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Classics are Popular Again

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Shakespeare was no snob. It probably wouldn’t gall him to see Romeo and Juliet on the mass-market paperback racks of the local Barnes & Noble, flanked by the latest Danielle Steel. But he might be perplexed by the play’s most recent packaging: squashed together as it is with Baz Luhrmann’s not entirely faithful screenplay, with fetching young film stars Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio approaching lip lock on the cover.

The silver screen’s current fondness for literary classics means that a certain amount of fresh, free publicity for very old backlist titles falls squarely into pleased publishers’ laps. Works over 75 years old are public domain; anyone can capitalize informally on a hit film by slapping a ”Now a major motion picture” sticker on an existing edition or arranging for more prominent bookstore display. But formal movie tie-ins — the exclusive right to use likenesses of lit-flick regulars like Winona Ryder (The Age of Innocence, Little Women, and now The Crucible) while piggybacking onto a film’s ad campaign — are more anxiously sought.

Usually, that is. Bantam Doubleday Dell, longtime publisher of a dual edition of Romeo and Juliet and its great-great-grandchild West Side Story (now a classic in its own right), eagerly courted — and won — Luhrmann’s version from Twentieth Century Fox. ”The movie’s PG-13; we thought it would be a great thing for teachers,” enthuses Bantam editor Karen Meyers. But Penguin, an imprint known for its trusty stable of literary workhorses and long tradition of tie-in covers, demurred. ”We felt the film was going to be really big, but we had a bit of a problem with its concept — the fact that it wasn’t a straightforward representation of the play,” says Marcia Burch, Penguin’s VP/marketing director.

However, even purist Penguin occasionally stoops to conquer. Its deal with PolyGram’s The Portrait of a Lady, starring Nicole Kidman, includes a trade paperback edition of the screenplay, sold separately from the Henry James original. The publisher’s eagerness is understandable, since everyone is plumping for Henry James to be the Next Big Thing in Hollywood — or at least the Next Jane Austen. Disney-owned Miramax — which has set up its own imprint to publish screenplays, novels, and novelizations of screenplays — will release movie and tie-in editions of the author’s The Wings of the Dove in August 1997.

Would the Bard approve of all this genre cross-pollination? Hard to say … but we hear he wasn’t too fond of borrowing and lending.

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