By Sam Burzinski
Web Content Contributor
I’m a normal guy; I’m just like you! I pay my taxes, put my pants on one leg at a time and I had a massive crush on the girl who played Iago in my sophomore year English class reading of “Othello!” Shakespeare is probably England’s best export, barring those Heinz beans, and the people love the Bard like nobody’s business.
In particular, everybody knows about Juliet and her Romeo, practically since birth. Star-crossed lovers, yadda yadda yadda, fair Verona, yadda yadda yadda, wherefore art thou. I’m sure that you know every note, every line, every iamb by heart at this point in your learned life.
I’m most fascinated by, however, how Hollywood captures the play in the form of movies: the highs, the lows, the Apothecaries – all of it. So, for this year’s Valentine’s Day, I’d like to take you through nine whole cinematic depictions of “Romeo and Juliet,” hand selected by yours truly.
But first, some ground rules. I split the nine into two categories: straightforward adaptations (the biggest criteria was whether or not the two are actually named “Romeo” and “Juliet”), and those that are a bit looser with the plotlines (For the most part, this just meant two warring factions and love between them).
I’m also judging on the loosest criteria one could set for a movie: how well does it fit the source material? Is it having fun with the words of ol’ Willy S.? Is it a tragedy? (This last one was a particularly striking point for me. The story is a tragedy! It’s not a lovely teenage romance! They die! Alas, Hollywood loves a good happy ending, so look forward to this one being broken quite a bit. In any case, I digress.)
Here’s the list in no particular order:
WEST SIDE STORY (2021)
I’ll cop to this right out of the gate: this is one of my favorite movies ever made. Biased? Uh, yeah absolutely. I saw this particular film on opening day in an empty theater and I’ve never had more fun. I’m a musical guy, so it’s certainly not for everyone, but it’s just so great!
It’s a remake of a musical adaptation of a play, so there’s a bit of confusion as to the true source material, but Tony and Maria, Jets and Sharks? That’s pure Shakespeare right there, baby. From frame one, Steven Spielberg opens up on a 1950s New York unlike any other movie before or since. The world is harsh, but there’s a warmness in the camaraderie, as criminal as it is. The songs? Don’t even get me started. Every single frame that Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez and nearly every single other cast member inhabit are full of joy and sweeping musicality that you just can’t get anywhere else.
Major props, not to the movie in all honesty, but to Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins for crafting such a perfect adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” that lay at the heart of this movie. The transposal onto what was then-modern New York City lays a stellar groundwork for Shakespeare, and there’s an edge to the music that you just wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else at the time of the musical’s original staging.
Plus, it’s a tragedy! Sure, Maria doesn’t die at the end, but Tony sure does, and in this partial-credit world in which we live, that’s more than good enough for me. The movie ends on a downer note, but so does “Romeo and Juliet!” The joy that the movie instills in the viewer up to that point more than makes up for it.
PIZZA MY HEART (2005)
Mamma mia, this movie was rough.
“Pizza My Heart” is a 2005 ABC Family original “cinematic” “masterwork,” transposing the events that transpired in Verona, Italy, to now taking place in Verona, New Jersey. The Montebello and Prestolani families have a longstanding pizza-based blood feud back to the old country and take it out on each other by having rivaling pizza joints in the present day.
Joe Montebello is a regular Romeo Montague, and Gina Prestolani seems like she could have just walked out of a production of Shakespeare in the Park (I am lying to you). I can’t hate on things too hard; it is, after all, an ABC Family original TV movie. Shiri Appleby and Eyal Podell do their jobs exactly how you’d want them to for this sort of thing, though they sure aren’t winning any Critics Choice Awards any time soon.
The movie was a cool 85 minutes, but it felt like I was sitting here all day waiting for it to end. I wanted to get something out of “Pizza My Heart” so badly, I did. I wanted it to be bizarre, to laugh at a wooden delivery of Jersey dialect, but the only thing I got was watching actors Dan Hedaya and Michael Badalucco plug in some microwaves and pray frantically that the other would drop dead.
Rough stuff, but surely it can only go up from here?
GNOMEO & JULIET (2011)
Everybody has a movie that they would have to watch in elementary school over and over on a Field Day, or when there was a party, or when the teacher was a little too hungover to get a real lesson going and didn’t feel like educating you. For me, that movie was 2011’s animated gem “Gnomeo & Juliet”, with “Rio” and “Hoodwinked Too” coming in just behind (2011 was a big year for this genre, apparently).
“Gnomeo & Juliet” is a rendition of “Romeo and Juliet”, but with a cavalcade of lawn ornaments taking the stage. The film has an oddly all-star cast of well-respected British actors lined up for the various gnomes, frogs and plastic flamingos that litter the screen at any given moment.
“Gnomeo & Juliet” was a passion project for Sir Elton John and it shows. One of the biggest highlights of the movie is the inclusion of his music, so at least it has something good going for it.
