I trust you enjoyed the grim fatalism of “O.” It’s not a cheery film but it’s an amazing update of Shakespeare’s Othello and perhaps the most faithful adaptation we’ve seen thus far in our “Secret Shakespeare” media studies series. Once again the setting of the play was transposed to a contemporary high school, and once again sports figure prominently. I think we’ve definitely started to see a trend here.
In this week’s discussion questions, I asked to you to spend some time exploring the three main characters. Your answers demonstrated your good attentive viewing habits and your sharp insights about what makes these characters tick. Because the film follows the play so closely, I think our observations about Odin, Desi, and Hugo apply just as well to their counterparts in Shakespeare’s tragedy about the moor of Venice.
Odin James (Othello) is a star prep school basketball player. As he is named MVP of his squad and prepares to lead his team to the state finals, he has attracted the attention of college basketball scouts and seems have a life of athletic fame and fortune opening before him. Not only that, but he’s started dating the dean’s smart, beautiful daughter, who is clearly smitten with him. And yet, for as confident and independent as Odin seems from the outside, he struggles with insecurities. He fears that others don’t respect him as much as they claim. If it were only his sports career that troubled him, perhaps he could overcome these inner demons, but Odin derives much of his self-worth from his romantic relationship with Desi. She seems to adore him, but he worries that her affections will prove fleeting, or that even if it is genuine her love for him doesn’t match the depth of his own emotions. He suspects, perhaps correctly, that she doesn’t need him as much as he has grown to need her. More than anything else, he fears losing her.
For her part, Desi is a sweet, guileless young woman. She does love Odin, but she’s naïve. She’s too trusting, not necessarily of Odin, but certainly of her roommate and their circle of friends. She values her relationship with Odin, but he’s correct in fearing that their relationship isn’t as all consuming to her as it is to him. She’s touched by Odin’s gift of a scarf that belonged to his grandmother, but she’s not careful enough about it to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. Once the trust between her and Odin begins to erode, Desi finds herself at a loss for how to correct things because she just doesn’t think any of it is as deadly serious as he does.
For me, this point of disjunction between Odin and Desi in terms of what their relationship means stands out as one most powerful aspects of this Othello update. While the movie leaves out the play’s elements of religious prejudice, the racial tensions of the play come into even sharper focus for us in context of prep school sports in late twentieth-century America. As a privileged young white girl, Desi loves Odin, but only as she would love any other exciting young suitor. She has no recognition of the gulf of experience that separates them, doesn’t see the inherent inequalities in their puppy love, and cannot fathom how her very relationship with him inevitably puts him at risk.
For his part, as a recruited black basketball player at an otherwise predominantly white school, Odin can never escape the feeling that he is an outsider. He distinguishes himself as the star player on the team, but that achievement only furthers to mark him out as separate from the rest. Surrounded by smiling friends and classmates, Odin can never really trust that he’s one of them. Not even when the white coach claims to love him “like a son.” Odin might want to believe it, but he shrugs it off because he knows it’s only a metaphor.
The coach’s real son, Hugo doesn’t appreciate the metaphorical limits of that claim. When he hears his father call Odin his “son,” Hugo begins to despise Odin a deadly rival, an aggressive opponent who has boxed him out from receiving his own father’s love and affection. And while Hugo isn’t nearly the basketball player that Odin is, he does know how to manipulate people. He recognizes Odin’s secret insecurities and he nurtures them with subtle questions and innuendos. He pretends to be looking out for Odin, even as he undermines him in every way possible.
And once Hugo has succeeded in making Odin’s own fears echo around inside his head, Hugo mercilessly manipulates every other character within their sphere to amplify the disorienting sounds of Odin’s fears into deafening cacophony. Odin begins to hear betrayal and secret mocking in the voice of every person that talks to him. Lost in this internal panic, Odin self-destructs.
It’s a brilliant, heartbreaking story, and the movie captures the power of the original tragedy while enhancing it with its own contemporary nuances. The only thing I would have changed about this film is the final voice-over. In the play, Iago (Hugo) remains silent once his deceptions have come to fruition. That silence reiterates his malice and his desire to maintain control over all of them be refusing to explain himself or his motives. Hugo’s closing monologue, whatever it says, cannot match the power of Iago’s silence.