Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare’s most infamous play. Even those who don’t know much about Shakespeare know its elements. The balcony scene, for one thing (which is a window in the original script, by the way), has been parodied and referenced more times than anyone can count–everyone from Bugs Bunny to school drama teams to Saturday Night Live to a 1980s Twix commercial have tackled it in some form. Romeo and Juliet are synonymous with romance–only Launcelot and Elaine or maybe Joanie and Chachi come anywhere close, and even then they can’t compete.
The play is thought to have been written between 1591 and 1595, and was successful right from the first. Some stage adaptations over the centuries have altered it slightly, such as giving it a happy ending, but no matter what form Romeo and Juliet takes, it never flops.
For my part, Romeo and Juliet and I go way back. When I was in the fourth grade, my Gifted and Talented (GATE) reading class put on an edited version utilizing Shakespeare’s original dialogue. I played a servant. Ever since, I’ve loved it and Shakespeare. I’ve had the honor of studying his works with teachers who loved them too: Michael Duda, Richard Santora and Richard Adams, the latter of whom was originally from Oxford. These men helped bring Shakespeare to life for me, and I’m eternally grateful.
Anyway, instead of trying to plow through all of the dozens of iterations, I thought I’d present five of the feature films, with my ranking from worst to best:
5. William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Ugh. This thing just rubbed me the wrong way. There was a lot of bawdiness in the culture of Shakespeare’s day, but Romeo and Juliet is beautiful, classy, and relatively restrained in that regard. Instead of respecting that, Baz Luhrmann took this iconic play and made it sleazy, focusing more on turf wars and then-courant stylings than the romance. The actors screech their lines while twirling beefy handguns. Lord Capulet and Mercutio prance around as drag queens at the Capulet party. Romeo bleats, “Oh true apothecary, thy drugs are quick,” after popping what looks like a Valentine’s Day version of Ecstasy.
Um. Tacky. And unnecessary.
The one bright spot was Claire Danes, but she’s unfortunately overshadowed by all the violence. Descriptors like “mess,” “garish,” and “misguided” have been thrown at this movie, and it deserves every one of them.
4. Romeo and Juliet (2013)
More recently, there’s the film starring Douglas Booth as Romeo and Hailee Steinfeld as Juliet. It opens with, of all things, a jousting tournament, where the Montagues and Capulets have apparently consented to settle their differences with the lance. I thought, “Okay, that’s different.” Jousting won’t bring an angry prince out of the palace to condemn the feud, so there’s some tension gone, but whatever. Damian Lewis plays Lord Capulet, and Natascha McElhone plays Lady Capulet. The Capulets win, and their champion, Tybalt takes off his helmet, and…it’s Chuck (Ed Westwick) from Gossip Girl. Seeing as Chuck and Tybalt are both hotheads, this casting makes sense, but poor Westwick is so pigeonholed it’s not even funny.
Other than that, the film is just…OK. I enjoyed it, at least at first, but it seemed pretty bland. Maybe it’s because the screenplay was written by Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame, and no offense to any fans, but I’ve never been able to get past that show’s pilot. Not sure why; I think I just got bored. Guess I’m not a Julian Fellowes fan.
3. Romeo and Juliet (1936)
At least the actors in the 1996 and 2013 films were closer to the ages of their characters than in other versions. The 1936 movie starring Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard, not so much. Shearer was thirty-four and Howard was forty-three, when Romeo and Juliet were fifteen and thirteen, respectively. Even more ludicrous was a fifty-four year old John Barrymore playing Mercutio. I understand MGM had to go with what they had, but I wish they could have gone with much younger people.
The acting in the 1936 version is, of course, well-done, and the production itself looks sumptuous because MGM. As long as viewers can suspend their expectations of these star-crossed lovers being spring chickens, it’s time well-spent.
2. West Side Story (1968)
Can’t talk about Romeo and Juliet films without at least a mention of the classic West Side Story, which sets the play to music and features rival gangs who rumble and flick knives at each other. Yeah, more turf wars, but they’re relatively genteel ones. There’s still violence, and people still get killed, but at least most of the guys keep their shirts tucked in and their boots shiny. The romance centers on Tony and Maria, who are Italian and Puerto Rican, respectively. West Side Story’s beautiful score was written by Leonard Bernstein, and there are great performances by all involved. One majorly unusual thing about this version of Romeo and Juliet is (spoiler alert!) there’s no suicide. By either main character.
1. Romeo and Juliet (1968)
1968 was a busy year for these tragic teens, and it was a good one. Some might say that this film should tie with West Side Story as the best film adaptation out there. In a way, that’s true, but I don’t believe the two are equals. While it’s wonderfully done, West Side Story makes much more sense once a person is familiar with its source material.
Franco Zeffirelli’s film is the version of Romeo and Juliet that everyone comes to sooner or later, and for one excellent reason: It does everything right. The film is cast properly, with Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting playing the title characters and Laurence Olivier narrating. This version respects Shakespeare’s dialogue, and it is one of the few that is full of what makes this play so enjoyable–the passion between the lovers. Who, might I add, are the closer to the right ages and have wonderful chemistry.
It also has lots of guys in tights and ballet shoes, which somehow get remarkable traction when running down slippery Italian streets. They’re all very limber, too–I kept expecting someone to do a grand jeté or something. Bonus: Look for a young Michael York playing Tybalt. When he gets mad, his eyes go all laser-y.
But I digress. Like first love, this film is an intoxicating, luxurious, wonder.
(Note to parents: There’s a very brief nude scene.)
Romeo and Juliet is a perennial classic. It’ll be interesting to see what other versions of it are in store for audiences in the future.
All righty, thanks for reading, everyone, and see you tomorrow–another “Origins” post is on the way. ‘Till then, friends…