Character-wise, the Redbrick and Bluebury clans live in the backyard of Mr. Capulet and Ms. Montague, two elderly folks with a feud of their own. Benny, Gnomeo’s main man, is a combination of Mercutio, and Benvolio and is a goofy lil’ fella. Beyond that, it’s pretty much the same as the original, except for a talking bust of Shakespeare that Gnomeo meets in a park, who comments on this movie’s similarity to his work. I’m not entirely sure what that accomplishes beyond making me wish I was watching a better movie!
Anyway, I can’t rag on it too hard. Given that this is the only entry that’s really “for kids”, “Gnomeo & Juliet” is a perfectly fine film, and it provided us, as a culture, with the funniest sequel of all time: “Sherlock Gnomes.”
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S ROMEO + JULIET (1996)
I went into this movie thinking “Yeah, I can probably handle how absolutely stunningly beautiful Claire Danes is in this movie.” And then I couldn’t. I. Just. Couldn’t.
Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation starring the aforementioned Danes and a young Leonardo DiCaprio at the height of their teenage charms is absolutely incredible. The film updates the 16th century to late ‘90s Verona Beach, where the two families are now rival mafia gangs, swords are now guns cleverly named after types of weapons the original characters would use and everything is slick, frenetic and in-your-face. The kicker? All of the original dialogue remains.
Despite the open Hawaiian shirts, ecstasy trips and drag lip-syncing, the characters still speak in the dialect that would have been heard on the Globe in 1598. This may be a barrier to some at first, but the performances tell you everything you need to know about how the dialogue should feel.
That’s what great Shakespearean acting is all about: the words and lines may be dense and complicated to a modern ear, but the performances of the actors convey such a distinct tone and idea that still connects everything. John Leguizamo as Tybalt, Paul Sorvino as Fulgencio Capulet and a young-but-still-somehow-completely-recognizable Paul Rudd as Dave Paris are highlights of this.
This is one of those movies I think every teenager should try and watch. If there’s one way to digest the tale of “Romeo and Juliet” in as pure a form as possible while keeping a modern edge to it, it’s this film. Loud, energetic, yet still completely moving and indicative of Shakespeare’s work, “Romeo + Juliet” has it all.
TROMEO AND JULIET (1997)
If you’re not yet familiar with the works of Troma Entertainment, here’s your chance. The brainchild of producer and director Lloyd Kaufman, the movies of Troma are known for being wildly transgressive, disgusting, perverse, and, above all else, entertaining. The 1997 cult hit “Tromeo and Juliet” is absolutely no exception to this rule.
This movie was the first writing credit for “Guardians of the Galaxy” director and current DCU mastermind, James Gunn, and it shows. Gunn was brought up in the Troma sphere, and his style is clear in “Tromeo.”
The movie is wildly irreverent, from what can feasibly be shown on a movie screen, but there is an odd sense of heart at its core. Tromeo and Juliet as characters truly do love each other (despite being, spoiler alert, siblings), and the source material at its core is respected on a screenwriting level. It’s just that there are a lot more bodily fluids than Shakespeare may have put into his work.
If you’re a fan of body horror, mutilation, the punk culture of late 1990s New Jersey, brief intellectual debates on PBS children’s broadcasting and you’re not particularly squeamish, “Tromeo and Juliet” has it all covered for you.
My one hope with this piece of the article, in particular, is that one reader has now found their new favorite movie studio, and the other 99% of readers have now found their new least favorite movie studio.
ROMEO AND JULIET IN YIDDISH (2012)
I have always been oddly fascinated by the Jewish religion. Having been raised Catholic in western Maryland, Judaism was always something relegated to token cartoon characters. “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish” inundated me with more information about Judaism, particularly the ultra-Orthodox sect of the religion, than I ever could have asked for.
Clearly the passion project of direct-screenwriter-producer-actress Eve Annenberg, the movie follows two distinct plotlines. The first revolves around a nurse and part-time playwright, played by Annenberg, being forced by her graduate program to adapt “Romeo and Juliet” into the Yiddish language.
To accomplish this, she hires a few Orthodox apostates who are slumming it through the streets of Williamsburg, and they all learn a little something along the way. The other plotline shown to us is the actual adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” that they are working on, updated to be between families of Chabad and Satmar Jews in 2012 Brooklyn.
Beyond the movie itself, I could find exceedingly little information about this movie online. Wikipedia only mentions it very briefly on the page for Yiddish Cinema as “an independent production which employed formerly ultra-Orthodox nonprofessional actors,” and boy does it show. “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish” were produced on a shoestring budget, but I can’t fault it for that in the least. There was clearly a strong degree of effort to it, and the actors are certainly trying, but boy was I confused.
Helpful captions pop up from time to time to shed a little light on Orthodox Judaism for those who may not be as informed, but it does nothing to help with the twisting plotlines. Given that all the actors from the “real-world” plotline double as their “Romeo and Juliet” counterparts, things get muddled as to which is which very quickly. Oftentimes, I only knew which one was which if someone addressed another by name.
On top of this was one character by the name of Zalman, cared for by Annenberg’s “real-world” nurse character, Ava, whom, early on, claims to be “leaking the magic of Kabbalah” and sparkles emanate from his fingertips. I have no clue as to what that Kabbalah magic accomplished for the plot and what his deal was beyond that.
