The Classics: Showing at a Theater near You Screen Adaptations of Literary Works Are Hotter Than Ever; of them,'Othello,' 'Richard III,' and 'Clueless' Stand Out

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Jane Austen is hotter than Quentin Tarantino, a national magazine proclaimed recently. What's behind the wave of literary adaptations that have arrived on-screen in unusual numbers?

It's hard to generalize about this, since the films themselves take very different forms - highly refined Austen renditions on one hand, wild and woolly Shakespeare extravaganzas on the other. As a group, they demonstrate the continuing vitality of classic literature as a source for mass-audience art. But they vary so much in sense and sensibility that few moviegoers will find all of them appealing.

One message of the current Shakespeare boom is a reminder that violence and vulgarity weren't invented by Hollywood producers, however much today's political rhetoric may suggest to the contrary. Then again, the Bard wrote plays of many kinds, and it's hardly an accident that modern-day interpreters gravitate more frequently toward his harrowing tragedies than his lighter, more optimistic works.

"Othello" and "Richard III" are serious efforts by highly regarded artists. Each contains enough nasty or explicit stuff to earn its R rating, though, and to hold its own in today's market for uninhibited entertainment.

Of the two, "Richard III" is the more brilliant and the more disturbing. Directed by Richard Loncraine, who wrote the adaptation with actor Ian McKellan, it moves the time of the play to about 60 years ago, depicting the protagonist as a fascist dictator whose evil star is ominously on the rise.

This sort of time-juggling can seem gimmicky when poorly done, but here it's ingeniously handled, making the troubled 1930s seem a natural habitat for Shakespeare's exploration of personal and political treachery. McKellan's performance makes up in urgency what it lacks in charisma - rarely does an actor work so conscientiously to make himself utterly unlikable - and while Annette Bening is less than memorable as Queen Elizabeth, gifted actors like John Wood and Jim Broadbent fill supporting roles skillfully.

Nigel Hawthorne, Dame Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Robert Downey Jr. round out the cast.

"Othello" gets off to a shaky start because of a language problem. Playing the title character in his Shakespeare debut, Laurence Fishburne tries to fudge his distinctively American speech patterns by giving his R's a mild British roll, and the mannerism doesn't suit him comfortably. Adding to the problem is the stew of international accents that share the soundtrack with him, including the French lilt of Irene Jacob's Desdemona and the English tones of Kenneth Branagh's Iago, plus others in less prominent roles.

A certain amount of multiculturalism is built into "Othello," which centers on a man not quite at home in his adopted land, but that doesn't mean it can withstand the distractions of too many linguistic layers.

Fortunately, director Oliver Parker manages to control the cacophony once the early scenes have passed, and Fishburne eventually settles into his role, giving Othello a poignant mixture of authority and anxiety. The movie's tone is at once pungent and poetic, and Branagh - of whom I am not normally a fan - is a superb Iago, showing once again how easily this insidious evildoer can take over the show when given half a chance. …