William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet The children of two warring families fall in love with tragic consequences for all concerned. Shakespeare’s play has been subject to several adaptations in the centuries since its first appearance, including movement to other media (painting, music). But in the twentieth century there have been three which have surpassed adaptation and significantly reformulated it for their media: Sergei Prokofiev’s 1935 ballet, the 1957 Laurents / Sondheim / Bernstein / Robbins Broadway stage musical West Side Story and this film. Though there have been countless other film versions, including interesting and stimulating updates and adaptations like Zeffirelli’s controversial 1968 rendition, Abel Ferrera’s China Girl, and the 1961 film version of West Side Story, none have told the tale so vividly as film. It’s not merely that the setting has been changed to a slightly futuristic Verona Beach, California and that guns have been substituted for rapiers.
Though this helps to make the story more immediate to a contemporary audience, it is likely to seem as quaint in thirty years time as the stereotypes and caricatures in West Side Story do today. But over and above the surface excitations of a trendy rock score and sexy young stars is a beautifully crafted film which embraces the spirit and the letter of the text without surrendering to stage convention. It is as cinematic as Citizen Kane, and while the words are equally important (as they were in Kane), they are not all that it is. This film communicates the passions and emotions of its characters in a series of beautifully mounted sequences which roughly coincide with their stage originators but assume a unique and vividly changeable cinematic character in a way a stage version never could. From the John Wooesque shoot out which begins the film to the surreality of the Capulet ball to the operatic death of Mercutio to the baroque finale in a neon and candelit church, it never stops merely to present the dialogue for the dialogue’s sake even though it retains the Elizabethan tongue.
In this way the original text is unharmed but perfectly comprehensible. The images tell the story, and the dialogue complements and enlarges them. Aided then by a suitable rock and pop score and by the trappings of the contemporary setting, the film uniquely communicates the spirit of the age in which it was made, but equally tells its tale in a manner which speaks to its audience. One of its strengths is that most people won’t even need to think of it in terms of a great work of cinema. It simply works. It is possible to enjoy the magic without worrying about sleight of hand.
Thus casual audiences can derive as much pleasure from it as cineastes, possibly more. The performances are uniformly good, from its young stars to more experienced supporting players like Miriam Margoyles, Brian Dennehy and Paul Sorvino (John Leguizmo is particularly flamboyant Tybalt). It is fast moving and energetic to a fault, and bolstered by its flawless translation to contemporary America. It is far an away one of the most enjoyable films of recent years, and its box office success attests to its ability to perform simply on the level of popular entertainment. Of course it is not without precedents (by definition, being postmodern). Among them are two primary strands; the recent rash of ‘faithful’ adaptations of classic novels bearing the name of the original author in the title such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (neither of which was particularly faithful in the final analysis), and some ambitious restaging of Shakespeare both in theatre and film including Richard III and Hamlet Goes Business.
This dichotomy (or is it a dialectic?) between the nominally literal and the at least partially abstract is the essence of the postmodern text, and can produce cowardly non-committal works. But William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet is blessedly bereft of irony, allowing the strength of the parable to be as effective for a contemporary audience as it was upon its original production, and is more likely to produce discussion among its viewers about the tragedy itself than the merits or demerits of its manifestation. Although in one sense this return to innocence thesis is a form of denial, and indeed the film relies heavily upon the intersecting codes of postmodern existence for its pace and rhythm, it is perhaps more true a work of art than many which evince the same style. It does not demand pointless reverence to outmoded conventions, but neither does it deny meaning in human interaction. The romance and agony of the characters is real.
All cinema is artifice, but that does not mean that it needs to be fake and cheap. William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet is a postmodern spectacle produced in the era of Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear and Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but is nonetheless and integral and essential work of art capable of purging the soul and raising the mind out of the passive morass of knowing self indulgence which constitutes much of its ilk. You can feel with it, and not be ashamed. It is a sensitive tale told to a desensitised world. Like the blinded Montagues and Capulets, the postmodern audience are unable to see what is pure though eyes full of preconceptions.
Only love can break though, and whatever it seems to do to the eyes and ears on the level of affect, this film restores to postmodern cinema its heart. Shakespeare Essays.