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Romeo & Juliet: the film adaptations

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By Jill L. Levenson


In its fall preview issue for 2013 (dated 2-9 September), New York magazine lists Romeo and Juliet with other films opening on 11 October 2013, and it comments: “Julian Fellowes (the beloved creator of Downton Abbey) tries to de-Luhrmann-ize this classic.” The statement makes two notable points.

First, it connects the new film primarily with its screenwriter, known to potential audiences from his successful and recent work on television, as well as his screenplay for Gosford Park. Although it mentions in passing only the two lead actors, members of the cast are also familiar from more or less star turns on television and film in the United Kingdom and the United States. For instance, Hailee Steinfeld, who plays Juliet, performed the role of Mattie Ross in the Coen brothers’ True Grit; and Douglas Booth, who appears as Romeo, was Boy George in the BBC Two dramatic film Worried About the Boy. The new Romeo and Juliet assigns a few secondary roles to seasoned actors: Paul Giamatti, known for a series of accomplished films (such as Sideways), plays Friar Laurence; Lesley Manville, having collaborated often on films with Mike Leigh, plays the Nurse. Damian Lewis enjoys the most celebrity. At the moment he brings to the relatively small role of Lord Capulet his background as Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody on the highly-rated American television series Homeland.

Second, the New York statement connects this twenty-first-century version of Romeo and Juliet with the last important film of the tragedy in the twentieth century, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (released in 1996); it suggests that Fellowes’s adaptation subverts Luhrmann’s. Further, reviews of the new film link it with the other influential cinematic version during the second half of the twentieth century, Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (released in 1968).  They find visual parallels in the settings and costumes, and in the youth of the actors performing the lead roles. Possibly Abel Korzeniowski’s score here and there recalls the romantic background music that Nino Rota created for Zeffirelli’s film. In short, contemporary reviewers and commentators compare Fellowes’s film with the two cinematic adaptations that capped the last century. Both adaptations were original and widely known.

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Aware of theatrical and cinematic precedents, Zeffirelli absorbed key events and characters from the play, with only one-third of the dialogue, into a new composition. He deliberately contextualized the narrative in the anxieties of the late 1960s, reflecting on issues from sexual identity and generational conflict to Vietnam, omitting passages which interfered with the impression of contemporaneity. In his film version there are few traces of lyricism. He distinguishes the protagonists from other characters by allowing them to speak less – and less articulately – than the others, even while they look beautiful and very young. Played by the teenage Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, they had turned into victims of the twentieth-century zeitgeist. Zeffirelli’s vision produced the most popular and lucrative rendition of the tragedy for a period of almost thirty years.

Luhrmann’s version also reflects its era, perhaps more specifically, in its postmodern style: it echoes key figures in cinematic history, from Busby Berkeley to Federico Fellini to Ken Russell; it uses techniques and images familiar from television networks and genres. Like Zeffirelli’s, this film adapts the plot, characters, and about one-third of the dialogue to a medium which allows the play a radically new ambience. It projects sympathetic lovers, the young Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio, in an urban setting of anarchic gang violence and disintegrating social structures, a political tableau. With his reworking of Romeo and Juliet, Luhrmann spoke clearly to the very late twentieth century: North American teenagers rushed to see the film more than once, and adults gave it a positive, sometimes enthusiastic response.

Despite the claim in New York, Fellowes’s film adaptation barely refers to these precedents, nor does he use much of Shakespeare’s text. “Seventy-five per cent of the film is Shakespeare,” he claims in an interview. “We’ve tightened the narrative, we’ve made certain things clearer that were difficult to understand, but the great speeches are all still in” (quoted in The Globe and Mail, 11 October 2013, R3). Although statistics are difficult to confirm on the basis of viewing the film rather than analyzing its screenplay, it seems apparent that Shakespeare’s dialogue has been cut by well more than twenty-five per cent. Fellowes either omits Shakespeare’s words completely or he substitutes others which make the diction more colloquial and the literal even more obvious. Early in the film Romeo’s first love interest, Rosaline (unseen in the play), appears and explains: “Juliet is a Capulet. The Montagues and the Capulets are mortal enemies!” Later the Nurse will complain: “my back is killing me”’. The film sounds as if the notes to an introductory school edition of Romeo and Juliet had been incorporated into the dialogue to replace or paraphrase Shakespeare’s text.

