Teen Shakespeare’s Awkward Middle Children: Looking Back at ‘O’ and ‘Get Over It’ 20 Years Later

The most beloved teen Shakespeare films are successful because they generate new meaning out of their adaptational changes.

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This year, we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Get Over It and O, two of the awkward middle children of the teen Shakespeare film trend of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. It would perhaps make more sense to celebrate the crowning jewel of that particular film craze, 10 Things I Hate About You — or Baz Lurhmann’s swoon-worthy Romeo + Juliet, or even the Amanda Bynes vehicle She’s the Man — but you can learn more about a trend from its hot messes than its hits. Based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Othello respectively, Get Over It and O make mistakes and take chances in adapting their source materials, and by examining those swings and misses, we can better appreciate the true magic potential of cramming Shakespeare into a high school.

Prestige Shakespeare film adaptations were all the rage in the 1990s: Kenneth Branagh was at large, Mel Gibson tried playing Hamlet, and Laurence Fishburne gave one of the first on-screen performances of Othello by a Black actor. This resurgence of the Bard on film also brought us 1996’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Usually shortened to Romeo + Juliet, Luhrmann’s adaptation made a whopping $147,554,998 worldwide at the box office. Luhrmann didn’t transpose the plot to a high school setting — Romeo and Juliet are already teenagers in the play — but the success of the film meant it became a herald for Julia Stiles vehicles to come and set a standard for critics to hold those future films to.

10 Things I Hate About You came out in 1999, making $53 million at the worldwide box office and kicking off the trend while also embodying its platonic ideal. An adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, the film deftly balances the play’s premise while updating its tricky gender politics. Several less memorable adaptations followed the next year, including Hamlet with Ethan Hawke and Julia Stiles, Romeo Must Die, and a musicalized version of Love’s Labour’s Lost.

The crest of the teen Shakespeare wave came in 2001 and was followed by a swift crash. Released that year were Get Over It, a 10 Things-esque high school rom-com, and O, featuring teen Shakespeare queen Julia Stiles. Both films made just under $20 million at the worldwide box office and received mixed reviews, often being compared unfavorably to Romeo + Juliet and 10 Things. Get Over It was deemed “not entirely without heart” by A.O. Scott in the New York Times and “an amateur-hour fiasco” by Owen Gleiberman of EW. Tonally, the overly serious O seemed like diminishing returns on the previous year’s Hamlet, which was already a diminishing return on Romeo + Juliet. Neil Smith of the BBC called O “a fairly minor entry in the recent craze of updating Shakespeare’s works” and Elvis Mitchell of the New York Times dismissed it as “utterly superfluous.”

The trend saw a brief resurgence around the time of 2006’s Twelfth Night adaptation She’s the Man. Although She’s the Man only received lukewarm reviews, it shares enough similarities with 10 Things for both films to feel like bookends to this trend. They had similar box office takes, similar tones, and similar use of meta-textual Shakespeare references — unsurprising, as both films were written by the same screenwriting duo.

Perhaps the most rewarding convention amongst these adaptations is the frequent use of comedic and character actors for teacher roles; if they are not ad-libbing half their lines in these films, it certainly feels as though they are. Allison Janney has been much GIF’d as the amateur erotica author Ms. Perky in 10 Things, but Martin Short is underappreciated as Get Over It’s splendidly named Dr. Desmond Forrest Oates (what he is a doctor of, we never learn).

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Get Over It follows Berke Landers (Ben Foster) as he is dumped by childhood sweetheart Allison (Melissa Sagemiller) and joins the school play to win her back. To that end, Berke receives acting lessons from his friend’s younger sister Kelly (Kirsten Dunst) while his ex hooks up with Striker (Shane West), who is somehow both a pop star and owner of the world’s most confusing accent.

If you’re wondering how this resembles A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the answer is: it mostly doesn’t! Rather than use the plot of its source material and cram in Shakespeare references as most of these adaptations do, Get Over It uses A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a recurring motif and an excuse for meta-theatrical stylism. Shakespeare may not have envisioned the modern equivalent of a soliloquy as a fourth wall-destroying musical number taunting a heartbroken teenager, but I don’t think he’d hate it. From the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Get Over It only takes the love quadrangle, plus the rehearsal and eventual performance of a play. I doubt anyone would notice the plot similarities if the characters themselves weren’t drawing those connections.

Miramax

The students in Get Over It rehearse a musical version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and see themselves in the material — often incorrectly. Helena’s plight inspires Kelly to write and perform a song about her unrequited love for Berke, but otherwise, she bears little resemblance to her Shakespearean counterpart. Berke sees himself as a Lysander, whose true love is wrongfully stolen from him, but in reality, he is Demetrius, chasing after a woman who doesn’t want him. He daydreams about the play’s fairies interfering with his love life but cannot see that his own personal drama has human, mundane origins.

Get Over It is a messier film and overall adaptation than 10 Things: Sisqó, for example, is in this movie, and he isn’t even the strangest pop star cameo. Its tone veers between grounded and fantastical; critic Kimberley Jones of the Austin Chronicle half praised, half insulted its “​​warped, whacked-out” style while Owen Gleiberman suggested director Tommy O’Haver “knows next to nothing about how to stage a conventional dramatic scene” despite succeeding at pulling off the film’s kitsch elements.

