The two are similar, of course, in that the film is an adaptation of the play, which by definition means they are two versions of the same thing. The plot remains the same, as do the characters; Parker has also set it in the original time period and locations. But he has updated it in other ways, and those updates provide some of the differences between the two. In fact, there are three areas in which the play and film differ: the interpretation of Iago; the use of fantasy sequences; and the fact that Parker has cut much of the text. The first is probably the one of greatest importance.
Iago is a very problematic character because he sets out deliberately to destroy another human being, but as Shakespeare wrote him, it's very difficult to find the motive for him to do so. Iago himself gives us a clue-two in fact: one that he was passed over for promotion when Cassio was chosen instead of him to be Othello's aide; the second when he says that he suspects Othello has slept with his (Iago's) wife. But neither of these is really sufficient motivation for what he does. As a military man, Iago must know that even the most competent officers are not always promoted as rapidly as they hope; being "passed over" for promotion isn't really a problem unless it happens repeatedly, in which case the officer needs to determine if he should remain in service. But in this case, even though he does not choose him, Othello still keeps Iago close to him and trusts him implicitly. That is, even though he did not promote him in a military capacity, Othello still gives Iago the gift of his friendship. In fact, it is this trust that destroys him.
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As to the other excuse, that Othello slept with Emilia, there is no evidence whatever anywhere in the text to support that claim; we merely have Iago's word for it. The entire passage is very strange, though it opens with a chilling statement: "I hate the Moor, / And it is thought abroad that 'twixt my sheets / [H'as] done my office. I know not if't be true, / But I, for mere suspicion in that kind, / Will do as if for surety" (Oth. 1.3.386-390). "I hate the Moor" is clear enough, but Iago is alone when he says it, so he doesn't reveal the depth of his loathing to anyone. However, in the play's very first scene Roderigo says "Thou toldst me thou didst hold him in they hate" to which Iago replies "Despise me if I do not" (Oth. 1.6-7). Roderigo is asking if it's true that Iago hates Othello, to which the latter replies that he does.
However, that hate seems unfounded and as noted above, there is no evidence to suggest that Othello and Emilia were lovers; in fact, Iago himself says he doesn't know if it's true or not, but he's going to act as if it were. That is why he's such a difficult character: we know what he decides to do, but we're still not sure why he makes that decision. The play leaves this issue unresolved, and the debate among Shakespeare scholars over Iago's motivation continues.
But Oliver Parker has given us at least on possible answer to the question of Iago's hatred: he is in love with Othello and jealous of anyone who comes between them. The idea that Iago might be a repressed homosexual in love with Othello is not new with Parker, but here the director has brought that theme to prominence rather than leaving it in the background. Kenneth Branagh, who is one of the best actors working today and a great Shakespearean, is up to the task of playing Iago as possibly gay without resorting to mannerisms and stereotypical behavior (mincing, lisping and so on). He conveys loathing and longing both in the way he looks at Othello, and his portrayal finally gives Iago a motive for what he does. Othello returns Iago's love but on his part it is the affection of one man for a cherished friend, without the sexual component. Othello is blind to this part of Iago's personality, and perhaps the fact that Othello cannot see him as a potential lover adds to Iago's anger and frustration.
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This interpretation is indicated most strongly in the scene in which Iago and Othello exchange blood as an indication of their bond. In the play, Act 3, Scene 3 contains an exchange of vows between Othello and Iago that most critics and scholars see as a parallel to the wedding of Desdemona and Othello; in fact, it is often called the "other wedding-scene" (Mieszkowski). Iago says in part, "I humbly do beseech you of your pardon / For too much loving you," to which Othello replies "I am bound to thee for ever" (Oth. 3.3.212-214). In the film, Parker has taken things a step further and put the men on the rooftop during the scene, which ends with each of them slashing his own palm, and then the two pressing their palms together in a time-honored loyalty oath. "The parallels to the wedding ceremony are obvious: the extreme emotional involvement, the swearing of oaths until death, the embrace â€¦ this symbolic exchange of body fluids, which not only has clearly erotic, but, especially in times of AIDS, also undeniably homosexual overtones, and the signature of authenticity" (Mieszkowski). The camera focuses on Iago's face, not Othello's, as the two men embrace; "his eyes close and his face passionately distorts into a mix of agony and pleasure of absolute intimacy" (Mieszkowski). Iago is deeply in love with Othello in this version, as Parker makes clear; thus he supplies the motive that is so often lacking in this character.
Other changes include the overt sexuality displayed by Laurence Fishburne, who shares a fairly explicit sex scene with Irene Jacob, his Desdemona. In the play it seems the two have not had much time together and the relationship seems very chaste; here it is sexually charged. That sexuality comes into play in the use of the fantasy sequences in which Othello dreams of finding Desdemona and Cassio together in bed. This never happened in the play-they are both entirely innocent-but in the film, Othello is dreaming and we see what he sees: the camera shows us Desdemona, nude, from the back; as she sits up and turns around, she reveals Cassio who is looking up in surprise. Then Othello sits up in bed, sweat pouring down his face, and we realize he's had a nightmare. In using these fantasy sequences, Parker has given concrete form to Othello's worst fears. This is precisely what he is afraid of, that Desdemona doesn't really love him and has taken Cassio as her lover. By showing us the couple, who are very attractive (Nathaniel Parker, who plays Cassio, is the director's brother), the affair begins to seem less like an impossibility; we see that such a thing might actually happen, particularly as Desdemona is kind and Cassio is young. However, Shakespeare makes it clear that although Cassio cares for Desdemona, he would never overstep the bounds; and although she is fond of him, her great love is Othello.
However, having the visual image of the two of them before his eyes makes Othello's fears and obsession take on a real shape. He is no longer suspicious of something he cannot describe, he has seen it in his dreams, and as he broods on these visions, he becomes easier and easier for Iago to manipulate. Parker's inclusion of the fantasy scenes gives an extra dimension to the story.
One huge change is the amount of text that Parker has cut; some critics estimate that at least 50% of the play is gone. There is no way around the fact that this loses a great amount of the beauty of Shakespeare's language; it also further diminishes the character of Othello, who is one of the least self-understanding and reflective in Shakespeare (Stone). Most of Shakespeare's protagonists are given to a great deal of soul-searching - think of Hamlet's agony - but Othello is not one of them. Thus, cutting out half of what language he does have leaves a gaping hole (Stone). Parker recognized that and "filled the void with sex and violence, all of it realized through Fishburne's visual presence-made all the more stunning because someone had the ingenious idea of tattooing the side of his shaved head, making him unforgettably iconic" (Stone). In other words, the poetry of the play has been replaced with the sex and violence of the film.
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Although the two versions are substantially different, they are both recognizably Othello. The film may be said to be "updated" to appeal to an audience that is used to action and sexuality; the play will still appeal to those who like their Shakespeare relatively uncut and as written. There is plenty of room in the Shakespearean universe for both, though it might be fun to see the shorter Parker film and then watch someone like the Royal Shakespeare Company do the complete work. There really is no need to modify Shakespeare; the man knew how to write and directors don't really need to "help" him out by making changes. But when they do, as here, they can sometimes bring insights to the work that are not possible in any medium but film.