hate About You, an update on The Taming of the Shrew, but she doesn?t do much for Desdemona in this latest effort (we won?t even go into Hamlet 2000). Then again, the new updated film version of Othello isn?t about her character, but rather focuses on the new versions of Iago and Othello.

In fact, Josh Hartnett (Hugo) and Mekhi Phifer (Odin) are not even given the chance to flub Shakespeare?s words since the filmmakers wisely choose to tell the story using modern lingo.

And while O also uses basketball sequences and rap music to tell Shakespeare?s classic tale of love and mind-trickery, the film still serves as a very successful adaptation, as well as a realistic look at the mindsets of today?s teen-agers.

Where else can you imagine a place where jealousy, revenge and deception rule other than in high school?

Just in case you need to be filled in ?Shakespeare wrote the character of Othello as the general in the Venetian army and a passionate warrior. Iago is Othello?s confidant who envies him and plots to destroy everything and everyone in his life. Othello?s tragic flaw is his insecurity and gullibility.

O examines these core themes and plot lines and exceptionally translates them into the modern American high school setting. This adaptation succeeds in using teenage characters because the tragic scenarios in its source inspiration are all spawned from gossip and hormones ? two things kids these days can identify with.

The audience is asked to identify with Hugo, a popular student athlete who is jealous of the attention that Odin gets for being the MVP of the basketball team. When Odin shares his MVP award with Mike (Andrew Keegan), Hugo feels betrayed and promptly decides to exact revenge using any means necessary, which include seduction and deception, as well as treachery

(after all, this is still Shakespeare).

Of course, having the school?s basketball coach and Hugo?s father, Duke (Martin Sheen), saying he loves Odin like his own son doesn?t help matters much either.

Desi (Stiles), Odin?s girlfriend, describes Hugo as a student who is friends with everybody, and therefore she doesn?t trust him. While he is busy plotting against Odin by making him think Desi is being unfaithful, Hugo finds time to ruin Mike?s reputation and scam money out of Roger (Elden Henson), also in love with Desi, to support his steroid addiction.

While Shakespeare never mentioned power-stimulating drugs in his version, Hugo is presented here as someone who doesn?t care about anyone, least of all himself.

Hartnett portrays his Hugo as a quiet young man who is perpetually thinking out situations. However, what he is thinking is how he can manipulate his current subject into doing something that will benefit his own ends. It takes a smart actor to balance the powers of deception with pure evil. Gary Condit would probably be a good Hugo.

Phifer?s Odin, on the other hand, is Hugo?s polar opposite. Phifer takes his role seriously and presents the film?s protagonist as appropriately as it was written ? as a kid. A kid would believe the words of someone who was his friend, rather than his girlfriend, when the friend provided strong enough proof of her unfaithfulness. Phifer is believable because his transition from nice, star athlete to bitter, troubled youth isn?t portrayed as an abrupt change as much as a slow deterioration of the moral backbone of his character, which makes his inevitable downfall even more tragic.

Director Tim Blake Nelson (making his feature directing debut) said he wanted to tell a story where the credibility would never be questioned. He said there should never be a time where the audience doesn?t believe this can actually happen. How appropriate then that O finished filming the same year as the Columbine shootings.

While that played a factor into releasing the film more than two years later, it was worth the wait to see two very talented actors examine and show how the themes Shakespeare wrote about 400 years ago are still relevant today. n Rated R

William Albritton is a senior majoring in mass communications and The Oracle movies editor. He can be reached at oraclewill@yahoo.com