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Never Was a Story of More Woe
Baz Luhrmann’s energetic adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the star-crossed lovers, hit theaters 20 years ago Tuesday, joining a long line of cinematic reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s beloved tragedy. Here, we rank 12 notable remakes of the play, with approaches ranging from straightforward Renaissance adaptations to a zombie comedy to a classic Hollywood musical. Check out our countdown to the greatest movie version of the greatest love story ever told, ahead.
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12. Tromeo and Juliet (1996)
To say that Tromeo and Juliet is in poor taste is an understatement of Shakespearean proportions. The work of Troma Entertainment (the films of which were described by EW in 2008 as “trash in a class by itself"), this only moderately original, no-budget Elizabethan-inflected film from newbie screenwriter James Gunn (yes, that James Gunn) gets some points for smartly incorporating the original text at key moments (“She doth teach the torches to burn bright;” “Parting is such sweet sorrow”) and for casting Lemmy of Motörhead as the Chorus, but loses all of them with the revelation that — spoiler alert! — Romeo and Juliet are brother and sister, among other disgusting new additions. Sorry, Troma, but T&J comes in dead last — though in this case, that may be taken as a compliment.
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11. Love Is All There Is (1996)
This unforgivably bad rom-com moves the lovers to the Bronx in the ‘90s, where the children of rival Italian caterers star in their local church’s production of Romeo and Juliet and fall for each other while under the spell of Shakespeare’s play. We can give co-directors Joseph Bologna and Renée Taylor a little bit of credit for acknowledging the great power of the Bard’s poetry, but absolutely none for the fact that every single punchline is a tired cliché about Italian Americans and/or horny teenagers. The film is notable primarily because its Juliet — called Gina here, and with a bad Italian accent and no apparent personality — is played by none other than a 21-year-old Angelina Jolie.
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10. Romeo Must Die (2000)
Of all the star-crossed movie lovers on this list, including the animated gnomes (more on them later), Jet Li and Aaliyah win the award for having the least chemistry. Andrzej Bartkowiak’s action thriller Romeo Must Die pairs them up almost as an afterthought to its convoluted gang-war plot, into which Han Sing (Li) and Trish O’Day (Aaliyah), are thrown when they each lose a saintly brother to the other’s father’s evil henchman. Aaliyah is appealing on her own and Li’s better action sequences are jaw-dropping, but the movie is shallow and dull, and the neon X-ray effect that Bartkowiak employs whenever someone is brutally murdered is early-2000s moviemaking at its worst.
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9. Romeo and Juliet (2013)
Carlo Carlei’s 2013 incarnation of the tale is beautiful, shot on location in Italy, with gorgeous costumes and an appealing young cast led by Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth. Delightful as it may be to look at, though, listening is a different thing entirely: Carlei and screenwriter Julian Fellowes (of Downton Abbey fame) committed a blasphemy worse than any of the lovers’ idol worship-themed flirtations when they decided to make a straightforward Renaissance adaptation…with horrible, dumbed-down, semi-Shakespearean dialogue. There are a million ways to stage the Bard around the brilliant original text and offer a genuinely original interpretation. The only new spin this R&J puts on its source material is to assume its audience’s illiteracy.
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8. Gnomeo and Juliet (2011)
Kelly Asbury’s animated version of Romeo and Juliet sees the story play out in two neighboring gardens. The gardens’ gnomes, identified by their hats as blues and reds, have a deep hatred of each other, for which their primary release is through highly competitive lawnmower races, naturally. The amazing voice cast includes James McAvoy and Emily Blunt as Gnomeo and Juliet, Michael Caine as Juliet’s father, Maggie Smith as Gnomeo’s mother, and Jason Statham as Tybalt. Patrick Stewart plays a statue of William Shakespeare, whom Romeo encounters in a park in one of the film’s many oddly placed nods to its source material. Gnomeo and Juliet has its charms, but sticks to the script perhaps too much to feel like it works on its own.
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7. Romeo and Juliet (1936)
Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer play the star-crossed lovers in George Cukor’s 1936 black-and-white affair, which had the good sense to use Tchaikovsky’s iconic ballet score and the bad sense to dress its players in some truly heinous costumes. The straightforward adaptation’s real failure, however, lies in its casting. Howard and Shearer are both, obviously, great actors, and both confident with the language — but they were also both more than twice the proper age of their respective roles. The lovers’ youth is as essential to Romeo and Juliet as their families’ quarrel, and it’s hard to really get on board with this 40-something man and 30-something woman falling all over themselves for each other like a pair of googly-eyed teenagers. Grown adults would never be — for lack of a better word — so stupid.
