Face Off: Othello (1952) and O (2001)

Motion State Face Offs pit two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.

In sharp contrast to the veritable torrent of Hamlet adaptations, it’s somewhat surprising that a Shakespeare tragedy as popular as Othello has so few major film versions. The first is Orson Welles’s 1952 adaptation, featuring the man himself in both the title role and the director’s chair. The most recent, oddly enough, at least as far as explicit-made-for-film versions, is 2001’s O, a modern update that you may or may not consider a true film adaptation of the play. Sure, there are a ton of films that fall in the middle ground. Do filmed theatrical productions count? Do modern updates like O count, and if so, do we consider films that have an even more tenuous link to the play?

Why do we care? might be the actual question on your tongue right now, but if you’ve ever enjoyed Shakespeare at all you’re probably aware of the fact that no two adaptations of the same play are ever the same. How has Othello changed from the first film adaptation to the most recent version? Is there anything that remained from the Welles version, working its way in to the Shakespeare tale such that O becomes an adaptation of both? If this is interesting to you, then this article will explore all of that; if you’re not interested, this article will still explore all of that.

Let’s break it down, because clearly we’ve got nothing but time on our hands. Since there are so few Othello adaptations, the criteria for inclusion in this list is as broad as possible. A few omissions are listed below. For our purposes, the notable Othellos and Iagos are:

Orson Welles and Micheál MacLiammóir (Othello, 1952) – Welles famously navigated a miniature budget over the course of three years of production on his Othello. One legend tells of a trailer of costumes failing to arrive, prompting Welles to switch the setting of a scene to a Turkish bath so the cast could wear hotel bath towels instead.

Ernest Borgnine and Rod Steiger (Jubal, 1956) – wouldn’t it be cool if Borgnine played Othello and Steiger played Iago? Too bad they’re playing American Western versions of those characters in a story diluted and rejiggered so as to resemble Shane as closely as possible.

Paul Harris and Patrick McGoohan (All Night Long, 1962) – this one’s a treat, provided you can tolerate jazz (or maybe you even like it). Othello is the framework and a collection of jazz cats fill the shoes, and Patrick McGoohan’s drummer Johnny Cousins is a superbly sadistic Iago figure.

Laurence Olivier and Frank Finlay (Othello, 1965) – it’s admirable that Olivier went to great lengths to portray Othello: learning to lower the octave of his voice, creating and perfecting an “exotic” dialect, inventing a particular gait and walk. That blackface, though. It’s so…dark. Really. It’s like purple. It’s like Thanos.

Anthony Hopkins and Bob Hoskins (The BBC’s Othello, 1981) – the last British television production to feature a white lead as Othello, this adaptation wins in the Over-Acting category on both counts. Hopkins gives a wild-eyed grit-your-teeth portrayal that somehow fits perfectly with the brutish Iago of Hoskins.

Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh (Othello, 1995) – much as Kenneth Branagh’s smooth, sleek, slippery Iago is to be feared, the role of Othello always seems like too much for Laurence Fishburne. It’s notable that he’s the first black actor to play Othello in a major feature film; ironically, though, Fishburne probably would have done much more with the role if he played it a decade later.

Mekhi Phifer and Josh Hartnett (O, 2001) – directed by Tim Blake Nelson, of all people, O sees the formal military power struggle supplanted by a tiff on a high school basketball team. Maybe TBN enjoyed his time updating The Odyssey on O Brother, Where Art Thou? so much he just couldn’t resist.

Hayden Christensen and Ian McDiarmid (Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, 2005) – think about it.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ewan McGregor (Donmar Warehouse, 2007) – Chiwetel won the 2008 Olivier Award for this production, which (like the production below) eventually found its way to television.

Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear (National Theatre, 2012) – a personal favorite. Lester manages to rival Ejiofor for pure intensity, all the more impressive considering few know his name compared to the 12 Years a Slave star. More importantly, he’s just the perfect foil for Kinnear’s subtle Iago. The most common emotion Kinnear gives us is surprise, a happy stunned look on his face as he stands watching his machine run itself, thunderstruck by his marionettes.

Again, there are plenty of other “Othellos” you could make an argument for. A Double Life sways a bit too far from the material to be considered a true adaptation, opting instead for a sort of meta-narrative on an actor portraying Othello. O counts over stuff like that because it still follows Shakespeare’s plot, even if it discards his words. Ditto Jubal and All Night Long. The 1922 version of Othello starring Emil Jannings might technically be considered the earliest film version, but it’s a silent film. One imagines that’s not exactly what Bill Shakespeare had in mind.

So the “real” adaptations start where anything worthwhile starts: with Orson Welles. By the time the early ’50s rolled around Welles would have to wear an Elizabethan ruff in public if he wanted to be any more Shakespearian. He played Macbeth in Macbeth (1948), Othello in Othello (’52), played King Lear in Omnibus in (’53); prior to all of that he had already starred in stage productions of everything from Julius Caesar to Hamlet to Richard III to Romeo and Juliet, then adapting many of them for his famous radio plays. And that’s just the Shakespeare stuff, as he also starred in seminal stuff like The Third Man (’49) around the same time.

His Othello has his mark on it, which is certainly a good thing. It’s spare in both runtime and production design due in part to the limited budget Welles had to work with. He and Micheál MacLiammóir as Iago are a forceful pair, the latter lacking name recognition today only because barely anyone in the United States cared to see Othello when it came out. Welles’s adaptation is an underdog production that remains one of the best film versions to this day, somewhat of a masterpiece in spite of itself.

Conversely, O seems to have a lot going for it at the outset. You recognize the names involved, from Mekhi Phifer to Josh Hartnett to Julia Stiles to big supporting names like Martin Sheen. The fact that it’s an update of Othello is in no way obscured. And surprisingly enough the movie is actually pretty good (surprising because modern updates so rarely are), making the most of the young leads and the cliquey high school setting. O‘s secret weapon is easily Josh Harnett, a youthful Iago whose own evil seems outgrown in his teen body. In a rare moment alone with him he simply brings his hand to his mouth, stunned by disbelief over how easily he’s undone his onetime friends.

So who’s the best Othello? Is it Welles, or Phifer, or someone else from the list above? What about Iago? MacLiammóir? Hartnett? As with anything Shakespeare-related, it depends on which lens you’re using. If the barometer is “good movie” or “faithful adaptation”, the Welles version wins by a mile; if the barometer is concerned with the issue of race, as conversations around productions of Othello so often are, then O is actually probably the most clear-eyed film version we have. The performances of each are perfectly at home in their respective productions. From the first film version to the latest, it’s somewhat remarkable how distinct and original each one feels. At this points Hamlets blend together, but Othellos — especially the Welles Othello and O — are unique enough (and few enough) to stick in your mind.

Doubtless there will be another film version in the next few years, and as Hollywood cycles through its old stock again and again on the remake rampage maybe this will change. Maybe we’ll get a version that starts to blend with the above-mentioned iterations; maybe we’ll get one that’s so well-cast and well-shot we’ll consider it the definitive Othello. I guess we’ll just be waiting here, twiddling our thumbs, until that perfection arrives.

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