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Welcome to the first of my Shakespeare Detours! This is a sub-category of my Film of the Book series that I didn't foresee, but since every single one of the Bard's timeless plays have been adapted to film multiple times (3 and counting this year alone), I felt it warranted discussion. This is an introduction to my first subject of study, and a personal favorite: Romeo and Juliet.

(Side note: people always seem to think my favorite Shakespeare play is Macbeth. No idea why.) (And yes, this is my sarcastic voice.)

So, there's a new movie adaptation out directed by Carlo Carlei, starring Hailee Steinfield (True Grit) and Douglas Booth as the titular leads. I'm told screenwriter Julian Fellowes has something to do with Downton Abbey, which everyone but me is obsessed with apparently. As of this writing, it's barely cracked a million at the box office (only $500,000 on opening weekend), and reviews have ranged from dismissive to scathing. Rotten Tomatoes tallies opinions at a measely 22% "rotten."

Now, I've occasionally liked movies that critics and audiences alike were fairly unimpressed by, such as Silent Hill: Revelation and John Carter. Personally, I wrote off this movie as "not for me" the second I first saw trailers for it, and the reason is quite simple: they changed the language. >__< No. When you're adapting Shakespeare, the one thing that adamantly does NOT need "fixing" is the language. Not unless you're moving the entire story to a different setting and time period, and sometimes not even then. (This version did neither, by the way.) SO yeah, I was prejudiced from the get-go.

All that aside, cinematic quality is not necessarily a requisite for driving up box office numbers and generating a decent profit. Just looking at the other box office toppers this week, one of them has a Tomatometer rating even lower. Also, as any literary or theater geek will tell you (with rare exceptions), R + J is not highly rated as one of the Bard's best works. But it is easily his most popular--in his day as well as ours--and the fact that it continues to gain followers many centuries after its first performance speaks volumes to its enduring success. Something about this story resonates with people no matter what era we're in. It seems like every new generation gets a fresh revisiting to swoon over.

The 1960s had not one, but two extremely lucrative and popular film adaptations of the play: Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (which is still the highest-rated among critics and movie-goers alike), and West Side Story (a musical transplanting that moved the story to contemporary New York and added a racial prejudice angle to the animosity between the two families). When I came of swooning age in the mid-90s, we had Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet with Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio, which remains my favorite to this day, and not just for nostalgic reasons. There's even an anime version that turns Juliet into katana-wielding vigilante.

As it happens, Carlei's version is actually the second Romeo and Juliet movie that came out this year. Although I don't know how many filmgoers picked up on the other one being an adaptation because, well, in that case the Montagues were zombies. (Warm Bodies. It also has the best critical reviews since the Zeffirelli version in 1968. I'm not kidding.)

So where's the love for this latest movie? Are today's teens simply not interested in the idea of tragic romance? Do they not care about classic literary tales without something else--like zombies or whiplash editing--to spice things up? Has this story finally worn out its welcome to the point where it's no longer relevent to the current cultural atmosphere?

I don't think so.

Before I get into the why's and wherefore's of what happened with this latest incarnation of the famous star-crossed lovers, let's talk about the history of the play itself.

This story has been around for eons in one form or another, with one of the earliest versions being the legend of Pyramus and Thisbe, best known by their inclusion Ovid's Metamorphoses and later ruthlessly mocked in the play-within-a-play of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The earliest documented performance of Romeo and Juliet as we now know it took place in 1597, quite early in Shakespeare's career. What's fascinating about the way it's structured is it crosses a bridge between comedy and tragedy, blending the implausible coincidences and clever wordplay of Midsummer with the angsty melodrama of Hamlet.

I myself have read the play at least ten times, both for my own entertainment and for various classes in high school and college. As a result, I wound up studying it more often, in greater detail, and from more angles than anything else the Bard has produced. This seems to be one of the plays that, along with Midsummer, gets introduced to students at an earlier age, because the plot and character arcs are relatively easy to follow. I've now seen a total of five cinematic versions, including both traditional adaptations and imaginative reworkings, all wildly unique, all of which I'm going to cover in the subsequent entries in this detour. It's become one of my favorites because of how difficult it is to classify, and I didn't appreciate that until relatively recently.

