Never was a story of more woe: 15 cinematic non-Shakespearean takes on Romeo & Juliet

Never was a story of more woe: 15 cinematic non-Shakespearean takes on Romeo & Juliet

1. West Side Story (1961)
There’s a simple reason so many stories across so many genres and media recapitulate Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet: It’s a timeless formula for easy pathos. Two young lovers whose families hate each other and want to keep them apart? It’s the perfect blend of innocent romance and “us against the world” validation for teen angst. It’s also an endlessly flexible formula, one that can be mapped onto any era or setting that happens to feature intractable enemies. Take the most famous loose adaptation of Romeo & Juliet: Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story, which transplants the action from 16th-century Verona to 20th-century New York City, and changes the warring Capulet and Montague families to Puerto Rican and white street gangs. Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s Oscar-sweeping 1961 film adaptation of the Broadway hit focuses on eye-searing colors and vivid cinematography, but the visuals just reflect the intensity of the familiar emotions, as associates of the two gangs—a white boy who tries to escape to better things, and the sister of the Puerto Rican gang leader—fall in love and pay the price. But first: singing and dancing.

2. China Girl (1987)
Abel Ferrara’s China Girl is as much an update of West Side Story as of Romeo & Juliet: The leap from ’60s New York to ’80s New York is pretty short. In China Girl, the warring gangs (and their instantly-in-love offspring) are Chinese and Italian, and the war begins when a Chinese restaurant opens in an Italian neighborhood. Decried as garish, excessive, silly, and far too in love with violence—this came between Ferrara’s cult exploitation movies (Fear City, Ms. 45) and his more respected exploitation movies (King Of New York, Bad Lieutenant), and it's more of a piece with the former—China Girl doesn’t offer much to compete with either of its main inspirations, though in keeping with Ferrara’s work in general, it’s visually striking. (Both in a positive way, and in the sense that David Caruso’s bright-orange hair may painfully blind viewers.)

3. Step Up (2006)
In dance movies, the storyline where a poor, talented street kid with fresh moves and a rich, stuffy ballet dancer with classical ones learn from each other is almost as familiar as the one where a bunch of kids try to win a big contest or put on a show to save their clubhouse. But Step Up goes past the mere John Hughes white-collar/blue-collar romance, eclipsing the likes of Save The Last Dance and Step Up 2: The Streets in the Romeo & Juliet department. As the requisite classical dancer, Jenna Dewan has a grasping mom ready to fight anything that distracts Dewan from dance. In another dance-movie tradition, street-smart juvenile delinquent Channing Tatum has friends standing in for family, but in this case, they’re there for him in all the worst ways: His car-thief buddies are ready to tear him down if his community-service sentence at an art school turns into cross-tracks romance and a wussy love of performance. Forbidden love aside, it’s no surprise when Tatum and Dewan choose to dance their pains away instead of dying in each other’s arms; the uplifting ending is yet another dance-movie convention.

4-5. Underworld (2003) and Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans (2009)
Dance movies aren’t the only Romeo & Juliet reheatings that set the play’s tragic ending aside. The first Underworld movie introduced modern-day warring clans of vampires and werewolves, each of which inevitably had a beautiful, romance-ready, yet deadly young scion who was ready to forget violent rivalry for a chance at sweet, forbidden cross-species lovin’. But instead of dying and shaming their families into rapprochement, Underworld’s star-crossed lovers answer their familial critics with a mass bloody slaughter of everyone in their way. The second sequel took a more traditional approach in its film-length flashback to the Middle Ages. In Rise Of The Lycans, a werewolf clan chief and the daughter of a vampire overlord fall in tastefully sexy love. Unfortunately, unlike their modern-day counterparts, they don’t have guns to back their rebellion against their families, and their defiance isn’t nearly as successful as their descendents’.

6. To The Last Man (1933)
There have been two film adaptations of Zane Grey’s 1921 novel To The Last Man (three if you count the award-winning gay porn version), but the 1933 version starring Randolph Scott, Buster Crabbe, and Esther Ralston is the better known by far. The story melds Romeo & Juliet with the real-life Pleasant Valley War, a deadly, decade-long 19th-century Arizona range conflict between cattlemen and sheep ranchers. In the film version, as the Colbys and Haydens face off over land, one killing leads to another, and the drive for revenge becomes more important than the original causes of the fight. Naturally, amid the conflict, a Colby and a Hayden fall for each other. Fortunately or unfortunately, a huge flood looms in their collective near future, ready to drench both the family feud and the tragic love story.

7. September Dawn (2007)
Christopher Cain’s September Dawn takes a similar historical tack, viewing the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857—when about 120 immigrants bound for California were butchered by Mormons in Utah—through the Romeo & Juliet lens. Sent to spy on the Gentile wagon train working its way across Mormon territory, bishop’s son Trent Ford falls for one of the travelers, Tamara Hope. As always in Romeo and Juliet stories, the grudges are deep-seated and well-established: The Gentile travelers resent the Mormons for being Mormons, as well as for their unwillingness to trade with the wagon train and help it resupply for its dangerous journey. The heavily persecuted Mormons, having retreated to the inhospitable but safely distant Utah wilderness, aren’t happy to see more of the Gentiles they thought they’d escaped—except perhaps for Ford’s bishop father (Jon Voight), who sees the travelers as a gift from a vengeful God, who clearly wants to see them all murdered for justice. True to the nature of the historical atrocity, this is one of the few Romeo & Juliet imitators that end as bleakly as their inspiration.

