“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Unfortunately, Juliet, this is not always the case. The 2013 cinematic adaptation of Romeo and Juliet got a few things right, but it mostly missed the mark.
Just so you know, spoilers abound. “Uh, Scott,” you say, “it’s Romeo and Juliet … you can’t spoil it for us.” Just you wait, friend. Just you wait.
As soon as the film opens, it becomes obvious they changed the prologue. Yes, one of the most famous prologues of all time … altered for no discernable reason. Surely this is an aberrance. Surely they would not change Shakespeare’s lines throughout the entire play? Guess what? They do. … and not for the better. Sometimes it’s subtle, not overtly noticeable, but at other times it’s downright jarring. You should know, I’m fine with leaving some dialogue out. I’m not a Shakespeare zealot. But literally removing dialogue and replacing it with inferior words and phrases that clearly do not belong? Unforgivable.
I’m a positive guy, though, so let’s first discuss some things I did like. There were a few. I appreciated that they made Romeo a little more stoic and thus believable when he fights Tybalt and Paris. They tend to make Romeo get lucky against Tybalt, or overwhelm him through blind rage, but in this case, Romeo outfought the Prince of Cats. I also felt glad that they actually included Paris at the tomb and showed Romeo slaying him, which, in my opinion, is integral to the character. They included the Friar at the crypt, which, again, is so very important. The locations were beautiful, the costumes appeared authentic, the weaponry looked impressive and, more importantly, dangerous.
Sadly, the list of things for which I do not approve is far longer. Mercutio is, frankly, boring and now related to Romeo, which alters the character in such an extreme manner that he is no longer recognizable or engaging. Instead of his death proving a pivotal moment in the plot, it served instead as a footnote. Benvolio looks about twelve years old and does not for an instant carry the gravitas the role demands. Rosaline actually appears and speaks, which negates the mystery of the woman who first captured Romeo’s heart. Tybalt comes across as pure crazy instead of half-crazy, rendering him totally unsympathetic. Lady Capulet is actually likable and says not one mean thing to Juliet—this of course neuters the drama midway through the film. Lord Capulet is far less manic than the play implies and, as a result, far less dangerous, which also sterilizes what should have been an emotionally charged moment when Juliet refuses to marry Paris. Romeo, while a little more masculine in terms of mannerisms, voice, and fighting than previous incarnations, emits not one ounce of passion or romance. Again, this new direction destroyed much of what made Romeo so identifiable (and, yes, annoying). Juliet did not strike a chord with me at all, thus doing a great disservice to the character. In the play, Juliet is assertive, clever, charismatic, and wise beyond her years. In this film, she mumbled a lot and didn’t even come close to shining until her death scene.
The Friar, though, is perhaps the greatest failure of the film. I hoped to be amazed when they included him at the tomb, something most adaptations refuse to tackle, but found myself left unsatisfied. Instead of the Friar abandoning Juliet to her fate, this Friar begs her to join him, and when she won’t, tells Juliet he will hold of the guards until she’s said her goodbye to Romeo. When the Friar returns, escorted by the guard, he looks horrified to find that Juliet killed herself. This is such a fundamental deviation in the Friar’s established character that it changes the entire film. The Friar was a coward in the play; he left Juliet to her fate in order to save himself, and was then caught by the guard. He knew Juliet would kill herself, and left her to it. To make him a naïve hero in this film was a grave misstep. Consequently, the error is inconsistent with the movie as a whole.
Furthermore, while the older actors in the film did a fine job even if their lines were misguided, the younger actors, particularly those playing Romeo and Juliet, did not appear to fully understand the depth of their characters. In fact, it was quite apparent that the actors in the film were doing just that, acting. I didn’t believe for a minute that I watched dynamic, living characters on the screen. There was no hint of magnetism between Romeo and Juliet, nor any loyalty between Mercutio and Romeo. The two most powerful relationships in the play were reduced to the equivalent of a table reading—dispassionate, uninspired, and flat.
Honestly, I have to wonder if the director and producers understood the timeless themes of the play at all. They cheapened a play that, I feel, encapsulates humanity’s greatest weaknesses and strengths when it comes to both love and lust. They reduced it to a fast-paced, fancy, made-for-TV movie without a hint of profundity.
I have no problem with artists adapting The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet as long as the core of the play remains intact. However, once characters start behaving radically different, once dialogue is mindlessly tossed in, and once themes are ignored or trampled over, it ceases to be an adaption and instead becomes a travesty, no matter how pretty it is.