Once again, I don’t think this movie was made for me. I could go on and on about how weird and confusing and messy and oddly engrossing this movie became for me, but life is far too short to devote any more time than is absolutely necessary to “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish”
WARM BODIES (2013)
Released at the height of the late-2000s and early-2010s boom in zombie-related media, “Warm Bodies” is a perfectly adequate take on “Romeo and Juliet” that revolves around the male half of the star-crossed duo (R, played by Nicholas Hoult) being, well, a zombie. Teresa Palmer is Julie, an apocalypse survivor saved by R from being devoured by his kinsmen, and hijinks ensue as R realizes what love feels like.
If I was, like, 15 in 2013 and going on a date, there would be far worse options for me to be seeing. “Warm Bodies” is founded on the somewhat troubling trope of “kidnapper as lover interest”, but Hoult’s voiceover as R’s thoughts and his minimal verbal grunting are just charming enough to keep it out of your mind for the whole movie. Things are fairly goofy but, beyond those minor grievances, things go swimmingly for the movie. There’s even a balcony scene! I have to give one of these movies props for a nifty little twist on what has gradually become a somewhat bland setup.
Would it be fair to say that Academy Award-nominated actor, John Malkovich, is “slumming it” as Julie’s father and dictatorial leader of the surviving humans? Maybe? But anything the man touches is golden. His performance is the most surprising, even when doling out a great deal of exposition for the audience’s sake.
I honestly don’t have a ton to say about “Warm Bodies” one way or the other. It’s a perfectly serviceable piece of cinema, it has a zombie makeover montage set to m83’s “Midnight City” and Nicholas Hoult has, and always will be, at his best playing weird little creeps, of which R is one of his most pleasant. Far worse ways to spend an afternoon!
ROMEO MUST DIE (2000)
So, if you’ve seen “Romeo Must Die”, a 2000 kung-fu action/gang warfare Jet Li vehicle, you’ll know what I’m going to say. And no, this isn’t really a takeoff on “Romeo and Juliet”. Beyond the name and some vague semblances of a romance between Li and Aaliyah as key family members of warring gangs, this is just a bland action movie; but a cool bland action movie, I will say. It’s also Valentine’s Day, and any movie with “Romeo” in the name is going to be at least a little bit fitting.
Jet Li is this movie’s greatest strength. Every second he’s on screen, your first thought is, “Man, I hope this guy does something cool next,” and the man delivers. He beats up some Chinese prison guards, smokes Anthony Anderson in three different situations and kicks a man on the top of the head so hard his whole spine shatters all the way down in a phenomenal x-ray shot of the “Mortal Kombat” style kill.
This being Aaliyah’s feature debut and the only one released in her lifetime makes you wonder what could have been. She does exactly what the movie requires of her as the female lead of an action film in 2000, but there’s something that tells you she could’ve been a phenomenal leading lady in the years following.
The plot? Oh, right. Bad. Something about a contrived gang war between Black and Chinese mob factions and a land deal to build a stadium for an expansion team in Oakland, a team that, in 2000, still had the Raiders. Some twists and x-ray kung fu hits later, and the leading pair walk away together over the credits.
When “Romeo Must Die” was rough, it was capital-R Rough. But when it was good? I was hootin’ and hollerin’ and losin’ my mind. Just don’t go in expecting to have a nice romantic movie night with a loved one.
I have something to own up to before I close this article. At the start, I said there were nine movies on this list. If you’ve been keeping track, there are only eight movies on this list. That, dearest mathematically inclined reader, is because I could not find a copy of the film “R#J” if my life depended on it. All I know about the movie is that it’s a modern take on “Romeo and Juliet” told almost entirely through social media interactions and videos captured on phones, starring a cast of exclusively actors of color. Sounds really cool? Well, it was only shown to the public twice: Sundance Film Festival and SXSW, both in 2021. Not a single copy of “R#J” exists anywhere online, at least not to my knowledge. If you can find it someday, I highly encourage you to watch it and call 555-555-5SAM to tell me what you think.
So, what have we learned? Most movie adaptations of “Romeo and Juliet” aren’t exactly cinematic masterpieces, for one. Both versions of “West Side Story” still reign supreme as the high-water mark, with Baz Luhrman crafting a movie that ignites every sense at once. Everything beyond those that are covered in this article is hit-and-miss and it’s tough to nail down a good recommendation. If it’s of any use to you in this ranking-obsessed world in which we live, you can find my personal ranking list here.
“Romeo and Juliet” is a literary work of subtlety, tragedy and dense metaphor after metaphor to describe teenage feelings of love. It stood the test of time for over 400 years to be seen today as a masterwork and one of the best-known works by William Shakespeare, a man I’m confident in saying is the most well-known playwright in history. Most of these movies, however, have not.
Watch these movies with a loved one and have a wonderful Valentine’s Day!
Featured Image from Magdalena Szymaniec and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
Written by: Amaya Lewis