From a purely visual standpoint, there’s no reason why Carlo Carlei’s upcoming take on “Romeo & Juliet” should need a screenwriter (especially one so famous as Julian Fellowes, aka the guy who created “Downton Abbey”) – after all, the film is both set in the appropriate location (Verona, Italy, where it was also shot) and the appropriate time period (the fourteenth century), and it just so happens to be based on something called “a play” by a guy named “William Shakespeare,” which is arguably the most famous work by the most famous writer in the world. That should be solid enough source material, right? If you’re going to do a faithful adaptation of the something penned by the Bard, it stands to reason that your scripting might be limited to expanded stage direction (to take it off, well, the stage) and performance instructions for your actors. There’s no need to rewrite actual lines for such a production, one so well-known and so famously well-scripted.
Except Carlei and Fellowes don’t seem to feel that way, since that’s the only feasible reason why the new film not only features abbreviated scenes that chop whole swathes of Shakespeare’s famous lines right out like so much unwanted fat, but also includes whole sections that have been written by Fellowes alone, poorly penned chunks of dialogue that ape Shakespeare’s style without any of its eloquence or power.
Earlier this month, The Telegraph’s Claire Duffin investigated the film and its script, and her findings were both disheartening and somewhat insane. As Duffin notes, the film has been “billed as a traditional adaptation of the classic love story,” to the point that trailers for the film include the line “From the greatest playwright ever known.”
But Shakespearean scholars have another story to tell, as Duffin’s piece shares that various Bard specialists “have accused Fellowes of altering the Bard’s work to such an extent that ‘little to none’ of it is used.” Using a pair of the film’s recently released trailers, experts have “found that Fellowes simplified lines, invented new ones and reconstructed phrases.” Pardon?
So what’s the problem? Basically, high school students bent on bluffing their “Romeo and Juliet” knowledge who turn to the new film for educational endeavors are going to be in deep trouble. (And just imagine all the yearbook quotes that will wrongly credit Shakespeare in the coming years? The horror.) Oh, and it’s also a dunderheaded insult to literature and literary interpretation at large. One of the scholars, Caitlin Griffin, of the Folger Shakespeare Library, summed it up nicely: “While the language still sounds lofty, they’re not Shakespeare’s word choices – and that’s a big deal. Fellowes’s adaptation, while poetic and set in the period of Shakespeare’s play, is not using Shakespeare’s language…I honestly cannot see the point of an adaptation in which little to none of the original text is used and it’s set in an all-too-familiar setting.” Even better? Griffin continued, “Every reader, scholar, performer, and director brings their own perspective to Shakespeare’s original text and gives their own meaning to it. It’s not that Fellowes loses Shakespeare’s meaning, but rather that it’s Fellowes’s meaning and not Shakespeare’s that will be playing out in this film.”
Precisely – this is not William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” it’s Guy Who Created “Downton Abbey” Gives Us His Version of “Romeo and Juliet.”
So what sort of stuff did Fellowes inject into one of the world’s most enduring love stories? Enough that one trailer yielded such wholesale Fellowesisms as “Juliet, if your heart like mine is full, then tell the joy that awaits us this night” and “What have I done but murdered my tomorrow?” along with a heinously rewritten version of the classic line “These violent delights have violent ends” that now requires Paul Giamatti to say “These violent passions can have violent ends,” which even he delivers in a manner that simply rings false. At one point, Tybalt (played by Ed Westwick) yells, “Come settle with me, boy!” And that’s just the stuff that happens in two and a half minutes of this patchwork mess of an adaptation.
As for Fellowes’ Shakespearean hack job? In a new clip released from the film, one centered on the play’s trademark balcony scene, it appears that Fellowes has chopped about half the lines meant to be spoken between Romeo and Juliet (which you can read here). Those can’t be important, right? Yeah, probably not. Definitely worth jettisoning for no discernable reason.
And what does Fellowes have to say about the film? Only that he wanted to rewrite Shakespeare for a “new generation,” apparently one too stupid to understand the original words but smart enough to enjoy a poor parody of all those “lofty” Shakespearean turns of phrase that have kept the Bard in business for over four hundred years. You keep your violent passions, Fellowes, we’ll take the standard delights.
“Romeo and Juliet” opens on October 11. We’ll be bringing our copies of the play to follow along.