Classics Month IV, or, Romeo yo Romeo

by TheLitCritGuy


After last week’s somewhat controversial choice I decided here to round off classics month with a choice that no-one could argue with and for a stone cold classic that means only one thing, for the first time here on thegreatandthegood its time for the Page Boy to open the Bard.

At the beginning of Classics Month I said that was aimed at books that you really should have read already and to be honest Shakespeare doesn’t really fit into this category for most people. Now, I’m not going to make the somewhat basic mistake of assuming that everyone has read any Shakespeare but if they haven’t, everyone has at least heard his name and seen that famous portrait. In a way that mass of popularity makes it really quite hard to do a comparison of a film version of Shakespeare with the original text. Shakespeare is so deeply ingrained in Western literature, and thus culture, trying to say how ‘well’ someone adapted his work is like trying to assess how good an artist Da Vinci was. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to try though and I imagine this isn’t going to be the only time that we try to plough through the colossal adaptive history of Shakespeare.

First up, is the classic love story and I am using the article here without any sense of hyperbole. Romeo and Juliet is really the definitive tale of doomed teenage love and is probably one of the most famous plays that Shakespeare ever wrote. I can’t stress enough how silly the next bit of the blog will sound, but for those of you who haven’t read, or heard of Romeo and Juliet –here are the high points.

The play tells the story of two feuding families in Verona; the Montagues and the Capulets have been at each other’s throats for generations and in the midst of this feud two young people – Juliet, Capulet’s daughter and the son of the Montague’s, Romeo make the tragic mistake of falling in love with each other.  Along the way people fight, the feud ends up costing people’s lives and the end for the two young lovers, is, as in all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, not good to put it as mildly as possible.

The play has been the staple of English literature classes for generations now and forms part of the syllabus for tragedy classes in universities across the world. Without this play, the whole course of Western literature shifts – without going too far down the alternate history route, this was one of Shakespeare’s early successes and so without this, then things could be very different indeed.

This play, a central tenet of literature that has been staged and adapted in various ways, and the film version more or less had to happen. The film under consideration today is not the first version of a film adaptation –syllabuses across the academy jumped on a film version 1960s and for a long time Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet was considered a classic that was impossible to top in terms of cinema. Until a new film found its way onto the curriculum of schools and classes, 1996’s film Romeo + Juliet.

The film in many ways re-ignited the vogue for transposing Shakespeare’s plays into new environments. Here the action takes place in the modern-day setting of Verona Beach, with characters keeping the older language but everything else becoming modernised. Now, let’s get onto the good stuff – and for me this might be a little painful. Baz Luhrman is famous as a director with a strong sense of visual aesthetics, he famously directed the whiz-bang pastiche that is my least favorite film, Moulin Rouge but here his style works adding some fun and drama to what could be a stale re-telling of the same old story.

This leads nicely into the next point the cast all do great work; Leonardo Di Caprio and Clare Danes are the two eponymous leads and do share a nice chemistry though personally I think Danes as Juliet is a little younger looking compared to Di Caprio’s Romeo but nothing here that really puts me off.

In terms of adaptive differences this is an abridged version of the play’s original text but the changes are not really major deal-breakers. The question of whether this is a good adaptation is a more complex question than with other adaptations, because with a text that is so well-known all the cool stylish flicks from the director don’t necessarily mean all that much – with Shakespeare costume, explosions and cinematography is basically window dressing. The strength of the director and, with this play, the two leads is what makes it a good performance and all three do know what they’re doing and as such this is a good version of the play.

Well that’s about it really and I’ll admit that maybe I haven’t exactly been glowing in my opinions here but this is good. But…and here comes my hair-splitting again – I don’t like it. Yes, the director is good but here’s the thing, he’s done a great job in his style, but his style isn’t my taste. It feels overly loud, focused on the flashy nature of his aesthetics. This is the problem with trying to review someone talking on Shakespeare, because it means that no matter how good the job the adaptation does it will never make everyone happy, you simply can’t do it. Crucially though, this adaptation got Shakespeare out of the past for many people and showed the strength , beauty and sheer quality of the language and the stories to be told. That I can applaud  – I just wish  I wasn’t having to applaud the director of Moulin Rouge too!

So classics month is finished now and to be honest I feel like I’ve sold these titles short – they are just a little too big for one humble internet writer to get to grips with, so do me a favor. If you haven’t really tried the classics, give them a go. Find out for yourselves why these stories have endured for so long.