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Is Julia Stiles Obsessed with Twisting Shakespeare into Romcom? A Look at 2001 Teen Drama 'O'

by Oana-Maria Moldovan

The Bard has spoken and decided that Othello may just be both the most tragic of Shakespeare’s plays and the most “teenage coded”, so to say.

In the realm of modern film adaptations, the 2001 drama “O” stands as a compelling reinterpretation of one of William Shakespeare’s most tragic - and some would say even profound - plays, Othello.

Directed by Tim Blake Nelson, this contemporary high school adaptation skillfully weaves Shakespearean themes into the tapestry of teenage angst and jealousy.

“O” serves as a modern retelling of Othello, transporting the tragic tale of jealousy and manipulation from the Venetian state to a prestigious and private American high school.

Here comes Mekhi Phifer’s character, Odin James who embodies the modern Othello, a gifted basketball player whose life unravels due to the machinations of those around him, the environment around him and his own - this is very important to remember - crimes.

The characters in “O” mirror their Shakespearean counterparts, adapting the themes of manipulation and tragic flaws.

Josh Hartnett’s Hugo Goulding aligns with Iago, the conniving puppet master, orchestrating the tragedy through mind games and deceit. Julia Stiles, playing Desi Brable, takes on the role of Desdemona, the - only entirely - innocent victim of Hugo’s machinations.

The film, like Othello, delves into the corrosive power of jealousy and betrayal. Odin’s descent into mistrust and violence mirrors the tragic journey of Othello, emphasizing the destructive consequences of unchecked envy.

The surface level exploration of racial tension and societal expectations adds a contemporary layer to the age-old themes of Shakespearean tragedy - will get to that later.

“O” retains the core elements of Othello’s story, exploring the complexities of relationships and the vulnerability of trust.

The romantic entanglements and the ultimate betrayal of trust between Odin and Desi echo the heart-wrenching narrative of Othello, creating a poignant modern interpretation of Shakespeare's exploration of love and tragedy.

Some could argue that the original story is very - very - similar to the one of King Arthur’s. By placing Shakespeare’s tragedy in a modern high school setting, “O” offers a fresh perspective on the timeless themes.

However this is not only a testimonial to Shakespear’s brilliance, but more so an intentional metaphor of how deeply rooted the idea of betrayal is within all of us, even from a young age.

People tend to say that Hamlet, out of all of them, is the most profound play Shakespeare ever wrote. And that is mostly right, until one reads Othello or Macbeth.

Hamlet can very easily be seen as a story about people that think of the human condition. Othello, on the other hand, is the story about the human condition. And that’s where the tragedy comes in.

“O” makes itself as a rom com movie? But is it? Let’s dig into it.

The film is funny - in parts, and only sometimes - and is about some kind of “love stories”. But it is not so much of a rom com as a drama.

“O” dances on the edge of genres, teasing the audience with elements of romance and comedy, only to plunge them into the depths of tragedy. The film’s ability to balance these seemingly disparate elements reflects the complexity of human relationships, especially during the tumultuous and angsty teenage years.

While “O” may not fit neatly into the romantic comedy genre, its occasional moments of humour and focus on love stories underscore the multifaceted nature of Shakespearean tragedies.

In the realm of teen dramas, it’s not uncommon for humor to be a coping mechanism, a shield against the challenges of growing up. Especially for a movie that talks about social issues.

The film cleverly navigates the intricate web of emotions that teenagers grapple with, echoing Shakespeare’s understanding of the human psyche. The characters in “O” face not only the external pressures of their environment but also the internal struggles of identity, jealousy, and the pursuit of love.

Now let’s talk about what was so good about the movie, shall we?

While talking about teenage movies from the 2000s, most of the time, social problems like racism, misogyny or homophobia - and so on - are depicted in said ecranisation in a bad light. But we knew that already.

However, “O” does it right. The film does it so right that the viewer can’t actually see it as a movie, but as a bad reality. It’s gross and horrid and real.

The start of the film makes us believe that the bad racial jokes are just that, bad racial jokes. But that’s the thing, it’s only the introduction. And then, we get it, we understand the need of those specific lines in this exact movie.

Like the original Othello, Odin is not accepted socially by his peers because of his race. And he jokes about it. He is a seventeen years old boy that jokes about this fact. What can he do, after all? It’s, as previously stated, a chopping mechanism.

But then we have the talk about one person forcing themselves on another one in the movie, even after the second refused the action. This scene is so important.

It’s important for us to understand that Odin, just like his Bard’s counterpart, is not the hero of the story. No character - maybe besides Desi - is without fault in this story. And the action in itself only makes us hate Odin just as much as Hugo does.

“O” is not your typical rom com story, not entirely anyway. What “O” is, however, is a story about the tragedy of betrayal, about hate, and about obsession with social status.

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