Shakespeare at the Movies: Romeo and Juliet Through the Ages

As one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, Romeo and Juliet has been re-imagined many times, and there are several great movie adaptations to choose from. Romeo and Juliet is not this blogger’s favourite Shakespeare play, but sometimes a good adaptation can make me forget that and revel in the youth and tragedy of the thing. It’s also a play near and dear to our heart because of our mainstage production this past year (which had a modernized setting but featured Shakespeare’s original words).

Let’s discuss a few of the very best film versions!

1) Romeo and Juliet, 1968, dir. Franco Zeffirelli

This Academy-Award-winning film stars Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting as our doomed lovers. It is a very faithful adaptation for the most part – set in 15th century Renaissance Italy, starring actors who were almost as young as the characters in the play (15 and 17), using Shakespeare’s original dialogue. The only changes are fairly small; the film has a different final scene than the play, several scenes were eliminated, and so on. These are all fairly standard changes when going from play (or book) to film, as some things simply work better on the stage (Juliet’s dramatic final monologue, for example) than in a movie (where she simply says one line and stabs herself).

This movie gets a lot of things right, particularly the ages of its stars. Shakespeare meant for Romeo and Juliet to be young, headstrong and – let’s face it – a little bit stupid (or perhaps blind with love), and the youth and physicality of the play really hits home when you see Hussey and Whiting together. Shakespeare’s original dialogue also sparkles, and Zeffirelli was good at cutting out scenes that might have made the movie drag on.

Bottom line: this is the version to watch to get the most faithful adaptation, as it’s probably pretty close to the story as Shakespeare intended it to be seen.

2) William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, 1996, dir. Baz Luhrmann

Many devoted Shakespeare fans don’t like this movie, but your blogger is not one of them. It’s Shakespeare for a new era, directed by visionary Australian Baz Luhrmann (check out Moulin Rouge! and Strictly Ballroom as well; these three movies form his trilogy of films about theatre and the arts). The movie features superstar Leonardo DiCaprio (just one year before he sank with the Titanic), and Claire Danes, who was then known for her TV show My So-Called Life.

It’s a modernization of the play set in Verona Beach, California, with the Capulets and Montagues portrayed as business rivals. However, Luhrmann chose to use (most of) Shakespeare’s original dialogue, which gives the movie a very unique feel when combined with the ultra-modern set. The cinematography in this movie is stunning; Romeo and Juliet first see each other through a fish tank, as just one example. Romeo and his pals Mercutio and Benvolio are portrayed as bored teens looking to blow off some steam and cut loose. Danes and DiCaprio have tons of chemistry and the entire movie has a sort of punk feel, which in this blogger’s opinion really captures the youthful essence of the play.

However, the movie garnered mixed reviews from critics at the time. In its own way, it’s just as faithful to the plot as Zeffirelli’s version, but with some interesting additions. The prologue and epilogue are interpreted as newscasts, while the rival gangs have gunfights instead of swordfights. It also happens to have a great mid-90s soundtrack. This version of the play is not for everyone, but it’s definitely doing something new and interesting with Shakespeare’s text, and we think he’d approve.

Bottom line: do not skip reading the play and watch this instead. Watch it after you’ve read the play! And be amazed at how much Leo and Claire have grown up.

3) Gnomeo & Juliet, 2011, dir. Kelly Asbury

This is a version of the play starring garden gnomes voiced by James McAvoy and Emily Blunt. In 3D. What’s not to love?

Though we can’t know for sure if Shakespeare even knew what garden gnomes were, we think he would probably appreciate the creativity of this adaptation. It’s a kid-friendly story, and gnomes are adorable. Enough said.

4) Romeo and Juliet, 2012, dir. Carlo Carlei

It seems like every generation has their own version of R&J, and here comes a brand-new one. Next year Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth will star in this film, which is being shot on location in Italy. Steinfeld is currently 14, which means she’s just as young as Shakespeare’s Juliet, while Booth is a bit older. The question is whether or not this film will capture the magic of the play while still having something new to say as an adaptation. It seems quite similar to the very traditional Zeffirelli film, but only time will tell.