Romeo and Juliet: Adaptations

It was Baz Luhrmann’s movie adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that reignited my love of Shakespeare. Even before I read Romeo and Juliet, I had “read” it. The story is an interesting instance of when a book’s (or play’s) reputation precedes it. The longevity of Shakespeare’s works is not a result of their inclusion in academic canons but of their well versed prose and emotional universality. In fact, it was a college course in Shakespeare that totally turned me off to him. It was the pervasiveness of his texts in colloquial English and the overarching emotional themes of his plays that kept me tuned in regardless (“A rose by any other name,” right?).

There were dabbling’s in Shakespeare through high school English classes. I kept my Signet paperbacks for over a decade before finally letting go. By then they were so badly worn that they were held together by whatever means possible (taped, glued, rubber-banded) smudged text, dog-eared pages, and all. I guess you could say I loved Shakespeare but I wasn’t “in love” with him. There’s this great segment in Dr. Tae’s “Culture of Teaching and Learning” video where Lawrence Krauss, an internationally known theoretical physicist and lecturer, criticizes high school science education, saying “we’ve been doing something very effective to de-educate them [high school students], disinterest them in science.” The same can be said about the teaching of Shakespeare.

The turning point for me was when my Shakespeare professor and his puppy (someone who I learned later was his graduate assistant) laughed at another student when that student presented them with a graphic novel adaptation of Hamlet (or was it Macbeth?) This was the late 80s and graphic novels hadn’t yet gained academia’s imagination. I felt bad for the student being mocked and decided then that Shakespeare wasn’t for me. This was my second college Shakespeare class. As a result of youthful impertinence, I failed my first Shakespeare class because the class was so dull I decided I would rather sleep in my own bed than in an uncomfortable broken down desk despite the latter’s provision of a lullaby.

Comic Book Resources recently posted exclusive cover art from Stan Lee’s futuristic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The project was announced at last year’s New York Comic Con. Despite my dislike for academia’s treatment of Shakespeare, I am sometimes more disturbed by mass consumption’s treatment of him. Often these commercial adaptations lack depth. They rely on the novelty of changing the species of the characters without any real insight into the circumstances driving the conflict.

So far my favorite adaptation of Romeo and Juliet is the anime, Basilisk from Funimation. Imagine the story of Romeo and Juliet set in feudal Japan with Kougas and Igas in the roles of Verona’s Montagues and Capulets. Romeo and Juliet are now called Gennosuke and Oboro. The importance of their roles in their families (clans) go beyond the original’s favored son and favored daughter. Gennosuke and Oboro are both newly seated leaders of their clans, burdened with the responsibilities of both the actions of their subordinates and their own decisions. 

While the 24 episode long anime suffers from some repetition, there were enough new developments and revelations sprinkled around to maintain interest. By now with Shakespeare the viewer pretty much knows how its going to end, but there is enjoyment in how the adaptors and actors get us there.

With that said, it doesn’t seem right to write about Romeo and Juliet without mentioning America’s most famous adaptation of the play: West Side Story. Part love story, part social commentary, West Side Story ties Shakespeare’s enduring love story to the social tensions of new immigrants adapting to the harsh realities of life in a their adopted country.

From the original through the adaptations, Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s most enduring plays because the young lovers refused to be thwarted either by the social biases of the day or the impetuousness of their age. It’s their stubborn idealism, their refusal to conform that so deeply engages us in their story. They haven’t had to sacrifice up until the very end of the play where when they do sacrifice it is for this very pure, over the top, naïve notion of love.

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