Books - To - Movies: Romeo and Juliet
In this month's Books -To- Movie's blog post, I will delve into one of the most popular and adapted pieces of literature: William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. This particular literature is a play that is performed worldwide and read as part of the high school English curriculum. Like all of Shakespeare's work, it is in the public domain and is free to use without permission, and can be adapted.
Romeo and Juliet is popular because it has a simple plot and is one of Shakespeare's plays that is the easiest to understand, although it's written in old Elizabethan language.
The Elizabethan language is still very complex, and a couple of movies were made to guide one in the complex language:
Romeo and Juliet, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, was released in 1968. This adaptation for the screen is set in the historical time frame when it was written and used the straight Elizabethan language. The acting, some may criticize and say the film has bad acting because the actors are overacting. But Leonard Whiting's starry-eyed Romeo and the emotional Olivia Hussey's Juliet and John McEnery's Mercutio fits well with their tragic characters.
This was also the first big-screen version of Romeo and Juliet, and I believe the intense acting was done to aid the moviegoer in following the story. The only issue that I have with this film for anyone under 18 is that an adult needs to cover the underage child's eyes because of the partial nudity of both Romeo and Juliet in one scene.
The next big-screen movie adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that used the Elizabethan language with a modernization setting was Romeo + Juliet, directed by Baz Luhrman. This version was released in 1996 with Leonardo Di Caprio as Romeo and Claire Dane as Juliet. This version is clever in that it uses the Elizabethan language with a modern setting. If it weren't so too over-the-top and inappropriate for anyone under the age of 18 because of the adult content that is weaved in the story at the beginning of the film, it would definitely be a version for anyone who is struggling to understand the language.
The final adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that, in my opinion, got it right is the 2013 version directed by Carlo Carlei. In this version, the setting is historical times like the 1968 film, but instead of straight Elizabethan language, there was a mixture of Elizabethan and modern-day language. With this hybrid language, you could follow the story with ease.
The acting from Douglas Booth (Romeo) and Hailee Steinfeld (Juliet) was more natural and relaxed, and the film flowed better. As a moviegoer, I felt more attached to the characters because I understood what they were saying. Also, there were no inappropriate parts that I would have to cover an underage child's eyes.
So, I can not write about movies adapted from Romeo and Juliet and not mention West Side Story, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. West Side Story was released in 1961 (seven years before the 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet). In this adaptation, the set is modern-day New York City in the 1950s, and the rivaling families are replaced by gangs: The Sharks (Capulets) and The Jets (Montagues). This version is also a musical that premiered on Broadway in 1957.
To add more drama to the feud: The Sharks are Puerto Rican, and The Jets are white. This cultural/racial intensity fuels the flames, and the star-crossed lovers Maria (Juliet) and Tony (Romeo) find themselves in the middle.
Also, in West Side Story, characters' relationships with each other are different from Romeo and Juliet. For example, Bernardo (Tybalt) is Maria's brother and not cousin. Anita, Bernardo's girlfriend, represents both the Nurse and Lady Capulet (Maria does have a mother, but she is not seen). These relationship changes create tight bonds that are believable and relatable.
West Side Story also deters from the tragic ending. Yes, Tony (Romeo) dies at the end, but Maria (Juliet) does not. In turn, Maria morphs into the Prince character and chastises both gangs for feuding.
The popularity of Romeo and Juliet is still an ongoing fascination. During this pandemic, The Public Theater in New York City has developed a bilingual in English and Spanish audio play called Romeo Y Julieta, with Juan Castano as Romeo and Lupita Nyong'o as Julieta. You can listen to it here.
Also, a new version of West Side Story directed by Stephen Spielberg is coming out in December.
And if you ever visit Verona, Italy, you can see thousands of love letters posted to Juliet's House.
(Photos by Robert Proto)