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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: March ::
Re: Film and Other Adaptations
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0851  Wednesday, 20 March 2002

[1]     From:   David Wallace <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 19 Mar 2002 15:31:29 -0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0834 Re: Film Adaptations

[2]     From:   Mari Bonomi <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 19 Mar 2002 22:12:36 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0834 Re: Film and Other Adaptations

From:           David Wallace <
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Date:           Tuesday, 19 Mar 2002 15:31:29 -0800
Subject: 13.0834 Re: Film Adaptations
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0834 Re: Film Adaptations

Some days ago, Brian Willis offered some insightful and fair-minded
commentary on the film "O" which was recently released on DVD and
video.  On the strength of his recommendation, I rented the film for
myself and my 13-year-old daughter. After (admittedly only) a single
viewing, I cannot say that I share Brian Willis' enthusiasm. Nor did my
emotional response approach the stunned breathlessness that he says he
experienced at the film's conclusion. My daughter (for my sake, I think)
gamely tried to stay engaged with the action, but rather often I noticed
her attention wandering from the monitor to her sketch pad. (It is not
that she lacks attention. She recently sat riveted to a stage production
of King Lear.)

I acknowledge that the performances were intelligent and sincere. But,
for me, the film adhered so closely to Othello in its structure that the
ghost of Shakespeare's play kept superimposing itself over every scene.
In each instance that the film directly echoed a scene from the play I
found the dialogue especially tired and trite. I teach in a high school
and the dialogue assigned these characters bears small resemblance to
the colourful, profane, and idiomatic dialect spoken by my students. I
could have more readily tucked Shakespeare's verse to the back of my
mind had the dialogue in the film more successfully captured the poetry
of the youthful jargon I am already accustomed to hearing. The dialogue
felt flat and generic.

Othello's nobility is evident in the breath of the verse Shakespeare
assigns him (and his descent captured in his vulgar incoherence). Odin's
nobility is expressed in his tender solicitations toward Desi. He's the
kind of fellow who brings a gift of his mother's scarf (handkerchief) to
a midnight tryst and remembers to toss a new CD to Desi's room-mate,
Emily, so the latter has something to drown out the sounds of their
intimacy. He is generous in sharing his MVP award with Michael
(Cassio).  But, in general, Odin lacks authority. His seeming
self-assurance clearly conceals his insecurities - an emphasis the film
appears to have deliberately chosen. But in choosing this emphasis, Odin
comes off as boastful rather than accomplished. He appears
self-absorbed, rather than a natural leader. Given that he early on
alludes to his own use of drugs in his less than perfect past, his
subsequent rejection of Michael over Michael's drunken altercation with
Roger (Roderigo) seems hypocritical and unmotivated. Indeed, many of the
scenes seem more determined to reflect Shakespeare's Othello than in
striving to be truly coherent, organic developments congruent within
their own context.

The film's major departure from Shakespeare's Othello is in providing
clear and compelling motivation for Hugo (Iago). As Brian Willis
remarks, the film, in creating a more sympathetic Iago, jettisons the
character's sense of humour. Instead we are offered pathos. Indeed,
Hugo's anger, jealousy, and hurt at his apparent neglect by Odin and his
own father invites more empathy from the audience than does Odin
himself. My daughter earnestly explained that, although she could not
condone Hugo's actions, she could understand them. Michael and Odin's
deaths struck her as a result of their own inherent flaws: Michael's
irresponsible use of alcohol and his failure to assume responsibility
for his own actions; Odin's jealousy, insecurity, and lack of trust.
>From her perspective, these two reaped what they sowed. She described Hugo as the catalyst but she to tended mitigated his culpability because of his legitimate sense of being wronged. In some ways she was seeing Hugo as Hamlet (the revenger). Desi, she asserted, was the film's only innocent.

