Read This Before You Watch “O”

We continue our “Secret Shakespeare” media studies series this week with “O” (2001), based closely on Shakespeare’s tragedy of Othello (1603). This movie is yet another high school film. That makes three out of four so far. Apparently, Shakespearean drama translates well to the teen experience of romantic turbulence and high passions. However, where “She’s the Man” and “10 Things I Hate About You” dealt with the lighter side of dating and provided happy endings, “O” takes a more ominous turn, allowing its characters to spiral into the abyss of jealousy that also consumes their counterparts in the play.

Once again, prep school sports take center stage. Just like the play, the movie takes its title from name of the protagonist, so we immediately know where the attention is focused. Basketball star Odin James (Mekhi Phifer), nicknamed “O” by his friends and fans, seemingly has it all as he leads his team to the state championships. His classmates admire him. His coach says he’s like a son to him. His team crowns him with the Varsity MVP award. And he’s dating the dean’s beautiful daughter Desi (Julia Stiles, who you’ll recognize as Kat from “10 Things”).

Unfortunately, O has also become the focus of an elaborate and malevolent plot hatched by Hugo (Josh Hartnett), a fellow senior, teammate, and the actual son of his basketball coach.

I won’t give any spoilers here, but don’t expect much in the way of a happy ending. This movie stays close to the plot of the play, and Shakespeare’s tragedies as a rule are hard on their main characters. Reportedly this movie had been planned for a 1999 release date, but the studio held it back for a couple years after the Columbine shooting made high school violence an unlikely box-office draw. Once it came out, the movie got decent reviews and won a few minor awards, including Best Director at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF).

I wanted to include this movie in our media studies series so you could fully appreciate the other side of Shakespeare. As we’ve seen, Shakespeare can definitely be silly and romantic and fun, but in some of his plays he can be relentlessly grim, showing us humanity at its most flawed. “O” gives us that other side. This movie feels more authentically Shakespearean than most updates because it’s got a brooding menace that strikes a decidedly bleaker tone than the rest of our selections in this series.

Shakespeare was interested in exploring all aspects of human experience, and this time we get to see the negative. As such, this movie presents us with some great opportunities to explore human nature. The characters here are rich and complex and sometimes contradictory, just like real people. In the discussion questions this week, I’ll ask you to do some character analysis.

This movie is also important for us to consider because it turns some of Shakespeare’s familiar theatrical devices inside out. Like in the other movies we’ve seen, there are misunderstandings, deceptions, and hidden motives, but here those serve to heighten the tension, creating more suspense rather than setting up comic situations. Once again we see the use of “dramatic irony,” where the audience is privy to things the characters don’t know, but instead of providing us with laughter, these secrets allow us to watch in horror as the characters’ lives unravel before them. If only they knew enough to save themselves before it was too late.

Published by Chuck Caruso

writer of dark fiction (crime, horror & western noir), literary & textual scholar (american gothic, noir, po-co, sf), and cultural critic

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