1. Never was a story of more woe
Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes play the star-crossed lovers in Baz Luhrmann’s energetic adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, which opened in theaters on Nov. 1, 1996. It was the latest in a long line of film adaptations of Shakespeare’s beloved tragedy.
From a simple Renaissance adaptation to a zombie comedy and even a classic Hollywood musical, here are the top 12 notable remakes of the play. Take a look ahead at our list of the greatest film adaptations of the greatest love story ever told as we rank them.
2. Tromeo and Juliet (1996)
To say Tromeo and Juliet is a travesty of Shakespearean proportions would be an understatement. A Troma Entertainment production, this low-budget Elizabethan-inflected film from newbie screenwriter James Gunn (yes, that James Gunn) gets some points for cleverly incorporating the original text at key moments (“She doth teach the torches to burn bright;” “Parting is such sweet sorrow”) and for casting Motörhead’s Lemmy as the Chorus, but loses them all with th e th It’s too bad for Troma, but T&J comes in dead last — although that’s a compliment in this case.
3. Love Is All There Is (1996)
There is no way to forgive this unforgivably bad rom-com because it takes place in the ’90s, when the children of rival Italian caterers star in their local church’s Romeo and Juliet production and fall in love while under the spell of Shakespeare’s play. For recognizing Shakespeare’s poetry’s great power, we can give co-directors Joseph Bologna and Renée Taylor some credit, but there is zero credit for the fact that every single punchline is a tired cliché about Italian Americans and/or horny teenagers.
The film is notable for the fact that Angelina Jolie, then 21, plays Juliet, who is referred to as Gina and has a bad Italian accent and no discernible personality.
4. Romeo Must Die (2000)
There is no chemistry between Jet Li and Aaliyah among this list of star-crossed movie lovers including the animated gnomes (more on them later).
In Andrzej Bartkowiak’s action thriller Romeo Must Die, Han Sing (Li) and Trish O’Day (Aaliyah) are thrown into a gang war after each of them loses a saintly brother to the other’s evil father’s henchman. Even though Aaliyah and Li’s better action scenes are impressive, the film as a whole is drab and lifeless, and the neon X-ray effect that Bartkowiak uses whenever someone is brutally murdered represents early-2000s cinema at its most egregious.
5. Romeo and Juliet (2013)
Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth star in Carlo Carlei’s 2013 retelling of the tale, which was shot on location in Italy and features gorgeous costumes and a young cast.
Listening is a completely different experience from looking at it. It was worse than any of the lovers’ idol worship-themed flirtations when Carlei and screenwriter Julian Fellowes (of Downton Abbey fame) decided to make a straightforward Renaissance adaptation… with horrible dumbed-down semi-Shakespearean dialogue. Shakespeare can be staged in a zillion different ways, all while staying true to the brilliant original text.
The only way this R&J changes things up from the original material is by assuming the audience is illiterate themselves.
6. Gnomeo and Juliet (2011)
The story of Romeo and Juliet takes place in two adjacent gardens in Kelly Asbury’s animation. The blue and red garden gnomes, so named because of their hats, are bitter rivals who vent their resentment by engaging in intense lawnmower races.
With James McAvoy and Emily Blunt in the lead roles, as well as Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, and Jason Statham as Gnomeo’s parents, the voice cast is stellar. When Romeo runs into a statue of William Shakespeare in a park, it’s just one of the film’s many strange nods to the playwright’s work. In spite of its charms, however, Gnomeo and Juliet sticks too closely to the script to be taken seriously as a film in its own right.
7. Romeo and Juliet (1936)
On the one hand, George Cukor used Tchaikovsky’s iconic ballet score, and on the other, he dressed his actors in some truly heinous costumes in his 1936 black-and-white affair, in which Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer play the star-crossed lovers.
However, the real flaw in this straight-to-DVD adaptation is the choice of cast members. Obviously, both Howard and Shearer are excellent actors who have no problem using the language. However, both actors were at least two decades older than they should have been in their respective roles. There is a lot riding on Romeo and Juliet’s youth as well, and it’s difficult to buy into the idea of a 40-something man and a 30-something woman falling head over heels in love like a pair of googly-eyed adolescents. Adults would never be so naive, for lack of a better term.
