Hulu’s ‘Rosaline’ Stumbles As a Rom-com Spin on ‘Romeo and Juliet’
Is it better to be a good adaptation or a fun one?
***Spoilers for Hulu’s Rosaline and, we guess, for Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet (1597)***
For the most part, audiences have enjoyed Rosaline, the new rom-com take on Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. Framing itself as “the true story of Romeo’s ex,” Rosaline may have some period piece elements, but is still very much Romeo and Juliet through the lens of a 2022 audience—and plenty of people are loving it for that. The movie is currently streaming on Hulu, so its accessibility has garnered a lot of online reactions.
Because despite drawing on one of the most well-known stories in Western literature, this movie fails to really say anything meaningful about its source material, which is sad for Shakespeare fans who wanted to see Romeo get called out for his fickleness. Plenty of us wanted a Romeo and Juliet version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Instead, we got a very typical “girl tries to get back her ex only to realize he’s not worth it and her true love is right in front of her” mixed with lackluster rom-com high jinks.
As an Adaptation
Apart from the setting and costumes, this is more of a modern film than a period piece, much like Netflix’s Persuasion, with constant winking at the camera and lampshading the “weird” way people talk. Whereas Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet updated the setting but maintained the dialogue, this movie went the opposite way and set it in 14th or 15th-century Verona, but gave it almost entirely modern dialogue, with Romeo the poet being the only one to use Shakespeare’s text. Both adaptations accomplish different things and neither is the only way it can be done. However, the story also struggles to decide if it wants to be an adaptation of the play or pretend to be the ‘true’ events that inspired the play, with some characters saying direct quotes but also most of the events being altered greatly or left out entirely.
What’s most bizarre about this ‘adaptation’ is that doesn’t seem to know whether its audience is comprised of casual fans or diehard fans. Most casual fans won’t remember who Rosaline is (and probably won’t remember that she was becoming a nun, which was the real reason she and Romeo broke up, if they were officially together at all). Meanwhile, die-hard Shakespeare nerds may be insulted by the failed adaptation.
What’s worse is the wasted potential; there are moments where it feels like this could have been a sincere look at the issues of the play, like Romeo quickly getting over Rosaline and Juliet effectively falling in love with the first guy she meets after being told she needs to prepare for marriage. The best scene in the movie is one where Juliet shares her plan to fake her death in order to run away with Romeo, only for Rosaline to remind her of everything that could go wrong with that plan. “What if you wake up too early, what if there are side effects?”
But many of those gems get quickly buried in screw-ball high jinks like Rosaline trying to throw Juliet’s unconscious body out of a window so they can bring her to Romeo.
As a Rom-Com
Even as a Rom-Com, it’s kind of middling. Rosaline has become a typical “girl who doesn’t want to do ‘normal’ things like getting married and having babies,” which would be interesting given the original character was a nun, but she’s still very much defined by the men in her life and her desire for love. Rosaline spends almost the whole movie trying to break Juliet and Romeo up. I’d argue she’s now more defined by her relationship with Romeo than she was in the original play, despite only being mentioned as background. But at least in the play, she was a woman who valued her relationship with God more than she did with any man (and especially Romeo).
It’s also tough to root for her because Rosaline ultimately causes the majority of the conflict. She gets her gay best friend Paris to propose to Juliet in order to keep Juliet away from Romeo, while completely ignoring how she’s effectively doing what her father keeps trying to do and forcing a young girl to get married when she doesn’t want to. And that’s never really addressed. In fact, she gets to be the one to shame the two families for ‘causing the deaths of the lovers’ when she is just as much to blame for everything that happened.
It also doesn’t help that the constant lampshading makes it difficult to build up much sincerity. Almost every other line has to be a wink at the audience or a cliche, which can make it hard to genuinely get invested in the characters. Some fans praise Dario and Rosaline as more realistic than Romeo and Juliet, but it does seem strange that the movie argues Romeo and Juliet don’t know each other well enough when both couples met on the same night and Romeo and Juliet have been in correspondence for longer. This movie goes so far as to recreate The Graduate, with the forbidden lovers’ joy slowly transforming into an awkward silence as they realize they are now left with the weight of their decisions and struggling to make conversation.
Decent commentary for those who think Romeo and Juliet never would have worked out, but seems a little mean-spirited given the movie’s support of Dario and Rosaline under similar circumstances.
The thing is, it’s not even like Shakespeare was ‘high art’ in his time. He was effectively writing for the common man, adapting well-known stories (Pyramus and Thisbe became Romeo and Juliet) with tons of dick jokes that could have easily been recontextualized into a modern rom-com (there’s one dick joke in this film that I remember, and it was the basic “put your swords back in your pants”).
I acknowledge that I may have been burned by my expectations not lining up with what I wanted this movie to be. But turning Rosaline into every other girl in a ‘period’ piece who “wants to marry for love and travel and not pop out a bunch of babies” makes it feel like every other fourth-wall-breaking rom-com when it had the potential for so much more. Don’t believe me? Look up Still-Starcrossed, a short-lived Shonda Rhymes series that showed the fallout from Romeo and Juliet which also featured Rosaline in the main role and picked apart the tidy ending.
And while I’m not certain Rosaline would ever be able to interrogate its text as deeply as a drama, I do think there was plenty of room for parody that is not just “Romeo, why are you talking so weirdly?”
What do you think? Am I taking this too seriously? What did you think of Rosaline (the movie and the character)?
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