The Story of O: Shakespeare's Othello and the Tragedy of Columbine

Article excerpt

This basketball film translates Shakespeare's tragedy Othello into the high school teen genre and gets its identity and impact from the fact that its plot, themes, and the motivations and actions of its characters are contemporary equivalents of the seventeenthcentury play. (1) The director Tim Blake Nelson and the writer Brad Kaaya have created precise parallels, while at the same time adding elements which fit the modern context of high school violence. O is best appreciated as an interlinear exercise, which involves going back and forth between the movie and Shakespeare to determine the similarities and differences. As Coursen has stated, "this film ... pursues ... Othello so closely ... [through] the parallels between what is happening on the screen and what happens in the play" (52).

Nelson was initially reluctant to direct another "teening down" of Shakespeare, but he realized that he could use his version of Shakespeare's tragedy to investigate the nature and causes of the school shootings which have afflicted our society in the past decade. (2) Nelson wanted a serious work for a "younger audience with very adult sensibilities" in which the emotions of envy and revenge would fuel his characters just as they did in Othello. In order to, effect this transfer from Shakespeare's age to the contemporary context, Nelson created a series of translations, i.e., recastings of the original text to suit the teen genre. As Durgnat and Combs have stated, "The finding of social parallels, the creation of parallel universes, has been the greatest factor in taking Shakespeare out of the ivory tower, deacademizing ... and defrosting him as a writer for our times" (58-59). The analysis of the numerous parallels between O and Othello constitutes the focus of this article.

The working title for the film was at one time the same as Shakespeare's play, but it was changed to the initial letter, which has resulted in a widening series of onomastic, sports, mythological, literary, and philosophical associations. O is the shortened form of Othello, which has two "o"'s in it. (3) "O" also refers to the lead character and Othello parallel, Odin James, the star black basketball player who has been recruited by Palmetto Grove Academy, the prestigious prep school determined to win the state championship. Odin's status as the one black student in an all-white school is intended to parallel Othello's role as a Moorish general employed by the Christian city of Venice to lead its war against the Turks. Further, Odin James recalls another famous black athlete, Orenthal James Simpson, who throughout his trial for the murder of his white wife was compared to Othello. (4) Odin is also the name of the Norse god of war, wisdom, and art, and the fact that the movie hero has this name is an ironic indication of the power attributed to him because of his basketball prowess. In more specific basketball terms, "O" can refer to the basketball hoop through which the ball is thrown and to the ball itself, hence the term for the game "roundball." "O" can also refer to offense as opposed to "D" for defense. (5)

"O" has tragic overtones as well. The sound produced by the recitation of the letter is the universal exclamation of pain and sorrow, often appearing in literary and religious contexts. "O" is also a circle representing nothingness and death. As Tayler has pointed out, Shakespeare uses multiple forms of "o" throughout King Lear to indicate the essential tragic pain and nothingness experienced by the characters (32). Similarly, "O," the omega or the last letter of the Greek alphabet, can represent the nothingness that results at the end of the movie when Hugo's murderous plots are finalized and enacted. All of these negative meanings are visually encapsulated by the way the title is presented at the outset: an "O" moves toward us getting bigger and bigger, filling the otherwise empty screen with the fullness of the ominous white letter. …