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Opening weekend has come and gone for Julian Fellowes’s new version of Romeo and Juliet in cinemas, and the numbers were not good.

I wouldn’t bring this up again so soon, but for a quote from Fellowes which appeared in an article from BBC News last week:

“When people say we should have filmed the original, I don’t attack them for that point of view, but to see the original in its absolutely unchanged form, you require a kind of Shakespearian scholarship and you need to understand the language and analyse it and so on.

“I can do that because I had a very expensive education, I went to Cambridge. Not everyone did that and there are plenty of perfectly intelligent people out there who have not been trained in Shakespeare’s language choices.”

My mind ground to a halt reading that. I went quite speechless (except for the occasional squeak or screech or indignant huff.) Is he serious? The NY Times tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, preceding this quote thusly: “With tongue presumably in cheek or perhaps just a foot deep in mouth,” but still I reel at this presumption. How grossly can you underestimate your audience?

A richly furnished Cambridge education is not what’s needed to revel in understanding of Shakespeare’s verses. It’s exposure to the language itself: put into action, spoken aloud, seen in performance, played with.

It seems, so far, that at least some reviewers agree that this pandering approach isn’t working:

“why not encourage the tween audience to rise to the language rather than hide the words from them?”
~ The Village Voice

“If this “Romeo & Juliet” were better, fierier or juicier, far less polite and rather more unhinged, it would be easier to ignore Mr. Fellowes’s ideas about the intelligence of his audience.”
~ The NY Times

“The Fellowes defence is that he’s writing for a new generation, who need the play livened up a bit. In the shonky hands of Italian director Carlo Carlei, his dutiful pastiche has quite the opposite effect.”
~The Telegraph

And yet – I still wouldn’t have so much ire towards this if Fellowes had simply owned  his adaptation and felt sufficiently comfortable to put his name in front of the title instead of Shakespeare’s. Sure, Shakespeare’s name sells, but don’t the names Romeo and Juliet have a little selling-power of their own? Why rely on the writer you’ve cut from the project? Shakespeare was an adapter, as I’ve mentioned before. So why hide behind him if you’re only going to push him out of the way because you think people are too stupid to understand his words?

What do you think? Were any of you one of the few who saw this film over its opening weekend? Do you plan to see it before it closes?

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