8. Romanoff And Juliet (1961)
Still, Romeo & Juliet movies occasionally don’t aim for tragedy. Romanoff & Juliet plays the tale for outright comedy, as ambassadors from the Soviet Union and American vie for power in the mythical European country of Concordia. Meanwhile, their children fall in love. The Cold War tensions between America and the USSR were no less entrenched than the wars between any of the opposing groups listed above, but writer-director Peter Ustinov, working from his own stage play (and playing a central role as a canny Concordian general who pits the ambassadors against each other when they attempt to secure his company’s tie-breaking UN vote), keeps the action lightly satirical, drawing as much from The Mouse That Roared as from Shakespeare.

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9. Love Is All There Is (1996)
Another comic take on Romeo & Juliet comes courtesy of Angelina Jolie and
Nathaniel Marston, who play the adult children of two squabbling Italian families—one runs a catering company, the other a restaurant—in the Bronx. Seems like everyone in New York hates each other; maybe that’s why it’s such a ripe staging ground for these stories. And speaking of ripe, check out Jolie’s extra-thick Italian accent in the trailer. Ethnic comedy this broad makes tragedy look good.

10. Solomon & Gaenor (1999)
Mormons aren’t the only group with a Montague/Capulet-level passionate grudge against Gentiles, as the Oscar-nominated (for Best Foreign Language Film) UK production Solomon & Gaenor establishes: Here, the two sides producing unhappy lovers are Christians and Orthodox Jews in 1911 Wales. Ioan Gruffudd (yes, Mr. Fantastic himself) stars as a fabrics peddler who conceals his Jewish heritage for fear of persecution, and all the more so when he falls for a Christian woman with a rabidly anti-Semitic brother. The film is too staid and standard to make much of its forbidden passions, though it’s notable for the one way it deviates from the template: Gruffudd attempts to conceal his family connections even from his lover, and he justifies himself heavily when he’s caught out. Self-serving deception, sadly, isn’t very romantic. (Clip NSFW.)

11. The Bubble (2006)
Modern conflicts are just as vulnerable to the Romeo & Juliet treatment as historical ones. In Eytan Fox’s Israeli indie The Bubble, the star-crossed lovers are Israeli and Palestinian. They’re also gay, which provides some extra conflict in a story already brimming with it: In particular, Palestinian twentysomething Yousef Sweid comes under extensive fire from his homophobic family, who want to marry him off immediately and forcibly. That said, The Bubble takes far more tension from its political background and setting than from its sweet-but-bland slacker protagonists. 

12. Sealed With A Kiss (2006)
Okay, how strange is it that one of the modern Romeo & Juliet adaptations that most respects the original’s text is a cheapie animated feature about warring seal families, which prominently includes a loud-mouthed seal body-surfer? Animator Phil Nibbelink produced the 76-minute Sealed With A Kiss as a solo project on his computer, throwing in copious familiar Shakespeare lines and phrases, and even dubbing his angry seal clans the Capulets and Montagues. (In a bit of racial symbolism, the Capulets are white seals, while the Montagues are brown.) It’s almost more a retelling than a revision, though the original play does lack a scene where Mercutio surfs up to yell “Wakey wakey!” at the lovers’ corpses and bring them back to the world.

13. Gnomeo & Juliet (2011)
The new Gnomeo & Juliet offers another irreverent animated reshaping of Shakespeare: Naturally, garden gnomes are alive and have complicated lives when humans aren’t around, Toy Story-style. Among the complications: Red-themed and blue-themed gnomes have been at war “forever,” which doesn’t prevent two of their mismatched-color kids from falling in love. Nor does it prevent them from arrogantly boasting to their audience that their film, Gnomeo & Juliet, has a more exciting opening than the original play, and a better, happier ending. Apparently gnomes know as little about humility as they do about tragedy. Still, Gnomeo & Juliet gets a few self-awareness points for its first scene, in which a gnome narrator dutifully explains to the audience, “This story has been told before. A lot. Well, we’re going to tell it again. But different!”

14. Tromeo & Juliet (1996)
Like Sealed With A Kiss, Tromeo & Juliet is as much adaptation as re-imagination, but it’s adaptation into a form designed to smash high culture and low together into a big, ungainly mess, Troma style. Here, the family feud dates back to a conflict over ownership of a porn company, Juliet and her nurse have sex, and dismemberment, masturbation, and vomit abound. Also, Juliet briefly becomes a cow-faced mutant with a giant penis. Shakespeare was entirely familiar with the need for bodily-humor gags and excitement for the groundlings, but he’d still probably be shocked at just how far Tromeo goes.

15. Romeo Must Die (2000)
Frankly, without the title—and a self-aware take on Shakespeare’s famous balcony scene—it might be easy to miss the Romeo & Juliet references in the Jet Li martial-arts thriller Romeo Must Die. Yes, there are dueling Chinese and black gangs whose leaders have adult children (Li and singer Aaliyah) who fall in love. But where most Romeo & Juliet retreads focus squarely on the doomed lovers, Romeo Must Die is more interested in the Romeo-avenges-Mercutio subplot. The driving force of the story is Li’s efforts to track down his brother’s killer and engage him in some serious hand-to-hand, with plenty of slow-motion, leaping kicks, wire-work, and impromptu weaponry. The final takedown is a hilarious moment better seen than described: If the original Romeo kicked this much ass (and skull), there would probably be even more contenders lining up to re-tell this well-worn story.