'Romeo & Juliet,' wherefore is your audience?
05:00 AM, Oct 09, 2013
LOS ANGELES On paper it has the makings of high drama and box office gold: A smoldering British actor with impossibly high cheekbones falls for a young American actress in a story of ultimate forbidden love.
It certainly worked in 2008’s Twilight, which added contact lenses and an undead storyline to Romeo and Juliet.
But can a straight-up version of William Shakespeare’s tragic love story find the same magic? Romeo & Juliet hits screens on Friday with a screenplay by Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes and a cast led by dreamy Douglas Booth, 21, as Romeo and True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld, 16, as Juliet.
“If any of Shakespeare’s plays could attract the Twi-hards, Romeo and Juliet would be it,” says film historian Leonard Maltin. “But selling Shakespeare to the masses is a challenge.”
Just ask Joss Whedon, who followed up the box office thunderbolt of Avengers with a modern-day retelling of the Shakespeare comedy Much Ado About Nothing, which mirrored its title in its limited box-office run, earning just $4.3 million.
But Romeo & Juliet has a track record of working well onscreen, with Franco Zeffirelli’s celebrated 1968 version followed by Baz Luhrmann’s rockin’ Romeo + Juliet in 1996, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in the title roles. Luhrmann’s version took in $148 million worldwide.
Here’s how Romeo & Juliet will either succeed or go down sword-fighting:
That story. Shakespeare invented the idea of “star-crossed” lovers, which has been incorporated into modern-day hits from West Side Story to Twilight.
“Shakespeare might be the original creator of the young-adult drama with Romeo and Juliet,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst for box office tracking service Rentrak. “It’s the original story of teen angst, turmoil, intrigue and drama.”
Young people wishing to be with each other, against their parents’ wishes, and being willing to die for it, is a concept that never grows old.
“We see all of these modern retellings, even Bella and Edward in Twilight. It’s all of these current stories which young people relate to,” says Booth. “Even today, people are inspired by this story.”
Hot Romeo. It’s key that the Romeo be a stunning specimen. From Zeffirelli’s Leonard Whiting, to Luhrmann’s DiCaprio to Booth, there is no shortage of hotness for young fans to fall in love with.
Fellowes cast Booth in his first movie role, 2009’s From Time to Time, and immediately wanted him as Romeo for his acting chops … and more.
“I think he’s one of the best-looking human beings I have ever seen in my life,” says Fellowes.
Booth confirms this by showing his chest in an early scene where he pines for love while laboring as a sculptor. Other brooding studs such as Gossip Girl’s Ed Westwick, taking his dastardly shtick to Romeo’s foe Tybalt, also populate the screen.
The action. Romeo & Juliet starts with the closest thing to a car chase: an added scene of a royal jousting tournament on horseback. “There’s a lot of action,” says Booth. “We try to bring as much energy as possible to it.”
Meanwhile, Fellowes streamlined the original play for a modern retelling, taking other liberties along the way.
“If we made a film entirely on the original play we would be touting a 3½-hour film with a difficult-to-follow plot and dialogue so opaque that half the audience couldn’t understand it,” he says. “I am not sure what we would have achieved. We wanted to reach a broader audience.”
A kiss before dying. Spoiler alert for those who missed Romeo and Juliet in school: The two die before a final kiss. Not in the new film. Juliet awakens from her faux-dead slumber to find a swooning Romeo just after he’s drunk the real poison. They share a final kiss before he dies.
Fellowes says he supported the spontaneous move by director Carlo Carlei to add the kiss. “I thought it worked really well,” says Fellowes. Purists might be outraged. But it will get the hearts fluttering and the hankies out.
On the downside, there are significant hurtles for Romeo & Juliet. It is Shakespeare. And that can be a major bummer for audience appeal.
“Young people are put off by the language and iambic pentameter, it’s too reminiscent of the classroom,” says Maltin.
It also enters the market on a mere 460 screens against the powerhouse of Gravity, riding momentum in its second weekend, and newcomers such as Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks, and Machete Kills.
“It’s an incredibly competitive weekend,” says Dergarabedian.”But the young women, the bread and butter for this film, can propel a film to incredible heights. They have done it before.”