It’s impossible to estimate the effect William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has had on the modern day concept of the love story. It’s not uncommon for someone to reference those two star-crossed lovers when talking about a couple with a truly romantic history. Even though Romeo and Juliet’s tragic end is anything but a modern day happily-ever-after, people tend to cling to the young couple’s love-at-first-sight beginning and not their heartbreaking conclusion, to the point that many seem to ignore the play’s allegorical aspects completely.
Just as Shakespeare created his own interpretation of the story of Romeo and Juliet (he wrote the play as its known today, but the story of the ill-fated lovers has been in existence for some time before he wrote his first quarto in 1597), so have many film directors and actors created their own interpretations of this timeless story of love, hate, betrayal and redemption. The play was first adapted for film in the 1920s, first as a silent film and then with sound at the end of the decade. These productions, while well-received at the time, have not endured as much as the ones that followed them.
Franco Zefirelli’s 1968 film adaption of ,Romeo and Juliet is generally considered to be a faithful representation. Shakespeare scholars and purists could likely come up with an almost endless list of differences between the Bard’s original words and the screen version, but considering that Zefirelli’s production came almost 400 years after the original, a completely faithful rendition seems nearly impossible.
Younger audiences will probably have a hard time envisioning Romeo and Juliet as anyone other than Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, so popular was Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film adaptation. The film was set in “modern day” Verona, but the characters all used Shakespearean language (with varying degrees of comfort). Danes and DiCaprio managed to recite the most famous Romeo and Juliet quotes (“Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo,” etc.) with relative success, but it’s likely that they didn’t have members of the Royal Shakespeare Company shaking in their boots.
It’s possible that the most famous modern day film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet is West Side Story. The musical-turned-movie is set in New York City and focuses on a rivalry between two gangs: local thugs known as the Jets and recent Puerto Rican immigrants called the Sharks. Predictably, a member of the Jets falls in love with the sister of one of the Sharks and musical tragedy ensues.
Romeo and Juliet might not seem like it lends itself to a mid-20th century Broadway musical right off the bat, but when one looks more deeply at the underlying themes of the play, namely, the dangers the can come from a long-standing (but essentially pointless) hatred, there’s virtually nowhere this play couldn’t go. Because while most people think that the play ends with Romeo and Juliet dying, it actually ends with the Montagues and Capulets mourning their mutual loss and vowing to end their pointless feud.