TORONTO - Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes says today's film audiences simply aren't interested in a straight adaptation of William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."
He says that's the reason he made controversial changes to the text for a big screen version opening this weekend, adding he knew "there was bound to be criticism" of his take.
"Nobody just slams the original play onto the screen," Fellowes says of adaptations in general, noting Ralph Fiennes overhauled "Coriolanus" in a big way for his directorial debut.
"All the stuff you remember is all in, I don't think we've cut any line that is ever one of the quoted ones.... About 70 per cent of it is Shakespeare anyway, because quite often we've shortened the scene but that doesn't mean we've altered the lines."
The "Downton Abbey" creator has come under fire from some Shakespeare experts for rewriting certain passages.
The changes condense sections, create new scenes and bump up the prominence of some characters by either inventing new lines or inserting them in scenes they otherwise don't appear in.
Fellowes says the idea was to make the story "more accessible and clearer," not to mention much shorter.
"I mean the play is four hours," he says in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles.
"(Young people) associate Shakespeare with their education but we wanted to break through that and take them into an enjoyment of Shakespeare and one of Shakespeare's most famous stories. From which I would love to feel that they then get interested in the play in its original form and maybe go and see the play."
In some cases, he says the changes attempt to smooth the storyline or explain a plot point insufficiently addressed by the original play, which traces the tragic love affair of two youths from feuding families.
"Nowadays an audience is very, very plot literate and so it's harder to have just sort of unexplained events," Fellowes says, pointing to a crucial plot twist in which (spoiler alert!) a messenger fails to warn Romeo that Juliet is only pretending to be dead.
"In the play, he just sort of doesn't get there. But that's not enough for a modern audience, you know — they want to know why he doesn't get there if it's that important. And so we've actually given him a reason that prevents him getting there.
"Now, I don't think that is a distortion of Shakespeare's meaning. In fact, the net result in terms of the narrative is identical. But we've given it a logic base which is more suited to a modern audience."
Much of the film, however, is meticulously faithful, with shooting even taking place in the northern Italian cities of Verona and Mantua, where the play is set.
Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth play the "star-cross'd lovers," with Steinfeld just 15 when shooting took place.
"She's a lovely girl and brought that, well, I suppose youth," Fellowes says of the "True Grit" star, whose character Juliet is nearly 14 in the play.
Fellowes says he considers this a very traditional take on the story, noting there hasn't been a movie version actually set in the intended Renaissance period in decades. He says he wanted to offer this generation their own lyrical, romantic "Romeo and Juliet."
"They've had other versions, some of them very good, but (filmmakers) transposed them or put them in modern dress or whatever. And this was going to be the first kind of traditional rendition of the story on celluloid, really, since Franco Zeffirelli's (in) 1968."
But because so much seems authentic, some critics have suggested audiences could be misled into thinking the script features Shakespeare's original words.
Fellowes points out that he is prominently listed in the credits as screenwriter, and doubted there would be much confusion.
"Of course I understand why Shakespeare experts (are upset). They feel he is either the greatest or one of the greatest writers that ever lived and why tamper with him. And for them to understand that not everyone hears the word Shakespeare and runs to see the next production is perhaps hard. But such is the case," says Fellowes, who received a best screenplay Oscar for "Gosford Park."
"If we've made a bridge that (audiences) can cross and then find themselves enjoying Shakespeare and take it that next step, then as far as I'm concerned we have been completely successful."
"Romeo and Juliet" opens Friday.
© Copyright 2013