The film’s use of Shakespeare can feel like an afterthought, relegated to Berke’s sword and sandals-themed daydreams. But in the way its characters bounce off A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Get Over It has something to say about the pitfalls of narrativizing your own life. The love quadrangle of A Midsummer Night’s Dream relies on fairy magic to resolve it, whereas Get Over It argues for accepting reality. Sometimes your childhood sweetheart dumps you for non-fairy reasons — and you have to get over it.

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While Get Over It is thrilled to pause Shakespeare for a musical number featuring Vitamin C, O barely departs from the plot of Othello. In a strange career blip, Tim Blake Nelson directed O around the time he starred in O Brother, Where Art Thou? — if only he’d taken inspiration from the latter film’s willingness to play fast and loose with its source material.

O is set at a private boarding high school where Othello becomes Odin James (Mekhi Phifer), the school’s only Black student. He’s dating the Dean’s daughter Desi (Julia Stiles) and is the school’s star basketball player; his teammates include the envious Hugo (Josh Hartnett) and his right-hand man Michael (Andrew Keegan).

The most frustrating thing about O is its unfulfilled potential. By setting Othello’s plot in a privileged boarding school, interesting dynamics emerge that are relevant to modern teenagers: the entitled white kid who blames his lack of success on a Black peer, the isolation of being the only Black student, the fear of watching your previously perfect boyfriend grow violent. Unfortunately, screenwriter Brad Kaaya gestures toward these dynamics instead of exploring them.

A potentially fruitful but ultimately wasted thread is Hugo’s use of racism to stir up Odin’s jealousy. Hugo peppers his lies about Desi and Michael’s “affair” with incendiary details, telling Odin they used racial slurs to refer to him. Yet even before this scene, Odin’s jealousy has already jumped from zero to violent with barely any provocation; it is, therefore, difficult to discern whether Hugo’s lie is integral or incidental to his anger. The filmmakers want to show racism hastening Odin’s downward spiral, but they hesitate to depart from Othello’s plot or make any characters actively prejudiced. Elvis Mitchell, one of the few prominent Black critics who reviewed O upon its release, said the film “strains to comment on race” and argued that “all the conflicts have been laid out in fairly simple terms, as if the writer was in a hurry to get to the point.” Contemporary critics echoed Mitchell’s point, with Paul Tatara of CNN saying “Nelson doesn’t stress as much as he should” Odin’s isolation as the only Black student at his school, and Peter Bradshaw at the Guardian complaining the film “tiptoes around sex and race.”

Lionsgate Films

Roger Ebert, in an otherwise positive review, raised a complaint about O’s awkward plot mechanics: “Is it that easy to overhear and completely misunderstand crucial conversations? […] But those are problems in Shakespeare, too.” Even in Ebert’s attempt to wave this issue away, he arrives at the fatal flaw of the film: O hews so close to Othello that it not only fails to carve out its own cinematic identity, it also reproduces the play’s weaknesses — particularly its use of racial stereotypes and misogyny (the film shows Odin’s murder of Desi in long, excruciating shots without art or comment).

O was shot in 1999, but its release was delayed due to the Columbine shooting. If it had been released a year or two earlier, perhaps it would have been viewed as an offshoot of the prestige Shakespeare flicks of the ‘90s rather than an also-ran of the teen trend. As it is, O sits awkwardly between the two worlds, sticking close to Shakespeare — but not taking advantage of his words — while also not embracing the modern adaptation’s potential for updated commentary or quirky stylism.

Ultimately, neither O nor Get Over It uses the collision of Shakespeare and high school to its full potential. Get Over It arrives at an interesting theme, but only as an afterthought. O raises powerful questions, but sticks too close to its source material to explore them.

The most beloved teen Shakespeare films are successful because they generate new meaning out of their adaptational changes. 10 Things I Hate About You explores the sexism of the source material by depicting the “shrew” as someone who needs to be better understood and who has reasons for putting up defenses. She’s the Man explores male spaces that are closed to women and allows Viola interests and goals (soccer pun intended). Even Romeo + Juliet, the precursor to the other adaptations, reminds us that its tragedy happened to teenagers. The less successful teen Shakespeare films operate under the assumption that slamming together Shakespeare and high school is saying something in and of itself.

A trend’s health and longevity depend on its ability to pump out numerous competent copies, to fill in the gaps between its hits. With teen Shakespeare, we can see from the relative few gems and the genre’s over-reliance on adapting Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream that this trend was never destined to be a long one.

While the teen Shakespeare trend may have died, attempts to adapt classics of literature to a modern, youthful context continue unabated: in 2020 alone, there were two teen rom-coms based on Cyrano de Bergerac (The Half of It and Sierra Burgess is a Loser, if you were wondering). One can only hope future adaptations learn from the awkward middle children of trends past and allow themselves to actually adapt their source material. Only then can they ensure that the intersection between courtly life and a 2020s high school creates something meaningful.

 

 

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