The story is deceptively simple on the surface: two young people from rival families meet, fall in love, various drama results in a largely predictable fashion, and then they both die by suicide. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? We all know this story. I knew how it ended before I ever saw it performed, and I have yet to meet anyone who doesn't at least know the ending is tragic. If you're right at swooning age when a new version comes out, it's easier to focus on the romance aspect--how epic and pure is the title characters' True Love!!!! At a certain age, for most people anyway, that's the biggest thing you take away from it. I should add that this also seems to be the age when the idea of dying to be with your True Love still sounds romantic, rather than a pathetic waste (and the idea of finding your True Love as a teenager doesn't sound daft).

This is one of the big criticisms people have of the play as a whole. Here are a couple snippets from the poll I took on Absolute Write:

"[. . .] it's not romantic: it's two stupid kids creating an irrepairable swath of harm in their families by killing themselves over a relationship that's lasted only a few weeks, tops." --Emermouse

"I actually can't stand Romeo and Juliet. It's just so... overwrought? I mean, yes, teenagers can be idiots, especially when they think they're in love. But that doesn't mean we should glorify their idiocy with such beautiful language!" --Captcha

The fact that this is still viewed as one of the greatest "love stories" of all time strikes a dissonant chord with a lot of people. Without even getting into the questionable implications of glamorizing suicide, their whole relationship is built on surface attraction. And that is it. Romeo spends his first scenes moping about this girl Rosaline--who never actually appears in the play--until the second he spots Juliet, whereupon he immediately forgets his unrequited love from moments earlier. What I'm saying is I get it. I went through a period of several years when I flat-out hated this play, and especially hated Romeo as a character. (I'll elaborate more on that later.)

However. After I went back to it over and over, and looked at it from a variety of different perspectives, thanks in part to a new reintroduction in the movie Warm Bodies, I started to appreciate how jarringly unique it is within Shakespeare's body of work. It comes so close to being a comedy, and you can just about draw a line right down the middle as to where the tide turns. I'm speaking, of course, of the death of Mercutio.

(Another side note: Mercutio is another reason I've come to love this play so very much. He's my favorite Shakespearean character hands down.)

Mercutio is a neutral character. He hangs out with with the Montagues in all his scenes (some cinematic versions make him part of the family, but we'll get into that later), but he's also the kind of guy who gets invited to parties because you just KNOW he'll make them more fun. He provides a lot of the comic relief, he gets a lot of the best lines--he even puns mid-death scene. Like, who puns mid-death scene? Mercutio's awesome. He's also not the kind of character you expect to die. There's a fair amount of foreshadowing about the fates of Romeo and Juliet just based on the tension between their families, but this guy? The funny, sarcastic guy who reminds everyone not to take themselves too seriously? He's not supposed to die. That midpoint is what changes it from comedy to tragedy.

Now, when it comes to adaptation, one thing I've noticed in my rewatching of all these movies is how much the tone changes depending on where the perspective is placed. Who is our main character? Who is this story for, and who are we supposed to sympathize with? The obvious answer is Romeo and Juliet are the main protagonists--our dual audience proxy, there to provide an emotional anchor and give the viewer someone to relate to. Considering how their stories end, that's a problem. Even considering how their romance begins, it's hard to get modern, more cynical audiences to take the idea of love at first sight seriously. The young lovers are often characterized by their detractors as bland and immature, which is a fair assessment depending on the way they're portrayed by the actors.

As for who the story is for, well, I reckon there are two distinct groups that get attached to it: either young teenagers who get all doe-eyed over the love story; or Shakespeare enthusiasts who love the poetry. And I think that's why the most recent movie failed--it didn't market the story to the fangirl demographic, and it alienated the nerd/scholar demographic by changing the poetry. This movie has no audience.


