and Juliet Sex, drugs, and violence are usually a potent combination, and only William
Shakespeare could develop them into a masterful, poetic, and elegant story. In the play,
“The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet,” all these aspects of teenage life absorb the reader or
watcher. It is understood that Hollywood would try to imitate this masterpiece on screen,
and it has done so in two films: Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 “Romeo and Juliet” and Baz
Luhrmann’s 1996 “William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.” The updated Luhrmann
picture best captures the essence of Shakespeare for the present-day viewer. Through the
ingenious use of modernization and location, while preserving Shakespearean language,
the spirit of Shakespeare emerges to captivate a large audience.
Shakespeare’s plays were designed to adapt to any audience: with this in mind, Baz
Luhrmann created a film that applies to the modern audience through this updating.
Luhrmann modernizes “Romeo and Juliet,” through constant alterations of the props,
which entice the audience into genuinely feeling the spirit of Shakespeare. First, the movie
starts with an prologue masked as a news broadcast on television. This sets the scene of
the play by illustrating the violence occurring between the two wealthy families, the
Montagues and the Capulets. In Zeffirelli’s film of “Romeo and Juliet,” the prologue takes
the form of a dry narrator relating the story of the Montagues and Capulets over a
backdrop of an Italian city. For most modern viewers (especially teenagers), the
Luhrmann picture is fast-paced, keeping the spectator intrigued, while the Zeffirelli picture
is dreary and dull, an endless maze of long and boring conversations, foreshadowed by the
prologue. In Luhrmann’s film, the actors, instead of carrying swords with them, hide guns
in their shirts and wield them expertly. The death of Romeo and Juliet is (as always)
blamed on the post office, for not delivering the letter properly. And, to be politically
correct, Mercutio appears at the Capulets’ ball dressed as a large woman. The actors in
Zeffirelli’s version of Shakespeare wear colored tights and bulging blouses; thus they
appear more comical because they are outdated. By modernizing these aspects of the
play, and reconstructing the prologue, Luhrmann creates a movie that is more interesting
to the modern viewer, and captures the essence of Shakespeare’s writings. Evidencing this
viewer-friendliness, the 1996 “William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet” made almost
twelve million dollars in the month of November alone due to its clever alterations.
As well as updating Shakespeare’s play to the present decade through props, Baz
Luhrmann’s film is more enjoyable because of the vibrant settings. The Zeffirelli’s “Romeo
and Juliet” occurs in an ancient Italian city, with cobblestone streets and Roman mansions.
Although the original play was meant to be performed in this setting, the modern viewer
cannot relate to the environment, and thus has a hard time understanding the plot.
In Luhrmann’s version of the play, the Capulets and Montagues first meet in a gas
station, where they exchange insults. In the older version of “Romeo and Juliet,” the
Montagues and Capulets meet in the narrow streets of their city. For a modern teenager,
a gas station is a more believable location for a fight, for many gang wars (in life and in the
theater) actually take place in this sort of turf. This location helps to describe the extreme
situation of the fighting families. Also, the masquerade ball of the Capulets occurs in a
believable location: a giant dance hall, reminiscent of many New York night clubs and
discos. With a soaring ceiling and a wall-long tropical fish tank, Romeo and Juliet meet,
as if attending a fantastic high school dance. In Zeffirelli’s version of Shakespeare,
however, the two lovers meet in a dismal costume ball, while watching a minstrel sing a
doleful acappella tune. This 1968 version of the great celebration seems to have no style,
action, or romance. The 1996 version, however, has wild yet graceful camera angles and
loud music, to keep the average teenager from leaving the theater.
The last setting change that creates a radical experience is the most famous
balcony scene. In the latest rendition of the play, though, the balcony is skillfully
interchanged with a pool. This produces an intense scene (in which the actors are fully
clothed) that is more interesting than the traditional balcony scene of the Zeffirelli film
because it is more extravagant and revolutionary.
The setting change and the constant updating in Luhrmann’s film is only enhanced
by the use of the original Shakespearean language to create the ultimate “Romeo and
Juliet.” For example, in order to preserve the Elizabethan language, the guns of the rival
factions are labeled “Rapier,” or “Dagger.” Thus, when a character asks for his long
sword or knife, he is not being anachronistic. Also, to avoid changing the Shakespearean
language, Tybalt wears a jacket with the logo “King of Cats,” which is his nickname. In
Zeffirelli’s version of the story, however, the audience must know the origin of this name
to be able to understand its connection to Tybalt. The actors do not wear any identifying
marks (such as the mark on Tybalt’s jacket) to help the observer understand the play.
Baz Luhrmann’s “William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet” is a film that
transforms Shakespeare’s writings into a contemporary location, with modern concepts,
yet keeps the language of Shakespeare alive. Compared to Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and
Juliet,” Luhrmann’s picture is easier to understand for a modern audience, and more
relevant to a modern viewer. The 1996 version of the play consequently captures the
spirit of Shakespeare’s writing: to entertain any audience. Said the director, Baz
Luhrmann of the film:
The idea behind the ‘created world’ was that it’s a made up world composed of 20th
century icons, and these images are there to clarify what’s being said, because once the
viewer understands it, the power and the beauty of the language work its magic.