The children of warring families fall in love and secretly marry. Do you really need to be told the plot of Romeo and Juliet?
The play Romeo and Juliet is about two very young lovers who don’t understand the world, and a large number of older people who are out of touch with the young (and don’t understand the world either). Juliet is thirteen, and while Romeo’s age isn’t stated, putting him in his late teens fits the story. Their feelings are true, but they just don’t know what to do about them. Why not just run away instead of attempting a bizarre fake suicide? Because they have barely left childhood. Why does Friar Laurence give such horrible advice? Because he, with his statements that being slow and calm are the best ways, has completely forgotten youth. Don’t trust anyone over thirty? Hell, this play suggests you not trust anyone out of their teens.
Romeo and Juliet (1936)
For the 1936 film adaptation of this story of the generation gap—which makes no sense if the title characters are not very young—producer Irving Thalberg cast his thirty-four year old wife, Norma Shearer, as Juliet and forty-three year old Leslie Howard as Romeo. It is comical watching these middle-aged folks act as high school sophomores. But even more ridiculous is Romeo’s hotheaded, class-clown, friend, Mercutio, portrayed by the fifty-four-year-old John Barrymore. When Mercutio (in Shakespeare’s play) challenges Tybalt, it is as a boy whose pride is hurt, who sees his gang having its “cool” factor stripped away. Here, it is a tired, aging man. Try to make sense of it. The film also crawls, and has had all the sexual innuendo ripped away, but those, and other failing, don’t matter as the casting is enough to sink it. The film is only of interest as an oddity.
Romeo and Juliet (1968)
Franco Zeffirelli got the ages closer in 1968. He cast fifteen-year-old Olivia Hussey as Juliet and while there is a huge difference between fifteen and thirteen, this works pretty well. Zeffirelli put the passion of the play into his film. The romance is believable, exciting, and heartbreaking. Unfortunately, it is also slow. Romeo and Juliet, like most of Shakespeare’s works, needs to move at a lightening pace. Zeffirelli falls into the trap of respecting the words so much he abandons moving the story along. As this makes the story overlong, he cuts important dialog and scenes. That respect also has him cleaning up the crude jokes, which is also unfortunate. But passion is enough to make this watchable.
Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Baz Luhrmann updated the setting for his 1996 Romeo + Juliet, (sometimes entitled William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet in case the gen-Xers it was made for are unaware who wrote the play or are easily offended by the word “and”). The modern city is fine; it isn’t as if the play hasn’t been moved around before. His actors are a bit too old (Claire Danes is seventeen and looks older) for the confusion they display, and Luhrmann does his best to distract viewers from the story with explosions and helicopter blades, but all that could be forgiven.
What makes this a toxic mess is the delivery. It’s OK if the audience doesn’t know the play, but it would be nice if the actors showed some sign that they knew it. Outside of Pete Postlethwaite (Father Laurence), no one appears to know what the words they say mean. It doesn’t help that half the lines are mumbled. No one who knows the story only from this version can possibly understand it. I challenge anyone who has never read the play or seen another production to explain what the hell Mercutio is saying about his dream. It must be important as he is excitedly talking for quite some time. Luckily, I have read the play, and seen reasonable productions, so I do understand the lines (and could fill in the parts that were inaudible). Too bad the entire production wasn’t inaudible.