Romeo and Juliet is a play written by William Shakespeare. It is a tragedy about two lovers, but they cannot be together because they are from families who are constantly feuding. In the end, both Romeo and Juliet commit suicide, and the families are united. Franco Zeffirelli’s version of Romeo and Juliet came out about 30 years before Baz Luhruman’s, which came out in 1997. Zeffirelli decided to set his film in the original period that William Shakespeare set it in, the 13th/14th century. He set the whole film around his own portrayal of life at that time in Verona, Italy, which was also the setting Shakespeare had used.
Luhruman produced a more futuristic version of Romeo and Juliet, based in present times on Verona Beach, but in both movies Shakespeare’s original language was used, which contrasted well and built up dramatic effect and tension well, especially in Luhruman’s film. Both Zeffirelli’s and Luhruman’s versions of Romeo and Juliet kept Shakespeare’s prologue, and used it at the beginning of the movie. Franco Zeffirelli has a male voice speaking the prologue, which was non-diagetic, as the camera pans over the town of Verona.
As the prologue progresses, the view gets clearer and clearer, it starts of very hazy and misty, in the clouds high above the city, then gradually moves closer, coming into focus, giving us a good familiarity of the setting. The credits appear on the screen in bold white writing, so that they stand out. In my opinion, the fading into the setting as the prologue is told connotes our understanding of the storyline, we start out not knowing anything at all, it is hazy, and then as our understanding becomes clearer, so does the setting.
In Luhruman’s Romeo and Juliet, the prologue is read by a female newsreader, on a television. I think that the fact that it is read by a female connotes that this film is the more modern of the two, with present views on equality meaning that it isn’t stereotypically “a mans job” to read the news. The fact that it is on a television also immediately gives us an idea of the period of time, and that this is a very modernised version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This contrasts heavily with Zeffirelli’s film, which is set right back when Shakespeare set it.
Whilst the prologue is being read, the screen is completely black, apart from the television in the centre. The television starts off a long way away, but as the prologue carries on, the television gets closer and closer, until we eventually become drawn into it to take part in their main story, which is our story. I think that this prologue also denotes our understanding of the play so far, as our understanding grows, we come closer to actually being a part of the action, until finally when the scene ends and we have gained all knowledge possible from it, we become a part of it.
As the story begins in the Zeffirelli movie, we are instantly aware of where we are. This knowledge is fed to us by the diagetic sounds, the scenery, and the people. We immediately see a very busy marketplace, and can tell by the people’s dress that these people are all normal townsfolk. The camera pans across the bustling crowd, showing lots of people, dressed in Zeffirelli’s portrayal of how people would have dressed in medieval Italy. We also see people travelling either on horse or by foot, which again denotes the period of time.
The images of the marketplace that we are shown make sense of all of the diegetic mixed up sounds coming from the scene, involving the audience even more. All of this action tells us that the movie is going to have a lot of action in it, and that the audience are going to be involved in it, playing a main part, so we are able to understand the type of film this is. In Luhruman’s beginning, again we are instantly aware of where we are, because we see the beach, Verona Beach, and a petrol station.
Rather than just a general diegetic sound, we can hear non-diegetic music, which sounds like music from an old cowboy movie. Luhruman introduces us to this scenes main characters pretty much straight away. He makes it very clear who he wants the audience to focus on, and identify as a “main character”. He does this by using freeze frames, and camera stills. As the camera goes over a character who is actually a main part of the storyline, the camera freezes the actor into position, and the character is framed with a black border to make him stand out.
Below their picture, the character is identified to us, using bold white writing. This makes us aware of their name, status, and house – Capulet or Montague. I think that this makes the audience interpret that there’s going to be some action, because along with the music, it gives the impression of a fight brewing. We see lots of cars around, and “Hawaiian” shirts, which also depict the more modern period of time. Zeffirelli doesn’t bring his main characters in until his audience is more familiar with the environment.
It is immediately obvious who we are meant to be focusing on as soon as the characters are seen though, because Zeffirelli has them dressed in red, yellow, and orange clothing, which contrasts with every other colour in the shot, and on the market place, because they are so bright. This is obviously designed to catch the audience eye because of such contrast. We can also tell that they are of the same household because they are wearing the same coloured clothing, in the same patterns, like a uniform connoting that they are one.
Although both Zeffirelli and Luhruman used Shakespeare’s language, both have simplified it, and taken out some lines and scenes. They have kept the important lines, but most could easily have been taken out, and yet we still have full understanding of the plot, because we are actually seeing what is happening and so we don’t need it all narrating to us. The body gesture, the setting, the background, and the sound effects all give a lot away about the plot, by each giving little clues, like with all the market sounds we knew we were in a market, we didn’t need to be told.
As the fight scene begins in Zeffirelli’s movie, we are immediately brought into the action, by the camera zooming in on the main characters, and using a lot of short, fast shots of various places around the market where fighting is going on. Luhruman concentrates more on his cowboy style, showing guns being pulled from their waistbands to give us the idea of a fight building up. On the ends of the gun handles, we see their household badges, either Montague or Capulet, making sure that we realise that these two families are enemies.
Extra lines have also been added in some parts, so that we have a better understanding, but they still follow Shakespeare’s language. Zeffirelli has also re ordered the plot slightly, and made some scenes longer and more drawn out, like the big fight scene. I think that this has been done to create more dramatic effect, and so that we are clear of which scenes are more important. Luhruman has also drawn scenes out, especially the fight scene, and left scenes out, like at the start with Sampson and Gregory, not all of these lines are needed for us to understand what is happening, so quite a few have been taken out.
Both directors build up dramatic tension by not introducing us to Romeo during this big fight scene, and not mentioning Juliet at all. Luhruman also sometimes slows shots down, making them slow motion. Like before his big fire during the fight, a cigarette is dropped, which is the source of the fire because it sets alight to the petrol, and so as it drops to the floor everything goes into slow motion, with a shot following the cigarette’s descent to the ground.
During this time, we realise what’s going to happen, and so a lot of dramatic tension is built up. We associate the fact that we are in a petrol station with the cigarette, and realise there will be a fire. Zeffirelli and Luhruman, although they both worked on the same basic script and storyline, both interpreted the play of Romeo and Juliet completely differently, and had very different ideas and ways of presenting it to their audiences.
Zeffirelli stuck mainly to Shakespeare’s guidelines, his setting, his period of time, while Luhruman tried to experiment a bit more, and modernise it. I think that this was because they both had different audiences, Luhruman’s was aimed mainly at young people, and so he needed to make it appeal to them, and so that they could relate to things in it. Both films were successful though, and both got Shakespeare’s storyline across very well.