Screen Adaptations of William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’

William Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet somewhere between 1591 and 1595 and the tragedy, which was based on an Italian tale that was translated into verse in 1562 and prose in 1567, was first performed in 1597. Set in Verona, Italy, the story is the tale of two star-crossed lovers and has become a major trope within popular culture, so much so that it has been adapted to screen several times within the last century.

In 1936, George Cukor’s version stared Norma Shearer as Juliet and Leslie Howard as Romeo and the film earned several nominations at the Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Actress, and Best Art Direction. Critics found the film beautiful, but ultimately a missed opportunity because its two lead actors were too mature looking to play the teenaged star-crossed lovers and their Mercutio, played by John Barrymore who was in his fifties during shooting, was also largely miscast. The film didn’t quite garner audience appreciation either, and was seen as too “arty.”

In 1968, Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet was released and the film stars Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, which made it the first film to use actors that were close in age to the titular characters. The film was nominated for Best Director and Best Picture, making it the last Shakespeare film to be nominated for the Best Picture category to date, and was awarded Best Costume Design and Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards. The film boasts a high rating from Roger Ebert and he was quoted saying that the film was the most exciting film of Shakespeare ever made.”

The story of Romeo and Juliet has been reworked several times – in Shakespeare in Love (1998), Joseph Fieness plays Shakespeare as he carefully cultivates the play we know today all while taking scenes and themes from his more popular works; in West Side Story (1961), Romeo and Juliet are reimagined as Tony and Maria, two lovers with different ethnic backgrounds from two rivals gangs in 1950s New York City; in Romeo Must Die (1996), Jet Li stars as a former Chinese police officer and Aaliyah as the daughter of an American Mobster in Oakland California and the two find love despite their feuding families; in 2006, High School Musical pits two rival high school cliques against one another, the nerds and the jocks, and places Zac Efron’s Troy and Vanessa Hudgens’ Gabriella right at the center of the action as our star-crossed lovers – but gives them a happy ending.

The story, despite its popularity, doesn’t quite age well, which is evident in the 1996, Baz Luhrmann remake. He released an MTV-inspired adaptation of the play entitled Romeo + Juliet. The film, which stars Leonardo Dicaprio and Claire Danes as it’s title characters, reimagined the tale to take place in what was then modern-day California but kept the original text. Roger Ebert gave the film a decidedly mixed review, saying that he’d “never seen anything remotely approaching the mess that the new punk version of “Romeo & Juliet” makes of Shakespeare’s tragedy.”  Luhrmann’s bizarre choice to modernize the setting but leave the dialogue is perhaps what makes the film so uncomfortable to watch. Still, Luhrmann’s film just didn’t quite seem indicative of actual 1990s teens, which in part has to do with the fact that the story just doesn’t hold up in a more modern setting.

Romeo + Juliet Film Still

Though the age-old tragedy has been told and retold and reimagined countless times, the archetypal story seems just as popular as it has always been. Romeo and Juliet is a story that just doesn’t seem to get boring despite its often ridiculous notions of love and youth and immaturity. Take the age of our title characters – which often stays the same despite the time period shift in some films – Romeo’s age is unspecified, but speculated to be around sixteen or seventeen while Juliet is merely thirteen. In a retelling that is based in the 1500s, this age range is feasible as people were marrying earlier, but now just seems laughable. The love story loses its power in the youth of its title characters – teens are often fickle, hard to pin down, and the notion that two could fall in love at first site and have a torrid affair within just a few days in modern society seems unreasonable. In text alone, Romeo is hardly a dashing romantic lead. He’s heartbroken over Rosalie one minute and ready to do anything for Juliet the next – Shakespeare manages to capture the immaturity of many teens very early on, which discredits the plays cautionary tale about age-old feuds.

Yet, Romeo and Juliet still manages to find a place within our high schools and middle schools and still remains as one of Shakespeare’s most popular works. It’s themes of love, light and darkness, and time are studied and examined by thesis writing grad students and high schoolers alike. Why? Perhaps it’s the fantasy of it all – though it doesn’t fit today’s reality, there was some reality in the text when it was originated, and the idea that someone could fall so madly in love within the span of a week is enticing despite how questionable it may seem.

Rachel Barkley

Rachel Elizabeth Barkley is a recent college alum of Albright College with a B.A. in Digital Video Arts. A film buff and amateur film maker, Rachel has been writing and directing her own works since high school and is an aspiring screenwriter/director. She writes based on her life so her films include quirky dialogue, charmingly crafted meet cutes, and awkward moments that would rival those within a Wes Anderson film.

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