This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Tell me, do you know what a “trope” is? Silly question, of course you do. If you’ve consumed any form of media ever then you’re at least familiar with the concept. Opposites attract. Enemies turned lovers. That fake relationship suddenly becomes real. These are all examples of tropes, commonly used conventions or archetypes that help facilitate the ideas behind whatever story is being told by the writer. Everyone loves them, or at least, everyone can think of a time when they’ve enjoyed their utilization. Within the canon of romantic comedy – of which Amazon’s Red, White, and Royal Blue is now a part of – tropes are especially prevalent. However, it must be noted that even if fun and enjoyable, tropes are not substitutes for good writing, and nor can an entire project be carried by them alone.
Red, White and Royal Blue stars Taylor Zakhar Perez (The Kissing Booth 2 & 3) and Nicholas Galitzine (Cinderella, Purple Hearts) and is adapted from New York Times bestselling author Casey McQuiston’s 2019 runaway hit novel of the same name. In the book, Alex Claremont-Diaz, who is America’s First Son, and Henry, an English prince, begin an illicit affair. Alex and Henry try to navigate their budding romance and friendship all the while attempting to keep it hidden away from the world. It’s a fun concept! Not at all hard to see why the novel struck such a chord on its debut. It’s also easy to see why Greg Berlanti chose to produce Red, White, and Royal Blue alongside Amazon. After all, Berlanti’s film Love, Simon had seen mainstream success just a year prior to McQuiston’s novel released and audiences seemed primed and ready for more mainstream gay romance stories.
Indeed, in both film and in the romance literary genre there had been a dearth of gay material that could appeal to the mainstream. Things have changed since then, but no doubt Amazon and Berlanti were hoping that he would be able to strike gold twice and capitalize on Red, White, and Royal Blue’s marketability with a film adaptation. It’s just rather a shame that the film is barely an adaptation. That isn’t to say that Red, White and Royal Blue on Prime Video is drastically different from the book, and thus is a poorer adaptation because of it. No. In fact, the film is nearly identical to the novel, which is the problem.
You see, I lied earlier. There actually are projects that can be carried by tropes alone. These projects are called fan fiction. If you have no idea what that is: congratulations. If you do: I’m happy for you, or sorry that happened. Fan fiction is when someone writes a story, “a fic”, that is based on another person’s copyrighted body of work. The appeal here is that the writer and consequently, the reader, get to experience a type of wish fulfillment together. Fics do not require connective tissue or thorough character work to function – that work is already present in the source material. So, in this space, writers can rely on tropes and cliches alone and still end up with an entertaining story. Watching Red, White and Royal Blue feels a lot like watching a really mediocre fan-fic come to life.
While the novel was a viral success, it was also fairly average. What held it together was the strength of concept and the serviceable writing. It was cute! However, film is an audiovisual medium above all else, and more is needed for it to succeed than concept alone. Amazon’s Red, White and Royal Blue is nearly identical to the novel, but this is a detriment as it feels like disparate scenes are being strung together. This gives the adaptation poor structure and pacing, and perhaps worse, no sense of identity.
In many ways, the film is more spiritually aligned with an Old Navy summer sale commercial or a stage production than it is with the medium of film. This partially makes sense as writer-director Matthew López is primarily a playwright. Obviously, this doesn’t preclude him, or co-writer Ted Malawer, from being able to write for film, but perhaps it does explain why the writing here feels thinner than it should and why so much of it is disjointed. It almost makes one wonder if the stage or musical would have been the better medium to adapt the novel to.
Now, there are times when mediocre rom-coms have been able to elevate the material they’re pulling from. A first and formative example that comes to mind is 2005’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith – a movie where the leads were so blindingly charming and magnetic, you could almost forgive how abysmal everything else was. Red, White and Royal Blue doesn’t have that with its leads. Taylor Zakhar Perez and Nicholas Galitzine do a fine job, yet there’s just no real chemistry between them. Nothing to pull you in and keep you invested and due to the scene-to-scene-like nature of the film, you don’t get to really sit with any one moment for too long either.
It’s like the script was written from a vague memory of the book, and skipped over the most important part of adaptation: strengthening and fleshing out the material. Characters on the page can feel more developed because we get to see inside their heads and experience their internal growth. Similarly, on stage, characters can speak directly to the audience about how they’re feeling to engender sympathy and provide clarity. Film doesn’t often have that luxury and when adapting to the screen, you have to do more than just copy and paste the good bits of dialogue and moments from the source material, which it seems like the majority of this movie does.
Though, this isn’t to say that Amazon’s Red, White, and Royal Blue doesn’t have any redeeming qualities. Perez and Galitzine’s Alex and Prince Henry do have a few heartwarming scenes together that feel sincere. There are also a lot of really funny off-the-cuff jokes and quips, not only between Alex and Henry but the whole cast which includes Stephen Fry, Sarah Shahi, Rachel Hilson, Clifton Collins Jr., Ellie Bamber, Malcolm Atobrah, and Thomas Flynn. Uma Thurman doesn’t need to be in this movie, yet she’s here and is an absolute delight. Thurman plays Alex’s mother Ellen Claremont, the first female President of the United States, and her raspy Texan accent is such a fun character choice that makes every moment she’s on screen incredibly memorable. Honestly, if both the comedic elements and Uma’s role had been played up a bit more, the film would have been improved considerably.
It’s not hard to imagine that there’s a world where Red, White and Royal Blue will be a runaway hit for Amazon Prime Video, just as it was for Casey McQuiston four years ago. Certainly, fans of the book will enjoy the film, and issues with it aside, the filmmakers definitely know their audience. It’s also just great to live in a time when queer audiences are also able to get the same heavily marketed cheesy rom-coms that straight people have been getting for decades. Within the past few years, we’ve gotten a handful of LGBTQ+ romantic comedies, and irrespective of their individual quality, that is progress nonetheless. We need more of them. More films just like Red, White, and Royal Blue – which might not be the greatest gay rom-com ever, but then again, why does it have to be? Though, it being a genuinely good movie would have been nice too.