The decision by Tim Blake Nelson to direct Brad Kaaya's screenplay for the film O is neatly summarized by the following quote from the third scene of the third act of William Shakespeare's Othello:
"Give thy worst of thoughts, the worst of words."
Shakespeare's play is a marvel. It's a play about trust, loyalty, jealousy, race, Eros and misogyny. O is decidedly not a marvel. In fact, it is a failed attempt to translate those themes to a high school setting. To those who haven't read Othello, the film will likely be rather boring, not to mention stupefying, as the characters are less developed than stem cells. Comparing these uninspiring high schoolers to Shakespearean figures is at best ridiculous, and at worst an insult to every literate human being.
Mekhi Phifer (Odin) is the only black sophomore at a top-dog prep. school. Josh Hartnett (Hugo) is his basketball teammate, and the son of the team's coach, The Duke (played by Martin Sheen). Julia Stiles (Desi) is Odin's girlfriend. Hugo is jealous of Odin's basketball talent, angry with his father for bestowing so much attention to Odin and jealous of the fact that he did not receive the team's award for MVP. Hence, he does what any other 18-year-old would do--he devises a plot to kill some of them and ruin the lives of others.
The screenplay offers next to nothing about the motivations of the characters. It also provides no explanation as to why Hartnett's Hugo was wearing enough black eye-makeup to warrant a T-bone. Iago, the original Hugo, and Shakespeare's baddest ass, is a treacherous character who has a love-hate relationship with Othello. He hates him for his race and success, but at the same time, he harbors an almost homoerotic friendship with the Moor. The film gives us almost none of this, and it nearly averts a great mistake that Shakespeare avoided: In the play, there is no real reason for Iago's jealousy--it's all in his noggin--but in the film, one can almost justify Hugo's cruelty. Without the language of the Bard, or some kind of master adaptation, there is no way to do Iago's invective justice.
This explains why the audience hated the movie, walking out as the film's bloody resolution began: They hadn't read the play. Those who have read it will be greatly annoyed at the shoddy translation and--with the exception of Hartnett--flat performances, but nonetheless will be amused as they follow the story, noting each equivalent. Those unfamiliar with the play were completely confused, not to mention disgusted. The film is more tragic than the tragedy. O was shelved for two years due to its violent nature, as its original release date was shortly after the Columbine massacre. While it would be nice to kick Sen. Joe "Censorship" Lieberman in the shins with this fact, I found myself wishing that the studio had left it on the shelf--a film like O makes censorship seem like a good idea--not for sex or violence, but for sheer stupidity.