More than 20 film and television versions and adaptations of Othello have been made. From the silent German film version by Dmitri Buchowetzki in the 1920s to Bollywood’s of-the-moment take on the story in 2006, Othello has proven one of Shakespeare’s most popular works on the big screen. Othello also was produced frequently for television from the 1950s to the 1990s and was even made into an animated short version in the early 1990s.
Of the several notable film versions, one of the most critically well-received was Orson Welles’ The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice. It won the Grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1952, but was not released in the US until 1955. Welles’ movie was filmed over the course of three years in Venice and Portugal and production was halted when Welles, who self-financed the project, ran out of money. The cast starred Welles as Othello, Suzanne Cloutier as Desdemona, and Michael MacLiammoir as Iago.
Also notable on film is Stuart Burge’s cinematic version of the National Theatre’s 1964 stage performance at the Old Vic, with Laurence Olivier as Othello, Maggie Smith as Desdemona, Frank Finlay as Iago, and Jane Redman as Emilia. When it opened in the US, all four leading actors were nominated for Oscars.
Oliver Parker’s 1995 film version with Laurence Fishburne as Othello marked the first time an African American played the title role in a feature film adaptation. Acclaimed Shakespearean filmmaker Kenneth Branagh played opposite Fishburne as Iago. The film’s release coincided with the O.J. Simspon trial, which may have been why it received little critical attention from a nervous press in a time when issues surrounding race were already so negatively pervasive in the media. Branagh earned a nomination for a Screen Actors Guild Award and Fishburne was nominated for an Image Award for their respective roles in this version driven by strong performances and a strikingly realistic interpretation of Shakespeare’s text.
In addition to these film versions which closely follow Shakespeare’s original text, several other screen adaptations of the Othello tale have been made. The 1947 movie A Double Life, starring Ronald Colman, tells the story of an actor playing Othello who essentially “becomes” the part and is filled with the character’s murderous jealousy. All Night Long, which premiered in 1961, also updates the Othello story. Set in the world of jazz musicians, this film showcases some of the best jazz artists of the time, including Charlie Mingus and Dave Brubeck. Richard Attenborough plays the lead as Rod Hamilton. Richie Havens, of Woodstock fame, appeared in Catch My Soul (also known as Santa Fe Satan ) a 1974 rock musical adaptation.
Tim Blake Nelson’s 2001 film O, originally called The One, is a modern-day take on Shakespeare’s story. In Nelson’s adaptation, Odin James, a black basketball player in an almost exclusively white boarding school, falls for Desi, the most popular girl at school. Hugo, the son of the basketball team’s coach, plots to make Odin doubt Desi’s love—with extreme consequences. Julia Stiles stars as Desi, opposite Mekhi Phifer as Odin. The original release date for the film coincided with the Columbine shootings. Because it portrayed violence and murder in a high school setting, its release was delayed nearly three years.
Omkara, a 2006 adaptation by filmmaker Vishal Bharadwaj, uses Shakespeare’s story as a starting point for an exploration of India’s caste system. By taking what is traditionally a question of race and transforming it into an issue of caste, Bharadwaj creates a film that is alternately visually stunning and disturbingly gritty, all while retaining Shakespeare’s story of love and betrayal powerfully at its core.
– Contributed by the CST Education Department