The renaissance of ‘Romeo and Juliet’

Tuesday, March 12, 2019 - 4:37pm

Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures

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The popularity of star-crossed lovers is anything but tragic — we relish in the misfortune of the characters and celebrate when, against all odds, the two manage to find a way. The most famous pair is, of course, Romeo and Juliet. We all know their story: Two teenagers fall in love and, eventually, both die due to a serious lack of communication skills. Such a simple and, at this point, cliché idea. Yet, the play remains a staple on high school reading lists and Hollywood continually uses this Italian Renaissance-era tale in a variety of modern-day remakes.

“Gnomeo and Juliet,” a 2011 retelling, follows two gnomes from rival gardens in their quest for love. Emily Blunt (“A Quiet Place”) and James McAvoy (“Glass”) star in the Disney remake that never truly strays from the original, aside from the occasional break into song and dance and the fact that Romeo and Juliet are, in fact, gnomes. The movie even tries to open with the famous first lines from the play, but it eventually devolves into a peppy depiction of the black-and-white or, rather, blue-and-red, feud between the Capulets and Montagues. “Gnomeo and Juliet” far from set the standard for “Romeo and Juliet” retellings, but it was a colorful take on the classic.

A better known, and a little more subtle, remake is one of my personal favorites: “High School Musical.” The warring families take the form of Troy’s jock family and Gabriella’s beloved geeks all in East High’s own fair Verona: An obscenely nice cafeteria in Albuquerque, New Mexico. On top of that, Chad (Corbin Bleu, “Jump In”), in the form of several basketball-related puns, brings new life to Mercutio’s character while Taylor (Monique Coleman, “Broken Star), as captain of the Scholastic Decathlon team, provides the manic energy of Juliet’s nurse. Like most family-friendly remakes of “Romeo and Juliet,” there is no death (unless you count that of Sharpay and Ryan’s theater careers), but there is a major fight scene ending with Gabriella’s lunch on Sharpay.

Maybe the “High School Musical” comparison is a bit of a stretch, but it does beg the question: What makes these remakes so popular? People obviously still enjoy the play, and without it nobody would truly understand the ramifications of two people falling in love, despite every Magic 8 ball telling them “Outlook not so good.” But then, why not just see the original? The classic response is that retellings give the play accessibility, that by simplifying Shakespeare’s original work into something more “palatable” it becomes a piece for the masses. But modern-day spin-offs of “Romeo and Juliet” lose the ridiculousness of two teenagers (one not even old enough to give consent!) falling in love in the span of two days, all while their families are fighting for no obvious reason and biting their thumbs at one another.

That’s what makes film adaptations so appealing — no one is putting their own spin on Shakespeare’s famous take (which, for all intents and purposes, was a remake in itself.) In 1968, Franco Zeffirelli brought us a “Romeo and Juliet” with few changes and Olivia Hussey (“Social Suicide,” another “Romeo and Juliet” remake that brought Hussey and her co-star together again) with her intense eyes, bringing a sophisticated air to Juliet that it is missing when a high school freshman reads the play in their head. Not only that, but Leonard Whiting (“Social Suicide”) is a Zac Efron look-alike — if that’s not proof that “High School Musical” is a “Romeo and Juliet” spin-off, I don’t know what is.

The most famous of the remakes, however, stars the one-and-only Leonardo DiCaprio (“Titanic”). A renaissance man in name as well as looks, DiCaprio’s 1996 performance as Romeo was flawless — the boyish charm and agonizingly “passionate” death of the enamored teenager was a perfect practice run for Jack in “Titanic.” Claire Danes (“A Kid like Jake”), like Hussey, turned Juliet from a whiny 13-year-old girl to a slightly less whiny but still naïve 17-year-old ’90s chick. Luhrmann’s take on this definitive storyline demonstrates that is very possible to make an appealing and dramatic version of “Romeo and Juliet” without relying on gimmicks like gnomes or even modern day language. The beauty of Shakespeare’s English isn’t taken away to make the movie more palatable; instead, “Romeo and Juliet” and its characters are imbued with ’90s fashion and grime only serving to make the play even more passionate and heartfelt than the original.

This renaissance of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in film has helped the play maintain relevance and adapt to changing technology. The classic tale is, and will forever remain, a pillar in romantic movies for years to come.