A New Voice)
Romeo and Juliet has been a classic since its premier in 1597, and like many of Shakespeare’s works it has been reimagined countless different times. What if the story were set in a different timeline? What if the characters’ sexes were swapped? What if the ending was tweaked? But typically these reinterpretations remain closely tied to their original source, they feel like a branch off of its trunk.
Every now and then, though, a reimagining comes along that is notably different. And one such example occurred in 1957 with the release of the Broadway musical West Side Story. West Side Story is unmistakably based on Romeo and Juliet and shares many plot developments with it, but it really does feel like its own thing. There are two main reasons that I can identify for why this is the case.
The first is that the world of West Side Story is completely reimagined from the ground up. All of the dialogue is original, with even the most classic of lines (“Wherefore art thou Romeo?”) replaced by entirely new speech. New characters like Officer Krupke are incorporated, even though they don’t have any direct analogue in Romeo and Juliet. Also entirely new plot points are added, such as the council where the two gangs decide the terms of their rumble.
In short, nothing from the original story was deemed sacred, and none of it had to be adhered to if it didn’t fit West Side Story’s new setting. The feud in West Side Story is based on racism in New York, not on a royal family quarrel, and that fundamental change meant that many connecting elements of the story would also need to be altered to remain consistent. The writers of West Side Story made all those changes without reservation. In fact, when all is said and done, it hardly feels appropriate to call West Side Story an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet at all. It is its own thing, with the ties to Romeo and Juliet being little more than an homage.
The other reason why I believe West Side Story stands apart is because it is designed within a completely different genre. Romeo and Juliet was a classic tragedy, while West Side Story is a modern musical. The integration of big band music, dazzling dance choreography, and soulful lyrics take West Side Story beyond just looking and sounding different from Romeo and Juliet, now it feels different as well.
Perhaps an even more drastic reinterpretation of the Romeo and Juliet story was the 2013 film Warm Bodies. Like West Side Story, this film takes the tale into a totally new genre, this time zombie horror. And once again it throws out all of the dialogue and relationships and characters that don’t make sense in that world, and incorporates new ones that do. So dramatic of a shift was this film that I didn’t even realize it was a reimagining of Romeo and Juliet until it reproduced the famous balcony scene in its own amusing way.
The Lion is King is also a reinterpretation of a Shakespearean classic: Hamlet. It features the king-father who has been murdered by the evil uncle, a son whose duty is to right that wrong, and a long period of soul-searching before he is willing to face that calling. Virtually everything else, though, is dismissed for an original narrative, just like our other two examples.
When I try to think of what one should call stories like West Side Story, Warm Bodies, and The Lion King, I really don’t think terms like adaptation and re-imagining do justice to how distinct they are from the original material. I think a better term might be that they are a reincarnation. They have held on to a few key characteristics of the original, but everything else has been conceived as an entirely new body.
My Own Invention)
I’ve been trying to do something similar with my latest story: The Salt Worms. It’s a story that is molded after the traditional hero’s quest. Our main character, Nathan Prewitt, has traveled across the entire United States, bringing with him a weapon to destroy the giant sand striker worm that keeps the entire populace pinned down. This is his great calling and burden, much like Frodo carrying the one ring to Mount Doom.
In fact, Lord of the Rings is the story that I am most trying to “reincarnate” with The Salt Worms. Our main character carries an item of awesome power, he has a faithful companion, Manuel Castillo, and those that learn of his possession want to steal it from them.
But the differences between Lord of the Rings and my story are far more numerous than their similarities. Rather than trying to recreate that classic I am throwing out all the things that don’t fit, and adding things that do. I am also changing genres, trading out high fantasy for post-apocalyptic near-future. The changes are so vast that I doubt most people would pick up on the connection to Lord of the Rings without having me point it out to them.
Now my little story isn’t going to begin to make the same sort of waves as Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, nor will it be as revolutionary a reincarnation as West Side Story or The Lion King, but it’s been a fun exercise in how to pay homage to a classic while still remaining a story that is entirely my own. Keep an eye out as I continue The Salt Worms, and see if you can pick out more ways that I reference the original while putting my own twist on it as well.