Theatrical and cinematic adaptations of classic plays may differ from writers’ vision and intentions. Oliver Parker’s movie based on Shakespeare’s Othello is an example of what happens when a classical literary work is altered to fit into mainstream cinema’s characteristics. Parts of the play beloved by Shakespeare’s readers were deleted to make room for other elements that are popular in modern cinematography. While Parker’s film is entertaining and features the same plot as the original play, it fails at delivering the same depth as theatrical versions.
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William Shakespeare’s Othello has been adapted to a variety of media forms, and among the most contemporary versions is Olive Parker’s movie with the same name. It was released in 1995 and received mixed reviews from critics and viewers (Parker, 1995). The overall plot of the film is not different from the play’s story and follows the narrative about Othello, a Moor who is sent to Cyprus to defend the Venetian forces against the Turkish fleet. After receiving news that all hostile ships were destroyed by unsettled weather in the sea, Othello celebrates the event with his wife, Desdemona. The general’s prosperous career is not welcomed by Iago, who devises a plan to ruin Othello’s life. As the story unfolds, Iago manipulates Othello into believing that he has become a cuckold because of his wife’s alleged sexual affairs with Othello’s lieutenant. The movie concludes with a tragedy – Othello kills Desdemona and commits suicide after discovering that Iago has been manipulative. The latter is captured by Othello’s men and is taken to be executed.
For individuals who have not watched Othello’s theatrical versions or have not read the book, Parker’s movie will be perceived as an emotional and dynamic drama with a plot that unfolds quickly. Others, however, may feel disappointed because of the lack of many details. The movie runs for about two hours, while a typical theatrical performance takes more than 3.5 hours. While watching the movie, I had a feeling that some content was omitted and that the director’s perspective was not multidimensional in some instances. For example, from the printed version, it can be derived that Iago’s envy was based on a number of factors, including Othello’s race, his success as a general in the Venetian army, trust on behalf of Venetian politicians, and Desdemona’s love for Othello. Parker, however, decided to focus only on one aspect throughout the film, that is, the character’s sexuality.
Shakespeare’s works explore a multitude of topics and should not be seen from a single perspective. This nature of the writer’s plays is reflected in the stage space of theatrical performances. The majority of shows are done on thrust stages to suggest that events can be looked at from different angles. The in-the-round auditorium is not used to imply that, while the story can be viewed from various perspectives, the truth is not placed on the surface. Parker failed to incorporate this philosophy into his movie adaptation. The product is instead an attempt to make another Hollywood blockbuster that can be easily digested by viewers.
Acting and Directing
Parker chose Laurence Fishburne to play Othello, and I believe this choice effectively emphasizes the attributes of the character the director focuses on. Fishburne’s visual presence demonstrates Othello’s physical strength and sexuality over other actors. Laurence is not as good at reading lines as actors in theatrical versions, but Parker had no intention to transfer the same quality of dialogs to his adaptation. Therefore, it can be considered that Fishburne performs well and fulfills the goal of the director. He shows Othello to be a nobleman with a strong spirit and physical characteristics to lead an army and be loved by women. At the same time, Shakespeare’s fans may feel themselves let down by the absence of the writer’s language in the majority of scenes.
Iago, however, is played by a non-trivial actor that has many years of experience directing and performing in Shakespeare’s plays. Kenneth Branagh is a prominent actor from Northern Ireland, and before playing in Parker’s movie, he has performed in numerous other adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. In Othello’s movie version, Branagh delivers outstanding display, revealing Iago’s cunning nature and exceptional skills in manipulation (Parker, 1995). Sir Kenneth is well-acquainted with Shakespeare’s word choices, which makes Iago look as if he is a character of greater importance than Othello. In contrast, Fishburne fails to deliver true meaning in some cases. For instance, when he says, “Put out the light, and then put out the light,” Fishburne sounds as if he means candle in both cases when he utters “light” (Parker, 1995). In reality, however, the second reference to light relates to Desdemona’s life. There are no such issues with Branagh’s depiction of Iago. Sir Kenneth’s work is the primary reason why people should watch this movie.
As mentioned, Parker’s film runs for only two hours, while a theatrical performance lasts for more than three hours. This difference in length came at a cost – many scenes were shrunk in size while almost one-third of dialogs were omitted entirely. Most Hollywood movies have similar running times, which suggests that the director practiced liberty over the script in order to turn Shakespeare’s creation into a marketable mainstream product. Much of the writer’s poetry was dismissed in favor of other elements, such as nudity. Irène Jacob plays Desdemona and emphasizes the character’s seductiveness and sexual attractiveness. While the original play contains aspects of sex, no strong accent is put by the writer.
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Othello was written several centuries ago, but the topics it addresses remain relevant even today. The tragedy was driven by jealousy, which made Iago implement his cunning intentions. Envy is, unfortunately, commonplace in contemporary social interactions. People may get jealous because of the success of others and make unreasonable choices. Another topic of the play is racism, which is present even today. Both the movie and the text show that blacks are often seen as inferior to white individuals. This issue has led to the emergence of institutional racism, which affects millions of people around the world. Workplace discrimination is one of the examples of how racism manifests itself in modern society.
Oliver Parker’s movie adaptation of Othello is an entertaining film that gives an overview of the play’s plot and the role of various characters in the play. However, it does not deliver the same experience as theatrical versions because of reduced size and omitted dialogs. Laurence Fishburne has no experience with Shakespeare’s vocabulary, which sometimes makes him look unfit for the role. Iago, however, was played by an exceptional actor, Kenneth Branagh, who has experience with many of Shakespeare’s literary pieces.
Parker, O. (1995). Othello [Film]. Warner Bros.