With all that in mind, how does one actually revisit this classic tale? Can it actually be romantic, unfortunate implications notwithstanding? Can it be fresh, despite the foregone conclusion of how it ends? My answer: oh yes it can, both, and has done many times in the past. So starting next week, I'm going to look at each of the five movies that, I felt, brought this play to life in new and interesting ways.

First up: West Side Story.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 14th, 2013 04:26 pm (UTC)
*raises hand* I hate Romeo and Juliet with the fire of a thousand suns. Have so, ever since I read the play Freshman Year and wondered why, after Romeo was banished, the nurse/friar didn't just smuggle Juliet out of Verona and reunite her with Romeo. I found the fake-out poisoning really irritating. I mean, I guess from Juliet's perspective she'd rather have her parents think she was dead than be exiled. I know it connects back to Romeo and Juliet being a tragedy and all. But, ugh, it really bugged me when I first read the play.

(Now, like all of Shakespeare's stuff, I can admire the prose. But as a storyline, R&J is my least favorite of the few plays I've read/know about.)

I think marketing played a huge role in this recent R&J adaptation bombing. I've seen no advertisement, and IIRC there was a bit of controversy when Hailee Steinfield was cast, because there was (I think) a nude scene in the script, and Steinfield was underage at the time. Add in the "no audience" angle it seems to have, and yeah, no wonder nobody's going to see it.
Nov. 14th, 2013 09:51 pm (UTC)
with the fire of a thousand suns
Heh--is that a direct quote?

Good question re: the pseudo-poison. That's one of the "contrived coincidences" I'm talking about. Juliet takes the not-poison, so that Friar Lawrence can fail to get the message to Romeo that it's not-poison, on account of which Romeo thinks Juliet is dead for real, thereby NOT going to Friar Lawrence himself to check and just straight-up buying ACTUAL poison and killing himself--all in time to get him killed with seconds to spare before she wakes up again.

It's pretty ridiculous. But in a fun way! I do love the Baz Luhrmann version letting her wake up just as he's drinking it, because then we get to see Leo DiCaprio's "OH SHIT!" face as he realizes he's a total idiot and didn't think things through. (I have...much more to say on that subject a couple reviews from now.)
Nov. 15th, 2013 04:39 am (UTC)
OMG. Everything that could go wrong with the poison/not-poison plan did. Ya'll need to flow chart that shit and figure out your Plan B, C, and D.

(I know, I know; it goes with showing just how immature Romeo and Juliet were.)
Nov. 16th, 2013 09:52 pm (UTC)
Not so sure about Juliet, to be honest--the not-poison thing WAS her Plan B, with Plan A being suicide. I kind of appreciate that she had the presence of mind to ask for help--from three different directions--before actually going through with it, and only AFTER the not-poisoning failed did she give up. The not-poison plan was a terrible one, and yeah, everything that could go wrong did, but it wasn't her idea.

(Again, I have more to say about this, in future posts.)

Edited at 2013-11-16 09:55 pm (UTC)
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 14th, 2013 09:56 pm (UTC)
The point that Romeo and Juliet is actually close to being a comedy makes a lot of sense to me.
The point was first suggested to me in my *thinks* second Shakespeare class, I think? I've had about five different ones at different ages, and they ALL looked at R+J. The fact that it's a love story is significant, the deal with the young lovers being a theme in a lot of his comedies. The tragedies? Not so much. At least not nearly as often.

But I don't think that's just because modern audiences think the characters are foolish. They might well have seemed even more foolish back at the time when marriage was closer to a contract with the bride's father rather than a commitment between equals.
Hadn't thought of that, but that's another reason why the story feels so timeless--the idea of young people going off and doing things without their parents' permission (or just against their wishes) gets recycled depending on the context, but there's always an element of that around somewhere.

RE: Silent Hill--I'm not saying I was "impressed," but that I liked it despite everything so very wrong with it, the only real point in that paragraph being a thing universally (or mostly) hated by other people isn't always an indication that I'll hate it also. Still, I'm not gonna go back and take that review down just because my opinion on it has warmed somewhat--that would be silly.
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