“Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene”
It is a story we all know, considered by many to be the greatest love story ever told. While that might be up for debate, we cannot deny the universal appeal and the timelessness of the story of Romeo and Juliet.
The premise of the story is simple - two teenagers from feuding families fall in love despite the odds. Every new retelling of the story has remained true to this premise, even if the new interpretation pits gangs against gangs, race against race, clique against clique, or humans against zombies, vampires or even aliens.
As we settle into the month of the love, join us to explore 5 different iterations of the story of Romeo and Juliet, created and developed to suit each new generation, and to find out how each version is a product of its time.
1. The 1936 film
The first big adaptation of Shakespeare’s romance was the 1936 version directed by George Cukor, who later gave the world My Fair Lady and A Star is Born. This black-and-white version boasts the original Tchaikovsky ballet score, but its one flaw is the fact that Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer play Romeo and Juliet. Both the actors were over 30 at the time, and did not resemble the star-crossed teenagers in the story.
Much of the drama and passion of the play lies in the understanding that the lead characters are rash and lustful teenagers. When they’re played by adults, the story suddenly feels silly, and impossible to relate to. But 1936 was during the height of the Hay’s Code, which set strict, conservative regulations on motion pictures. Showing teenagers falling in love and committing suicide would never have been allowed, so the story’s heroes were replaced with adults that toed the code, even if this meant ignoring an important aspect of the original.
2. West Side Story, 1961
One of the best-known retellings of Romeo and Juliet is the 1961 classic movie musical West Side Story, which took home 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor and Actress for George Chakiris and Rita Moreno. This version of the famous tale has Montagues and Capulets reimagined as the Sharks and Jets – two rival gangs in New York City.
The Sharks are a group of Puerto Rican immigrants while the Jets are non-immigrant Caucasian New York residents. This tragic tale is about a young Puerto Rican girl and a Caucasian teenage boy who is trying to get out of the gang life, and with the backdrop of gun warfare, violence and xenophobia, was a brilliant allegory for real-life struggles in America. (The song “America” in the musical encapsulates this sense perfectly.)
And the backdrop is still applicable to the USA today, so it’s no surprise that Steven Spielberg is remaking West Side Story for a whole new generation. Watch West Side Story now »
3. The 1968 film
The version that is considered the truest to the original play is Romeo and Juliet (1968) by Franco Zeffirelli. The film was shot on location in Italy, and the leads we played by actual teenagers, Olivia Hussey (15) and Leonard Whiting (17). What the 1936 Cukor version failed at, the Zeffirelli version embraced, and teenage actors helped to authenticate the story and made the romance that more relatable and tragic.
This beautiful film won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design, and every scene looks like a piece of art. Even though the film was set in the 14th-Century, there is also something quintessentially 1960s about it.
Romeo and Juliet was released in the height of the anti-war movement in the late 60s, which saw teenagers leave their parents, immersing themselves in free love and the hippie movement, and a film that featured two teenagers rebelling against their conservative parents was poignant at the time of release.
4. The 1996 film and 1998’s Shakespeare in Love
The 90s saw two Romeo and Juliet adaptations – Baz Luhrmann’s ambitious Romeo + Juliet (1996) and John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998). They were vastly different to each other, but still very much definitive of the times. Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet made a heartthrob out of Leonardo DiCaprio and created a version of the classic tale set in modern times that was unlike anything we had seen before.
The film retains the original Shakespearean dialogue but is set in Verona Beach, California, and swaps swords for guns and tunics for Hawaiian shirts. The flashy cinematography and funky soundtrack (the influence of 90s grunge rings loud and clear) give the film the appeal of a music video, which makes sense, as this was made for the MTV generation.
This is the film that many turn to when looking for Romeo and Juliet adaptations, as it is truer to the source material than the acclaimed Shakespeare in Love. The Madden film told the story of William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) falling in love with Viola de Lesseps, a noblewoman (Gwyneth Paltrow), and how their romance echoes his famous play. The gorgeous film gives a fictional and idealised view of the well-known story, and also changes the original’s tragic ending into one that is charmingly bittersweet.
5. Warm Bodies, 2013
With the teenagers in the 2010s’ adoration of all things supernatural, one would think there would be plenty of vampire/werewolf/zombie iterations of the greatest romance ever told, but one stands out – Warm Bodies (2013). The film, set during a zombie apocalypse, sees R (Nicholas Hoult) falling in love with a human girl, Julie (Teresa Palmer), after he killed her boyfriend and his humanity has begun to return to him. It’s an interesting take, with the threat of death surrounding the pair of young lovers, and the fact that R can’t really speak – he’s more of a grunter – plays heavily against Shakespeare’s love of dialogue. Watch now »
In different times, stories will get interpreted differently, but part of the brilliance of William Shakespeare’s plays was that he wrote human stories filled with emotion that will always be relevant – despite the era, or clothing, or setting. And each version of Romeo and Juliet is a testament, not only to the audience for which it was made, but the cultural precipice on which it stands. It’s not just a teen romance, it’s a signifier of the times, the one staple as the world around it changes.
The story of star-crossed lovers will never not be enticing.
Feel like indulging in some Romeo and Juliet this Valentine’s month? Showmax has a variety of options available, from West Side Story and Julian Fellowes’s 2013 British adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, which sticks to the plot and the period of Shakespeare’s original, but uses very little of the actual dialogue, to the delicious zombie thriller Warm Bodies.
You can also watch the Twilight Saga’s New Moon (which was inspired by Romeo and Juliet), or if you are in the mood for a series, try Star-Crossed, which tells the story of a human girl and an alien boy who fall in love despite being surrounded by prejudice and violence. Watch all of these on Showmax now »