It's going to take more than a little controversy to knock Julian Fellowes off the comfortable perch from which he surveys his domain: the fields and stately homes of Downton Abbey on the right, the narrow alleys of medieval Verona on the left. Lord Fellowes – to give him his full titular due – has been buffeted by ill winds in the past. Certain viewers couldn't believe that the creator of Downton Abbey would kill off two of its most beloved characters, for instance, or allow another to suffer a violent assault.
The latest controversy seems not to have shaken his equanimity at all, judging from his cheery voice over the phone from Los Angeles. You see, he's written the screenplay for a new film version of Romeo and Juliet and he's had the temerity to tinker with the text. He has dared to shape Shakespeare, and this has left some scholars bursting their doublets with indignation. (Romeo and Juliet opens in theatres on Oct. 11.)
"Seventy-five per cent of the film is Shakespeare," Fellowes says. "We've tightened the narrative, we've made certain things clearer that were difficult to understand, but the great speeches are all still in."
This latest Romeo and Juliet, which Fellowes adapted and co-produced, stars the young American actress Hailee Steinfeld and Britain's Douglas Booth. The play has been corseted into a lean 100 minutes. How you feel about it will depend on how you feel about the Nurse saying (in the manner of Mrs. Patmore, for Downton fans), "Ooo, my back is killing me!" At another point, Romeo's first love, Rosaline, who does not speak in Shakespeare's play, is given this expository line of dialogue: "Juliet is a Capulet. The Montagues and the Capulets are mortal enemies!"
You can see how this might burn the keepers of the Bard's flame. Caitlin Griffin of the Folger Shakespeare Library, after watching two trailers from Romeo and Juliet, told Britain's Sunday Telegraph newspaper: "While the language still sounds lofty, they're not Shakespeare's word choices – and that's a big deal. Fellowes's adaptation, while poetic and set in the period of Shakespeare's play, is not using Shakespeare's language. The advertising hasn't been very clear on this fact."
But Fellowes, who speaks in a delightfully plummy accent and once described himself as "fat, bald, posh and male," refuses to be fortune's fool. He points out that Shakespeare's plays have always been nipped and tucked, shaped to fit the age. "The great time for that was the 18th and early 19th centuries, when whole plays were rewritten, even given happy endings: 'But wait, she lives!'
"I don't think in any sense I've broken new ground by adapting for a new medium. And it is a new medium. We're making a movie."
And, like a host of Shakespeare adapters behind him, he's got a noble purpose in mind: To introduce the iPhone-stabbing youth of today to the glories of iambic pentameter. Fellowes was fortunate enough to study English literature at Cambridge University. "But there are a hell of a lot of boys and girls who haven't had that advantage. They haven't been allowed to go toward Shakespeare gently and see its potential to amuse and move them. They just see it as some nightmare teaching tool to be abandoned as soon as possible."
Instead, the producers (including Swarovski, the purveyor of crystals) hope to reel in young viewers with a lush, perfume-ad Verona that is more redolent of Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 Romeo and Juliet than Baz Luhrmann's punk update from 1996. Steinfeld, who was 15 when the film was shot, and the pillow-lipped Booth are buttressed by veteran talents, such as Paul Giamatti (Friar Laurence) and Damian Lewis and Natascha McElhone (Lord and Lady Capulet). Swarovski Crystal has manufactured a line of Romeo and Juliet jewellery that will hit stores just as the film opens.
The tempest over Romeo and Juliet is actually the lesser of Fellowes's storms: Last week, a shocking act of violence was inflicted upon one of the beloved characters on Downton Abbey (the fourth season is currently airing in Britain, and will be shown in North America in early 2014). While the Downton incident hadn't occurred when we spoke, Fellowes did speak about how he likes writing about the past because it allows him to explore conflicts, particularly around gender roles, that aren't present now.
"In the past, when people's roles were much more circumscribed, custom and rules prevented certain kinds of behaviour and everyone had this imperative to fit in," he said. "You had tension built in. You had these strong and intelligent women stuck within those conventions, trying to get things done, without being cast out."
In Juliet's case, of course, that tension leads to one of the most famous tragic endings in literature. The final scenes of the new Romeo and Juliet should satisfy purists. Even Fellowes, arch mischief-maker, wasn't going to mess with that.