'Romeo and Juliet': Let's try another Shakespeare play at the movies

The recent film version of 'Romeo and Juliet' as well as the new Broadway adaptation have both received middling to negative reviews. It's time to search elsewhere for a Bard play to adapt.

Philippe Antonello/Relativity Media/AP
'Romeo and Juliet' stars Hailee Steinfeld (c.), Douglas Booth (r.), and Lesley Manville (l.).

The story of two star-crossed lovers seems to be everywhere at the moment, with a new film version adapted by “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes opening this week, a Broadway version of the show starring Orlando Bloom having opened Sept. 19, and an off-Broadway incarnation starring Elizabeth Olsen set for an Oct. 16 opening.

Just about every person who passed through freshman year of American high school knows the story of "Romeo and Juliet." Warring families, two teenagers meet at a party, missed messages, poison, dagger, curtain.

And isn’t that kind of the problem by now? Movie adaptations of the play have been inexhaustible, to say nothing of the stage versions. The most remembered film adaptation today may be the 1968 movie starring Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey (which also seems to be the version everyone watches freshman year of high school), which was directed by prolific Shakespeare helmer Franco Zeffirelli. That version is a good one and it’s one of the last movies to adapt the story traditionally.

Besides that, movies adapting Shakespeare’s play around that time and after seemed to need some kind of gimmick. The 1961 film version of “West Side Story,” which is of course an updated, musical version of “Romeo and Juliet,” set the action in 1950s New York and cast the two warring families as gangs, one American and one Puerto Rican, fighting over turf. The characters followed the beats of Shakespeare’s story, mostly, but spoke in present-day language. (The musical and movie are, of course, both brilliant.)

When “Great Gatsby” director Baz Luhrmann took on the story for his 1996 movie, he called it by Shakespeare’s title – well, kind of; he added a “+” between “Romeo and “Juliet” to make it cool for the kids – and set the action in what was then the present day, late ‘90s California. The actors wore Hawaiian shirts but spoke in Shakespeare’s original words.

The newest movie starring Douglas Booth and “True Grit” actress Hailee Steinfeld is set in Renaissance Italy and boils down Shakespeare's words a bit. This doesn’t help the film, though, according to critics – the movie has a score of 42 out of 100 so far on the review aggregator site Metacritic and Monitor reviewer Peter Rainer gave it a C-, writing that the movie “lacks heat, romance, eroticism, or lyricism.” 

Reviews for Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad’s stage version of “Juliet” have been middling as well, with New York Times critic Ben Brantley calling it “lopsided” and writing that it “never acquires the fiery, all-consuming urgency that 'Romeo and Juliet' should deliver,” though he called Bloom “first-rate” and Rashad “gifted.”

Many factors make up the whole of a movie or play, and it’s easy to say that with a different director or different actors, the current film version or Broadway play might have gone better. But could we just give “Romeo and Juliet” a rest for a little while instead? Joss Whedon just took on the comedy “Much Ado About Nothing,” but we haven’t had a good version of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in a while or “Twelfth Night.” Or if audiences want a tragedy, how about “Antony and Cleopatra” or “Macbeth”?

Let’s leave those poor teenagers alone for a little while.

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