The Classics: Showing at a Theater Near You

Screen adaptations of literary works are hotter than ever; Of them,'Othello,' 'Richard III,' and 'Clueless' stand out

Jane Austen is hotter than Quentin Tarantino, a national magazine proclaimed recently. What's behind the wave of literary adaptations that have arrived on-screen in unusual numbers?

It's hard to generalize about this, since the films themselves take very different forms - highly refined Austen renditions on one hand, wild and woolly Shakespeare extravaganzas on the other. As a group, they demonstrate the continuing vitality of classic literature as a source for mass-audience art. But they vary so much in sense and sensibility that few moviegoers will find all of them appealing.

One message of the current Shakespeare boom is a reminder that violence and vulgarity weren't invented by Hollywood producers, however much today's political rhetoric may suggest to the contrary. Then again, the Bard wrote plays of many kinds, and it's hardly an accident that modern-day interpreters gravitate more frequently toward his harrowing tragedies than his lighter, more optimistic works.

''Othello'' and ''Richard III'' are serious efforts by highly regarded artists. Each contains enough nasty or explicit stuff to earn its R rating, though, and to hold its own in today's market for uninhibited entertainment.

Of the two, ''Richard III'' is the more brilliant and the more disturbing. Directed by Richard Loncraine, who wrote the adaptation with actor Ian McKellan, it moves the time of the play to about 60 years ago, depicting the protagonist as a fascist dictator whose evil star is ominously on the rise.

This sort of time-juggling can seem gimmicky when poorly done, but here it's ingeniously handled, making the troubled 1930s seem a natural habitat for Shakespeare's exploration of personal and political treachery. McKellan's performance makes up in urgency what it lacks in charisma - rarely does an actor work so conscientiously to make himself utterly unlikable - and while Annette Bening is less than memorable as Queen Elizabeth, gifted actors like John Wood and Jim Broadbent fill supporting roles skillfully.

Nigel Hawthorne, Dame Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Robert Downey Jr. round out the cast.

''Othello'' gets off to a shaky start because of a language problem. Playing the title character in his Shakespeare debut, Laurence Fishburne tries to fudge his distinctively American speech patterns by giving his R's a mild British roll, and the mannerism doesn't suit him comfortably. Adding to the problem is the stew of international accents that share the soundtrack with him, including the French lilt of Irene Jacob's Desdemona and the English tones of Kenneth Branagh's Iago, plus others in less prominent roles.

A certain amount of multiculturalism is built into ''Othello,'' which centers on a man not quite at home in his adopted land, but that doesn't mean it can withstand the distractions of too many linguistic layers.

Fortunately, director Oliver Parker manages to control the cacophony once the early scenes have passed, and Fishburne eventually settles into his role, giving Othello a poignant mixture of authority and anxiety. The movie's tone is at once pungent and poetic, and Branagh - of whom I am not normally a fan - is a superb Iago, showing once again how easily this insidious evildoer can take over the show when given half a chance.

A key characteristic of Elizabethan drama is its readiness to explore the extremes of human behavior before our eyes, rather than just describing or evoking them. Austen's impulses are emphatically different. Just as her richly descriptive narratives have little similarity to the dialogue-driven structures of Shakespeare's theatrical works, her approach to problems of the mind and heart is steeped in nuance, inference, and discretion.

The new adaptations of ''Persuasion'' and ''Sense and Sensibility'' have earned high praise from many moviegoers. I suspect one reason for this is their emphasis on the charming delicacies rather than the subtextual ironies of her stories.

Both movies deliver an enormous amount of visual beauty and gracefulness. What neither quite captures, however, is the complexity of emotion that pulses just below the surface of Austen's most fully realized works. ''Persuasion'' director Roger Michell and ''Sense and Sensibility'' director Ang Lee fill the screen with imagery that's often more beautiful than expressive - lovely to look at, but subtly manipulative in a way that counters the no-nonsense spirit of Austen's calmly confident prose.

Michell is a new filmmaker who may eventually find a deeper, more mature style now that he's proved his mastery of cozy compositions and eye-soothing colors.

Lee is an experienced director, though, so it's disappointing to find him floating insistently on the obvious levels of his story. In his earlier movies - most notably ''The Wedding Banquet,'' still his best picture - he drew on his own experiences to etch the emotions of family life in terms so true and direct they're almost overwhelming at times. Working from Emma Thompson's efficient adaptation of ''Sense and Sensibility,'' he seems less engaged with his material than ever before, taking pride in his craftsmanship but putting little of himself into the project.

The result is as pleasant as one would expect from a literate diversion with amiable stars - Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Kate Winslet - and views of the English countryside that would do National Geographic proud. It rarely engages the imagination as Austen's books do at their best, however, and like ''Persuasion,'' it adds more dignity than excitement to the movie season.

All of which makes me remember the Valley Girl comedy ''Clueless,'' loosely based on Austen's elegant ''Emma,'' with more fondness than I would have expected. When it arrived, I found it frisky and amusing but too flimsy and repetitious to rate very high praise. In retrospect, Amy Heckerling's romp has an energy its more respectable cousins ultimately lack, and stands out as the year's cleverest Austen spinoff.

Austen can indeed rival Tarantino in terms of pure entertainment value. Still, in the current round of literary adaptations, Shakespeare's fiery visions win the race.

* ''Richard III,'' rated R, contains explicit violence and sex. ''Othello,'' rated R, contains violence and nudity. ''Sense and Sensibility'' and ''Persuasion,'' rated PG, contain adult material tastefully treated.

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