8. Private Romeo (2011)
The setting for this adaptation is a military academy, which nods to the Renaissance tradition of having all-male ensembles (and revives Shakespeare’s many hidden jokes about it) — despite the fact that none of the actors are playing women in this version of the play.
When two young men at the academy (Seth Numrich as Romeo and Matt Doyle as Juliet) fall in love, they find themselves living out Shakespeare’s play — using the original text almost exclusively — in their lives when Alan Brown’s 2011 independent begins with its students reading Shakespeare’s play in English class.
Private Romeo is a compelling reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, even though the plot begins to show some strain as the script races towards its tragic conclusion (which is not fulfilled here).
9. Warm Bodies (2013)
What significance does a name have? Our hero (Nicholas Hoult) is a zombie who calls himself “R,” because that’s all he can remember of his human name, in Jonathan Levine’s comedic zombie-apocalypse take on the story. After killing Julie’s (Teresa Palmer) boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco), he falls in love with a human girl, and his humanity begins to return to him.
Although the approach to the story isn’t particularly faithful or profound, R’s struggle to speak anything other than grunts and the running joke about the mystery of his real name cleverly allude to Shakespeare’s characters’ obsession with words and what they mean, as well as their tragic inability to communicate. It’s a good thing Warm Bodies takes place during the zombie outbreak because that doesn’t mean the movie has to end badly.
10. Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s great love story, Romeo and Juliet, starred DiCaprio as Romeo two years prior to the release of Titanic, opposite Danes’ Juliet. It keeps the original dialogue but moves the action to a hyper-stylized present day in “Verona Beach,” and like the director’s take on The Great Gatsby, which would arrive years later, his R+J can get a little too self-indulgent.
Making Shakespeare Sexy Again succeeds where so many sluggishly reverent period pieces have failed because of its captivating lead actors rather than its frantic editing or flashy mise-en-scene. Luhrmann’s music-video version of the film is no exception.
11. Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Even though John Madden’s lusciously romantic Shakespeare in Love does not adapt the play directly, it weaves the two stories together so deftly that it counts as an adaptation in its own right — and a wonderfully original and witty one at that.
When William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) suffers from writer’s block and must write a play for his theater, he meets Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a beautiful noblewoman who longs to be onstage.
Tom Stoppard, who previously re-imagined Shakespeare in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, cleverly incorporates references and devices from many of Shakespeare’s plays into the script. The play also includes much of Romeo and Juliet’s original text, which is performed as well as it would be in a full-blown adaptation by the actors during the rehearsal process.
Even though it isn’t based on Shakespeare’s plays, it’s the most heartfelt film on this list and has a satisfyingly sad, sweet, and non-double-suicide conclusion.
12. Romeo and Juliet (1968)
Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet is the one that best teaches the torches how to burn brightly. Gorgeous young actors and stunning costumes make this film, which was shot on location in Italy in vibrant Technicolor, almost unfathomably beautiful.
It’s worth noting that Leonard Whiting (who plays the unseen Chorus in the film) and Olivia Hussey were both unknowns when they took on the roles of Romeo and Juliet. Despite the fact that neither of them has the confidence to navigate Shakespeare like Olivier, their artlessness seems to carry their performances better than any brilliant technique or command of the material could ever do.
Aside from Juliet, Nino Rota’s moving love theme is a standout in this production. Its melody is as piercing as the sword that Juliet takes to her heart. Oh, what a joyous dagger you are!
13. West Side Story (1961)
I think it says a lot about Shakespeare’s brilliance that even when we reimagine his plays in strange new settings, they still work. I also think it says a lot about West Side Story’s perfection that it beat out all of the Renaissance retellings of Romeo and Juliet for the top spot among film adaptations.
Former Jet Tony (Richard Beymer) falls in love with Sharks leader Maria (Natalie Wood) from a fire escape in 1950s Manhattan, where rival gangs the Jets and the Sharks are embroiled in an acrimonious turf war.
Despite the fact that Shakespeare is completely absent from the film, Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s songs as one of his first major jobs, contributes to the soundtrack. While the young lovers are both endearing, it is George Chakiris’ Bernardo (the Tybalt character) and Rita Moreno’s Anita (the Nurse) who steal the show with Oscar-winning performances bolstered by some impressive dancing.
Despite the fact that West Side Story isn’t written in iambic pentameter, its passion and sincerity get right to the heart of Romeo and Juliet.