The don't suggest the film is without intrinsic merit. As teen flicks
go, it is superior in its performances and subject matter. It is at
least partially successful at transforming Othello's general plot into a
contemporary context. (Which is clearly one of its goals.) From my
perspective, though, it did not succeed sufficiently on its own merits
to either divert my sensibilities from the superiority of Shakespeare's
Othello or to delight me with its inventiveness in "translating" Othello
into a fresh context. That my own daughter (whose late mother was
partially of African descent) could give the balance of her sympathies
to Hugo struck me as a little disturbing. "O" became, to some extent,
the tragedy of Hugo. Ironically, it is Hugo's (not Odin's) jealousy (and
envy) that is at the centre of this story. Odin's final plea before he
kills himself is to assert the sincerity of his own love for Desi.
Regrettably, the most sustained depiction of Odin and Desi together
involves Odin ignoring Desi's pleas for him to stop an act of sexual
intercourse that is clearly frightening her and causing her pain. (The
exact nature of Odin's aggressive sexual attentions is unclear, though
one feels invited to imagine nonconsensual anal intercourse.) Depicting
a scene wherein Odin virtually rapes Desi effectively destroys whatever
sympathy the audience might still possess. Moreover, it invites a
regrettable stereotype that the film does little to dispel (other than
to make clear that Odin's brutal behavior stems from the machinations of
Hugo). Without the presence of a powerful and sympathetic Othello/Odin
or a malignant and brilliant Iago/Hugo, the film falls so short of
tragedy that one is obliged to view it as a cautionary tale. If this is
the case, then certainly the pitfalls of malicious gossip would be more
effectively handled in the context of Much Ado - where the danger of Don
John usurping our sympathies is less likely and our admiration of
Beatrice and Benedick more liable to be sustained.

Cheers. David Wallace

From:           Mari Bonomi <
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Date:           Tuesday, 19 Mar 2002 22:12:36 -0500
Subject: 13.0834 Re: Film and other Adaptations
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0834 Re: Film and other Adaptations

I confess it... when it comes to productions of Shakespeare (or Marlowe,
or Ibsen, or Williams, or Miller) I am a conservative. I somehow can't
let go of a belief that the text of the play has a certain amount of

Hence it was with a certain amount of, I must confess, revulsion that I
read the description of the TheatreWorks/USA Romeo & Juliet to which all
300+ sophomores in my high school will be dragged next week.

It is "adapted by Rob Barron" according to the production notes they
sent out to the teachers.

The notes say it's a "modern production concept" in which, according to
Barron, the "'setting is a futuristic place . . . like the world of *The
Matrix* or *Bladerunner* '" -- well, after Luhrmann's Venice Beach I
guess he had to go still further.

The costume designer Anne-Marie Wright says that the costumes reflect
"the difference between the much more formal Capulets and the
'streetwise' Montagues."

This was the point where my gorge felt distinctly disturbed.  Adaptation
indeed!  A whole new set of families, more like-- where did "alike in
dignity" disappear to? What evidence is there *in the text* for this

Barron decided that the play needed a wedding onstage so he created a
whole new scene... using Sonnet 116 as the basis in order to keep the
"original" text somewhat intact.

The music is original and actually sounds rather interesting: Montagues'
"'dark and guttural attitude'" (well, given the directorial perspective
makes sense) and Capulets having "'sounds like shards of glass'" which
to me to fit Lady Cap excellently well.  Music by Marty Beller

Director Barron (yes, adaptor/director) cast a female as Tybalt, making
her a martial arts expert because in today's world "'there are many
powerful women who have assumed positions previously open only to men'"
and commenting on the interesting element it brings to 3.1 when the
challenge from Mercutio has a new flavor.  Again I'm not totally
uncomfortable with this casting: I saw an outstanding high school
production that cast a woman as Benvolio and it made the relationship
between the cousins take on a very different but complementary flavor.

But really... *The Matrix*?  *Bladerunner*?!?!?  And the extension of
the Luhrmann film where he made the families of different social classes
but made the Capulets the nouveau riche crude group... didn't work then,
doesn't work now.  Part of what makes the story tragic is that but for
the blindness and impulsiveness of all concerned, no real obstacle would
exist for a Romeo/Juliet liaison.  Making one family lower class takes
away that element.

I'm certainly open to exploration; what I'm not open to is distortion.

Mari Bonomi

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