From Classic to Contemporary: Romeo and Juliet to Warm Bodies
Classics — whether they are novels, plays, or epics — offer us great characters, interesting plots, and lots of things for discussion … but sometimes they can be a little tough to tackle. Sometimes we adore them, but sometimes we can’t get past page 3, let alone the requisite 50. That doesn’t mean that we should give up what they have to offer, though, does it? Many of today’s authors try to use these classic works as a starting-off point to write a more modern version. If done well, these contemporary versions can have a huge impact and impart the same wisdom that made the earlier story gain its classic status. Jessica Miller and I decided to find and examine some great pairs of classics and their contemporary rewrites to see if they are successful … or maybe not.
The Classic: William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
By the time you’re in high school, you’ve probably been overexposed to this story and all the literary analysis that goes with it. You’ve seen both the Franco Zeffirelli film from 1968 and the Baz Luhrmann one starring a much younger Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, and Paul Rudd. And there’s another version slated to be released later this year in the UK, adapted by Downton Abbey favorite Julian Fellowes. If for some reason, you’ve never read it — not even the Wishbone version — here’s the breakdown.*
There are two families in Verona, a town in Italy (where Shakespeare set most of his plays. There’s a lot of talk about how he stole a bunch of these stories from Italian stories, but we’ll save that for another day). These families, the Montagues and the Capulets, and all of their servants, friends, and allies, have been at each other’s throats for as long as anyone can remember. When we enter the story, the violence between the youths of the families has escalated to the point where the Prince of the city has had to intervene.
Meanwhile, some of the Montague cousins (and family friend Mercutio) have discovered that the Capulets are having a party and decide to crash. They implore Romeo, the son of the Montague patriarch, to join them. He’s lovesick over some girl named Rosaline — whom we never see — and reluctantly decides to go. There, he sees and immediately falls for Juliet, who, it turns out, is the daughter of the Capulet patriarch. Much drama ensues, confusion prevails, and what everyone in 1597 thought was going to end up like a comedy (well, what they thought if they weren’t listening to the prologue) ends in tragedy and death.
The Contemporary: Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion
You catch the Romeo and Juliet parallels almost immediately upon reading the blurb for Warm Bodies. But you don’t care and read it anyway.
R is a zombie. He lives in an airport outside of a city somewhere in the world. He doesn’t remember his name, just that it started with an R. He wanders around the airport most days, sorting through the inner monologue that he really can’t talk about. His best friend’s name is M, and sometimes they hang out and have conversations drawn out with ellipses. When they get hungry, they venture out into the city to find humans to eat.
On one particular trip, they encounter a group holed up with shotguns, ready to take them on. R ends up killing Perry and eating a bit of his brain before deciding not to kill Julie. Instead, he takes her back to the airport with him and shows her how to live it up zombie-style, all while gaining Perry’s memories from the bits of his brain he continues to savor, pieces at a time. With trouble from Julie’s dad on one end and the Boneys (the most ancient and zombie-like of the zombies) on the other, R and Julie have to survive, all while trying to figure out what the deal is with R’s new ability to speak full sentences and amble quickly without groaning.
As inundated as popular culture is with Romeo, Juliet, and all the tropes that come from their story, I still can’t help loving star-crossed lover stories. The fact that this one doesn’t end in everyone dying — well, any more than they’re already dead — helps. R is a marvelous narrator, and Julie, while occasionally annoying, is a pretty kick-ass heroine. The best thing about Warm Bodies as a novel is its ability to make the most vociferous zombie book hater fall in love with it. I didn’t care about all the gory details of zombie life; they were actually kind of funny and adorable when told by someone just ambling through daily life in zombieland. There is far less gore and much more lovestruck angst than would be expected in a novel narrated by the zombie in question.
If you think zombie love might be your thing but you don’t know where to start, check out Kris Hickey’s post on similar zombie romances to read. And if you haven’t done so already, check out the Warm Bodies movie, which isn’t quite the same as the book but can definitely compare in fun and adorableness.
— Jessica Pryde, currently reading Immortal Beloved by Cate Tiernan
* Just as a side note: if you really haven’t yet read Romeo and Juliet and are planning to check it out, I recommend the Folger one (the pink one shown). It has the definitions of unfamiliar words on the opposite of each page and the introductions and commentary are usually pretty interesting!