Do We Need New ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Great Expectations’ Film Adaptations?

By  · Published on September 19th, 2013

Do we need new Romeo and Juliet and Great Expectations film adaptations? In a word ‐ sort of. This fall brings two new film adaptations of classic works of drama and romance and seriously funny character names (Havisham? Come on), just in time for high school students the world over to have a shiny new version of their assigned reading to watch on the big screen (sorry, books). Mike Newell tackles Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” with his new take on the enduring novel, a “faithful” adaptation of the 1860 book about terrible, terrible, just terrible people and the havoc that class warfare can wreck on young love, which is set to hit theaters in November. Before that, however, we’ll be getting yet another new Romeo and Juliet film this October, this one by Carlo Carlei, who has reportedly maintained the Renaissance era Verona setting of William Shakespeare’s most famous play, while also jettisoning the traditional dialogue and casting a former Gossip Girl star.

But which of these films ‐ if either ‐ is actually necessary?

Curiously, “Great Expectations” has been the subject of fewer straightforward film adaptations than you might expect ‐ only seven over a period of about one hundred years, with only a handful of them serving as faithful takes on the novel. (Remember Alfonso Cuarón’s 1998 version? The modern one starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow?) The version considered the gold standard is now sixty-seven-years-old, as David Lean’s 1946 take on the material has long been considered the best of the bunch.

So does that mean there’s room for a new one? Maybe ‐ especially one that seems so true to the material as Newell’s production. Dickens’ novel is a thorny one, packed with some seriously overwrought drama (what, this criminal gave money? No, that nutty woman in a wedding dress is evil? Shocking!), but underneath all its bad personalities and bad situations is wicked, wonderful writing. Done well, a Great Expectations film can hit all the notes of Dickens’ novel, and the machinations of the book’s storyline can be so convoluted that a finely tuned visual companion can only help. (No, we’re not advocating the use of films instead of books here, but taken together, a fuller understanding is possible).

The problem, of course, is that Newell’s production, starring Jeremy Irvine, Holliday Grainger, Ralph Fiennes, and Helena Bonham Carter looks too true to the page, and thus just sort of flaccid. Sure, bringing a novel to life is a fine aim ‐ but you have to actually bring things to life when you do it. The film has been hailed for solid acting, impeccable sets, and exploring a wide range of subplots, however, so perhaps it will serve its purpose and both entertain and enlighten all those massive Dickens fans chomping for a new film. While we’re not exactly heavily anticipating the film, we are interested in getting a refresher on the book.

But while Great Expectations gets a pass this time around, the new Romeo and Juliet isn’t so lucky.

While Carlei’s Romeo and Juliet certainly looks straightforward and traditional in its trailers (despite anachronistic music playing over the action, but we’ll allow it), a recent report from the UK basically rips its script, by Julian Fellowes, to shreds. The Telegraph reports that a team of academics “found that Fellowes simplified lines, invented new ones and reconstructed phrases.” Well, what’s the problem with that? Only that film has been advertised as a faithful-seeming take on the Bard’s work, and that’s an issue for Caitlin Griffin, of the Folger Shakespeare Library, who told the paper, “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. The advertising hasn’t been very clear on this fact. Adaptation is a fine thing ‐ it can illuminate the play in ways we never expected. [But] 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.” Burn!

“Romeo and Juliet” has been adapted under the title twelve times since 1900 ‐ one film even starred cats! ‐ but its “best version” still manages to feel fresh. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film, like Lean’s Great Expectations, is the gold standard Romeo and Juliet picture, and while it may sound dated, it’s not ‐ the Olivia Hussey- and Leonard Whiting-starring film could be released today and still be happily received by the masses. Not into the classic stuff? Luckily for you, Baz Luhrmann’s modernized 1996 version of the play, Romeo + Juliet, manages to feel fresh and cool while also still using the Bard’s original text. If you’re going to make a “new” version of a classic work, that’s the way to do it, and Luhrmann’s film is still breathtaking.

It’s certainly strange that Carlei made a big show of casting an age-appropriate leading lady (Hailee Steinfeld was fourteen when she made the film), only to excise the film’s sexiest scenes (as portrayed in the play) and saddle his talent with essentially a rewritten take on an unmitigated classic. The end result? Frankly, it sounds like a confusing mish-mash, not the sort that will please either hardcore Shakespeare fans or those looking to see what all the fuss is about when it comes to the Bard.

Great Expectations ‐ you’re okay. Romeo and Juliet ‐ you’re out.

Romeo and Juliet opens on October 11th. Great Expectations will follow on November 8th.