Revivals and film adaptations of the immortal Bard’s work have always been staples of the entertainment industry. With a Romeo & Juliet movie, directed by Carlo Carlei, released in October 2013, it’s time again to look back at other famous Shakespeare works that made the transition from stage to film. Modern or modernized film adaptations make Shakespeare more accessible, not only logistically in terms of the ease of obtaining or viewing a movie versus seeing a play, but also stylistically in terms of language, setting and interpretive scope. Since West Side Story, about a star-crossed pair from rival Manhattan gangs, made it to Broadway in September of 1957, directors have reimagined and reset Shakespeare increasingly in the modern day—especially such popular tales as Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet.
Some might not realize that Hamlet inspired 1994’s animated classic The Lion King, as well as a 2000 film that borrows the original play’s name but places the action in a modern surveillance culture. 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You reinterprets The Taming of the Shrew as a fin de siècle high school drama, and in a similarly loose fashion, She’s the Man gives Twelfth Night a 2006 spin, with a modern tomboy disguising herself as her twin brother to prove she can make a men’s soccer team. Baz Luhrmann’s celebrated Romeo + Juliet, released in 1996, takes the story of the lovers to a contemporary fictional location called Verona Beach. The age-old story also holds a place in this year’s casually futuristic Warm Bodies, which pushes the envelope with its humorous depiction of star-crossed love during a zombie apocalypse.
In 2001, O adapted the story of Othello to the highly tense and dramatic scenes of high school romance, jealousy and basketball. Joss Whedon’s 2012 Much Ado About Nothing received largely positive reviews for its fresh interpretation as a black-and-white modern-dress version of the play, shot in just twelve days. The Boston Globe called it “just about the sloppiest Shakespeare ever put on the screen” and “the most exhilarating”.
By contrast, Carlo Carlei’s Romeo & Juliet was noted in the media, following the release of the film’s trailer and poster, as a strictly traditional retelling. The director decided to flout the trend of modernizing the Bard’s classics and instead opted for more of a period piece shot in fair Verona, Italy. He even got award-winning costume designer Carlo Poggi on board and tasked his set designers with creating a recognizably sixteenth- or seventeenth-century scene. This approach has been called “purist” and “almost refreshing and unusual by comparison,” but some reviewers are unimpressed with the traditional take. Prior to the film’s release, one critic blasted its poster for “trying to give off the impression it’s a modern day retelling when it most certainly isn’t,” which could represent a move to market the film to a broader audience, though it may end up frustrating viewers instead.
While it certainly looks to be a beautiful adaptation, Carlei’s version must stand on its own amid a veritable army of creative Shakespeare interpretations. Does Carlei’s vision lend something fresh to the Bard’s most famous tale? Or does it fall flat? We’ll see.
Did You Know?
Turner Classic Movies claims that there are over 30 Romeo and Juliet movies (and this is before it was announced that another would be released in October of 2013). This number includes silent, foreign and modern versions, starting with MGM’s 1936 black-and-white take; with the lead actors in their mid-30s and -40s, and a budget over $2 million, this was the most expensive sound film at the time. According to Focus Features, there have been at least 50 feature film releases of Hamlet, while Absolute Shakespeare argues that the number extends over 60 film adaptations and 21 television renditions. The site also estimates that there have been more than 250 Shakespeare movies produced. This doesn’t include the many opera, musical, short-clip and stage productions created from all of Shakespeare’s plays beyond Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, the well-known and often-overlooked alike. (DYK by Emeli Warren)