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6. Private Romeo (2011)
A military academy is where we lay our scene for this adaptation, which nods at the Renaissance tradition of having all-male ensembles (and gives life once again to Shakespeare’s many hidden jokes about it) — though none of the actors here are playing women. Alan Brown’s 2011 indie begins with its students reading Shakespeare’s play in English class, then finding themselves living it out — using the original text almost exclusively — in their lives when two of the young men at the academy (Seth Numrich in the Romeo role and Matt Doyle as Juliet) fall in love. Though the plot begins to show some strain from the transposition as the script races towards its tragic conclusion (which is not fulfilled here), the repositioning of the conflict from family rivalry to homophobic tension makes Private Romeo a compelling reinterpretation.
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5. Warm Bodies (2013)
What’s in a name? In Jonathan Levine’s comedic zombie-apocalypse take on the tale, just a single letter — our hero (Nicholas Hoult) is a zombie who calls himself “R,” because that’s all he can remember of his name as a human. When he falls in love with a human girl, Julie (Teresa Palmer), after killing her boyfriend, Perry (Dave Franco), his humanity begins to return to him. It’s an effective, if not especially faithful or profound, approach to the story, and R’s struggle to speak anything more than grunts, combined with the running joke of the mystery of his true name, cleverly nod to Shakespeare’s characters’ fixation with words and what they mean, as well as their tragic failure to communicate. Luckily, just because Warm Bodies takes place during the zombie apocalypse doesn’t mean that it has to end so badly.
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4. Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Two years before Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio began his path to full-blown heartthrob status when he played Romeo (opposite Claire Danes’ Juliet) in Baz Luhrmann’s version of Shakespeare’s great romance. The kinetic adaptation retains the original dialogue but sets the action in “Verona Beach” in a hyper-stylized present day, and like the director’s take on The Great Gatsby, which would come years later, his R+J can veer into self-indulgent territory. It only makes sense that this timeless story about teenagers should be aimed at contemporary teenagers, though, and Luhrmann’s music-video version succeeds, where so many sluggishly reverent period pieces have failed, in Making Shakespeare Sexy Again — an accomplishment due more to its captivating lead actors than its frantic editing or flashy mise-en-scene.
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3. Shakespeare in Love (1998)
John Madden’s swoonily romantic Shakespeare in Love dramatizes the writing of Romeo and Juliet rather than adapting the play itself, but intertwines the two narratives so deftly, we consider it an adaptation in its own right — and a wonderfully witty and original one at that. When William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) has terrible writer’s block and owes his theater a play, he finds his muse in the beautiful Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a noblewoman who dreams of being onstage. The script by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, the latter of whom had previously reimagined Shakespeare with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, cleverly works in countless references to and devices from Shakespeare’s plays, and incorporates much of the original text of Romeo and Juliet through the actors’ rehearsals, which is performed as well as it is in any full-blown adaptation. It’s not straight Shakespeare, but it’s probably the most affectionate movie on this list — with a perfectly sad, sweet, non-double-suicide ending.
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2. Romeo and Juliet (1968)
Of all the straightforward Romeo and Juliet adaptations, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 incarnation is the one that doth teach the torches to burn bright. Shot on location in Italy in brilliant Technicolor, with stunning costumes and gorgeous young leads, the movie is almost unfathomably beautiful. Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey were both unknowns when they starred as Romeo and Juliet, and though neither of them navigates the Shakespeare with the confidence of Olivier (who, it is worth noting, plays the unseen Chorus in the film), their very artlessness seems to carry their performances better than brilliant technique or command of the material ever could. The other great star of the show here is Nino Rota’s stirring love theme, a melody as piercing as the blade that poor Juliet takes to her heart. O happy dagger!
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1. West Side Story (1961)
It speaks to the brilliance of Shakespeare that when we reimagine his plays in strange new places, they work all the better — and it speaks to the perfection of Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story that it beat out all these lush Renaissance retellings for the top spot among Romeo and Juliet movies. Fair Verona becomes Manhattan in the 1950s, where rival gangs the Jets and the Sharks are embroiled in a bitter turf war, and former Jet Tony (Richard Beymer) romances the Sharks’ leader’s sister Maria (Natalie Wood) from the bottom of a fire escape. While nobody speaks a word of Shakespeare, the movie’s got the next best thing in Stephen Sondheim, who got one of his first major gigs writing the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s songs, and while the young lovers are both sufficiently charming, it’s George Chakiris’ Bernardo (the Tybalt character) and Rita Moreno’s Anita (the Nurse) who steal the show in Oscar-winning performances buoyed by some killer dancing. West Side Story may not be written in iambic pentameter, but its passion and sincerity get to the heart of Romeo and Juliet better than anything else.