Television tends to leap on our current concerns like a terrier and shake them for all they're worth. Two films this week take on the problems of envy, ambition, and jealousy as they work in human consciousness toward evil ends.
Masterpiece Theatre presents "Othello" (PBS, Jan. 28, 9-11 p.m., check local listings), a modern retelling of Shakespeare's great tragedy by Andrew Davies, one of England's best TV writers. Horror maestro Stephen King's endlessly long thriller, "Rose Red" (ABC, Jan 27, 28, 29, 9-11 p.m.), haunts a house with bad behavior, wicked motives, and insatiable selfishness.
It's maybe a little odd to compare these two stories. One deals in psychological evil and the other in supernatural evil. One is a serious work of art, the other is a pop-culture diversion, only mildly entertaining, and not very well realized. Yet both of them assume a moral perspective - rare in these relativistic times - and both explore the grotesque consequences of selfish ambition, the poisonous nature of jealousy, and the insanity of envy.
Othello has been rewritten in modern English. Its setting is police headquarters in New Scotland Yard. Its hero is John Othello, a recently married black detective who quells a race riot and is then promoted over the head of his friend and mentor, Ben Jago (a.k.a., Iago).
Mr. Davies pursues the personal demons of Jago's envy and jealousy with a believable and frightful logic.
In fact, Davies actually improves on Iago's motives. He presents a man whose ambition and arrogance are fully plausible, a man who doesn't even realize how bitterly racist he is - until he is tested by circumstance. Christopher Eccleston gives Jago a furious energy exactly right for this version of the story.
Jago's ingenious destruction of Othello - arousing the "green-eyed monster" that sleeps beneath his cultural insecurity - is a modern theme that has been given new verity and power in this film. Eamonn Walker (see interview, right) is heart-breakingly dignified and intelligent as Othello. His descent into ungovernable rage and his subsequent ghastly remorse truly grapple with human tragedy.
Davies does not steal from the Bard, anymore than the Bard stole from other sources. He remakes the moral of the story in modern terms, not just modern dress. While far from Shakespeare's language and poetic insight, the storytelling is impeccable: no plot holes to speak of - none of a notable size, anyway.
The film is beautifully shot and edited, the acting is superb, and the moral of the story is just as relevant as ever. Jago's envy and ambition twist Othello's mind, turning love into fearful doubt, and jealousy into murderous frenzy against the innocent Dessie (Desdemona).
Davies does make Cassio (played by Michael Cass) a bit more culpable than Shakespeare did. And Davies does change the ending. His is a more cynical - or one might say, diabolical - ending than Shakespeare's, and that's a pity. The Bard knew a hawk from a handsaw when it came to universal meaning.
After Othello, Rose Red is a walk in the park. It's not a very good film, although it could have been improved by a four-hour trim. Sometimes less really is more.
It's a haunted-house story that relies too much on special effects and not enough on character development. Consequently, there's nary a scary moment in the whole thing.
But since Stephen King wrote it, there's a degree of intelligence behind the tale.
Are the ghosts that haunt Rose Red mansion really dead - or are they "undead"? Prof. Joyce Reardon, a parapsychologist whose reputation and academic job are on the line, decides to "wake up" Rose Red, where 27 people have disappeared or died since it was built early in the century. She asks her lover, the owner of the house and descendent of the ghosts, why he hates Rose Red.
"It eats my relatives," he says simply.
Professor Reardon (Nancy Travis) is harassed by a nervous department chairman, Dr. Miller, who wants her tenure revoked (which is a lot harder to do than the movie makes it out to be).
You can tell Miller is going to be toast just because he's an elitist and a male chauvinist. One of the things about haunted-house stories is that most people who get snatched up "deserve" their fate - at least by the moral standards of the plot. Of course, an innocent or two always succumbs or sacrifices himself for the others, just to throw us off.
And King twists and turns a bit on the old formula, making us suppose one person is bad when he is only fragile, and another is good when she is selfish to the point of madness. In fact, all the evil characters in the show have been driven over the edge - let's face it - by their own misdeeds.
But though motives may be mixed in any one character, those who manage to triumph over the worst elements in their own natures are the ones who extricate themselves from the miasma of the house. King's supernatural metaphors are maybe a tad more just than Andrew Davies's.
Othello is shot like an artsy (and artful) experimental film - very contemporary. And the villain gets away with his crime, also a very contemporary notion.
It rings true because we have been so educated by our contemporary stories to believe he will. But King's villains succumb to their own plots - and that, too, is plausible within the conventions of the horror genre. As allegory, horror has its uses.