Nevertheless, Fellowes has preserved Shakespeare’s plot, the dozen events in sequence established by Luigi da Porto in his 1530 novella and lasting through the sixteenth century. As he says, ‘the great speeches are all still in’. Sometimes during those moments – Romeo and Juliet meeting at the party, the balcony scenes – the performances capture the lyricism of Shakespeare’s text. At other times, performances of unexceptional speeches achieve depths beyond what the original script would seem to allow. Damian Lewis’s response to Juliet’s disobedience at the end of the third act, and Paul Giamatti’s preparation of the sleeping potion at the beginning of the fourth, could stand alone as brilliant and original explications of those episodes. Even the Apothecary who appears briefly in the fifth act, played by veteran actor Leon Vitali, has an unusually meaningful exchange with Romeo. If Fellowes ignores the kinds of experimentation and social commentary represented by his immediate predecessors, the actors, and perhaps the unsung director, Carlo Carlei, have recovered fragments from the original play and given them new wholeness. They make it seem worthwhile to view this latest film adaptation along with Zeffirelli’s and Luhrmann’s, the better to appreciate the uniqueness of each one.

Jill L. Levenson is an expert in Shakespearean literature, and a professor at Trinity College, the University of Toronto. She has published scholarly articles and books on Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and edited Romeo and Juliet: The Oxford Shakespeare.

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Image credit: Movie poster for the 2013 film Romeo and Juliet. By: Amber Entertainment , Indiana Production Company, Swarovski Entertainment. Used to serve as the primary means of visual identification at the top of the article dedicated to the work in question. Via Wikemedia Commons.

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One Response to “Romeo & Juliet: the film adaptations”
  1. James Cappio says:

    Neither of the two leading film adaptations of Romeo and Juliet is adequate. Zeffirelli misses no chance to leach every drop of irony, humor, and depth out of the play, embalming a Tragic Tale of Young Love in quasi-operatic spectacle. To take just one egregious example: when Romeo and Juliet meet in 1.5, their conversation, in stichomythia, forms a sonnet. It was a stroke of genius for Shakespeare to show how perfectly these two are made for each other by having them complete each other’s lines. Missing the subtlety, Zeffirelli buries the exchange under a dance scene that highlights Nina Rota’s excruciating “A Time for Love.”

    Lurhmann’s energy and the interest in Shakespeare his version continues to generate excuse many of his excesses (though Harold Perrineau’s voguing Queen Mab/Mercutio really is a vamp too far). What’s not excusable is that, as Rene Weis remarks in his introduction to the new Arden Third, Romeo and Juliet is Juliet’s play—and that’s not what Luhrmann filmed. Juliet starts as a submissive thirteen-year-old; in a matter of days she becomes a woman ready to destroy the world for what she loves. In anyone else’s hands this transformation would be ludicrous, but Shakespeare makes us believe it through a series of tremendous speeches (“Gallop apace, ye fiery-footed steeds,” 3.2; the famous Aubade of 3.5—“It was the nightingale, and not the lark”—the drinking of the sleeping potion—“Romeo, Romeo, Romeo, here’s drink. I drink to thee,” 4.3, among others) all of which Luhrmann deletes or cuts to the point of insignificance. It was probably inevitable given the imbalance of star power, but Luhrmann converted Juliet’s play into Romeo’s.

    Professor Levenson quotes Fellowes as saying that “the great speeches are all in,” but her post gives me no confidence that he even knows which ones they are. Heaven knows how desperately we need a replacement for Zeffirelli and Luhrmann, but I see no reason to think this is it.

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