When the idea came to do a modern, yet classic, version of Romeo & Juliet, I’m sure you didn’t set out to pen the most bland and uninspired version of “the most dangerous love story ever told” (as the previews tell us). I’m sure you didn’t. You’re an Oscar-winning screenwriter, for God sakes. But alas, you’ve gone and done just that. You’ve created a “safe” version of this “dangerous” story for the people who want to be spoon fed their classics. Too safe in fact. And now, thousands of high school students are going to have to endure your version during English Lit when they could be creating Vines with more inspiration than your script.
The way you managed to dumb down the original material is genius, I’ll give you that. Iambic pentameter, de damned! You made the words sound just enough like Shakespeare that most people under the age of twenty-five might believe it actually is Shakespeare. In fact, the chuckles in my audience seemed to be directed at the jokes, and not your adaptation. Some people clearly didn’t know the difference. Bravo!
You manage to hit all the major dramatic points, thankfully. But, let’s face it, how could you not – the Shakespearian societies would have your head on a stake… if they don’t already. You have the setup of the family feud between the Montagues and the Capulets; the beautiful young lovers who meet and mingle with raging hands and hormones; the scrappy fights between Tybalt, Mercutio, Romeo and Paris; the Nurse and the Friar and their scheming yet loving ways; the inevitable end with grave consequences of sucking back deadly poison and stabbing yourself in the chest. They’re all in there. With new twists, of course (don’t worry, I won’t give away the ending). A new scene or line sprinkled here and there to keep things “fresh”. Romeo’s occupation as a bare-chested artist, for example. Your way of making the original “more accessible” for common folk. Jazzing it up for the new generation. I’m with you.
Now, I’m not sure if your script called for the dialogue to be delivered with such urgency, but Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth, as Juliet and Romeo, were often stumbling to get their words out. Early Modern English or Early Modern English with a Fellowes’ twist, it mattered not. For instance, during the famous balcony scene, I couldn’t help but feel you were trying hard to channel a little Sorkin in there, trying to capture the essence of fast paced witty teen dialogue. Or, maybe that was all you? I know, I know, Romeo’s hanging out on her balcony and he shouldn’t be there. But you lost the joy of that scene for me, and how their young lust blossoms. If anything, you could have played with the language a little more in those moments.
And, speaking of playing, what happened to the rest of the sexy-time scene? I hear it got left on the cutting room floor because of Hailee Steinfeld’s age. Too bad. This version comes off a wee bit chaste for modern times. You should see what the teens are watching on the Interwebs these days.
So, Julian, your version of “never was a story of more woe” left me lacking. It’s watered-down entertainment distilled from rich source material. It felt flat and outdated for the audience you were aiming for. Even the deaths were kind of boring. The only time your writing came alive was through Paul Giamatti as the Friar, especially when he was giving Romeo a hard time about staying out all night. That was clever.
Maybe that’s where you deserve some credit, as a producer. If you had a hand in getting Paul Giamatti and Lesley Manville on board, thank you. They saved me from being completely bored out of my mind.
Walking out of the theatre, I wanted to go immediately home and re-watch the 1996 Luhrmann version. I wanted to restore the sense of being so in love that you feel like you’re going to die when it’s taken away. That’s what young love feels like, Julian. Do you remember that far back? I’m not so sure.