Oh, please. The headline is not a spoiler. More than 400 years after the play was written, “young doomed love” is the Romeo and Juliet brand, and I suspect that most anyone coming to see something with that title on it would actually be disappointed with a happy ending. True, they did such things in the 1800s, but it proved a passing phase.
Odds are that those kooky kids from Verona are dying somewhere in the world every night. However, movies about them, while not infrequent, only come along every so often. The newest appeared this past weekend and made a spectacular belly flop at the box office, averaging just over $1,100 per theatre, meaning that based on the average U.S. movie ticket price from 2012, about 136 people saw it per theatre between Friday and Sunday. A dud by any other name would smell as bad.
Some will say the film died due to lack of stars: Hallie Steinfeld was impeccable in True Grit but she didn’t become a teen queen as a result; Douglas Booth was entirely unknown to me, as were his prior film and TV credits. Ed Westwick brought some Gossip Girl capital as Tybalt, but apparently not enough; fine actors such as Damian Lewis, Stellan Skarsgard, Natascha McElhone and Paul Giamatti have been in some great movies, but no one buys tickets for R & J to see the adults, do they?
The fact is, while staying true to the R & J brand in storyline, period design and almost all things, the film’s producer and creator failed to attend to one of the world’s most powerful brands: William Shakespeare. That’s why their film seemed a folly as soon as we started hearing snippets of airy language that sounded old-timey but not Shakespearean in the trailers, and accelerated when screenwriter Julian Fellowes, ostensibly promoting the film, pompously informed us mere mortals that most people can’t understand Shakespeare and that thanks to his own highly expensive education, he was well suited to dumb down old Will for the rest of us. Yes, this new R & J offered up the sure-fire marketing lure of simplified language for all the dolts who like their Shakespeare de-caf.
To be fair, only a handful of countries of the world actually hear Shakespeare in its original language; he is a foreign playwright on most continents and so we don’t know what is actually being spoken in countless productions. His stories take priority, not the precise words. This gives weight to a brilliant joke in Star Trek VI when an alien character urges that Shakespeare is best heard “in the original Klingon.” But it is an act of perversity to translate Shakespeare from English to English, one even odder than English language operas in North America that still feel compelled to provide supertitles.
I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the Shakespeare brand carries a mixed message. On the one hand: greatest playwright in history, profound insights, timeless plots, stunning language. On the other: the language does in fact stun some people into incomprehension, and years of bad English teachers and ill-advised productions have made Shakespeare seem a daunting experience for so many who might enjoy his work if they weren’t so afraid of it.
Even though this new R & J film wasn’t a studio production, it summons visions of pitch meetings out of What Makes Sammy Run: “I’m giving you the straight dope. Shakespeare – great story man, little wordy though, language a little dusty. Here’s what we do: we keep absolutely everything that makes his stuff sell year after century, but we put it in language everyone can understand. But let’s keep it British. Maybe we can get that Downton Abbey guy to do a rewrite.”
The result was a product which tried to exploit the Shakespeare brand at the same time as it was draining it of its appeal. For people who find the word Shakespeare daunting, just the mention of his name can be a a turn-off; for those whose hearts flutter when they hear it, bowdlerizing the language eliminates any interest in seeing it. That’s not to suggest that reinventions of Shakespeare aren’t fair game: it’s been done in everything from Joe Macbeth to West Side Story to 10 Things I Hate About You. Even Sons of Anarchy is rooted in Hamlet. Heck, in Washington DC, there’s the Synetic Theatre, which is acclaimed for wordless Shakespeare. But Synetic isn’t foolish enough to sell their work as the same old Will and just get by with a program insert saying,” At this evening’s performance, the actors will be mute.”
I’m no Shakespeare scholar any more than I am a movie box office prognosticator, but having seen two stage Romeo and Juliets in the past two weeks, I admit to schadenfreude at the film’s failure, since it was such a foolish business move from the moment Fellowes’ agent got the call (surely after Tom Stoppard fell over laughing) and because I could have called it the moment that first trailer came to light. Our lovers will live to die another day on stage and screen; the IBDB alerts me to a Romeo and Juliet in Harlem due out next year. Using the original language. As for this version, its failure is no tragedy – and certainly not a Shakespearean one.