The story of Romeo and Juliet has been well known for many centuries. It has been interpreted and adapted by many people, including Shakespeare himself! Two of the most famous versions are the 1968 film by Franco Zeffirelli and the 1996 film by Baz Luhrmann. Each director has adapted the story for his own purposes. I am going to study how these two films have interpreted Shakespeare’s play in a modern style for a modern audience. I feel that each version will appeal to a different audience compared to the other.
Language for example, should be closely reviewed as it has to be appropriate for the humour of the particular time in each film. This is because puns were very popular in Shakespearean times so throughout the play there is a great deal used. In the first scene Capulet’s servants, Sampson and Gregory, joke together by using puns. Here are two examples of the way they use them: “I strike quickly, being moved” “But thou art not quickly moved to strike”. And “… I will be civil with the maids; I will cut off their heads. ” “The heads of the maids? ” “Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads, take it in what sense thou wilt.
” A modern audience however, would not find this humorous so the directors would have had to accommodate to this and adapt to it. The use of common, everyday language has also changed dramatically since the 16th Century so people today would not necessarily understand the plot if they went to watch ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in it’s original theatre form. Zeffirelli and Luhrmann both kept Shakespeare’s language in their films, which was a great risk to take if they were to be box-office successes. I think Zeffirelli did this because the film was based in medieval times so the language reflected this.
Luhrmann however, thought that language was very important to the story and he did not want to lose the Shakespearean idea and effect of the play. In the prologue Shakespeare conveys the outline of the story and makes it clear that fate has doomed the two lovers. Again, each film version has been adapted in very different ways to fit their audience. The first scene establishes the quarrel between the two families and introduces Benvolio and Tybalt who are contrasting characters- Tybalt being very aggressive and violent and Benvolio being a peacemaker.
Each filmmaker created their own idea of the two characters with Zeffirelli’s remaining more in-keeping with the original play and Luhrmann interpreting the two characters as modern-day American gangsters – especially Tybalt. The prologue of Zeffirelli’s version is very calm and peaceful; it begins with an aerial view of the city and pans around it as the voice-over reads the famous passage that begins “Two households, both alike in dignity… ” in a dull and unemotional tone. The scenery is very romantic and the camera uses soft lens to show this. The city’s architecture is shown to be medieval and visually beautiful.
The music too is very ‘renaissance’ and one of the musical themes is established. The title “Romeo and Juliet” that appears on the screen is written in old, medieval and rather gothic lettering in keeping with the setting. Overall, the prologue is dull and dreary and I do not feel that it would appeal to a wide audience. However, it is very much the same as Shakespeare’s as Zeffirelli has not made any extreme changes. Baz Luhrmann’s prologue however, is the complete contrast; it begins with a shot of a 1950s T. V broadcast showing that it is a modern adaptation of the play.
The news reader then announces the play’s prologue like a “60 second” segment as part of the local news. It then moves onto a confusion of images one after another as the pace increases dramatically. The music builds to a crescendo, which increases the tension and excitement, in tone the music is slightly religious. The characters are introduced in freeze-frames, which seems like a typical American modern programme. There are many violent images portrayed to establish, like Shakespeare does, a long running feud between the two families, many of which are religious symbols (e.g. Christ, Virgin Mary and the Capulet and Montague buildings with Christ statue in between).
Newspaper headlines also reinforce images. Through the blur and rush it shows a lot of destruction and fire and a violent society is shown through images for example, magazine covers. Baz Luhrmann’s prologue sets the scene of the play by illustrating the violence occurring between the two wealthy families, the Montagues and the Capulets. Overall, Luhrmann’s is fast-paced and very exciting, thus keeping the viewer intrigued and wanting to watch more.
Zeffirelli’s first scene is very different from the prologue; it moves from being calm and sadistic to a loud, lively and bustling market place. It is an authentic mise-en-scene, which seems very medieval. There is a lot of laughter that appears more ironic than genuine. The characters are introduced from their feet upward including Tybalt later on in the scene. The Capulet’s begin the scene and are wearing bright, light and rather clownish clothes; their main use of colour is orange. The Montague’s clothes however, are dark and sombre with colours such as navy/dark blue.
The sexual humour in Shakespeare is not present in the Zeffirelli version as a modern audience would not understand and would not find it humourous. As the puns are omitted, humour is introduced through images and action, for example a modern audience may find the costumes funny because they are authentic and medieval (this makes it seem more realistic). The fight scene is made more exciting by involving the audience through the use of a hand-held camera and some shots are out of focus to add to the atmosphere and tension as if the audience is part of the crowd.
During the fight it is extremely noisy; there are bells ringing, rallying cries and lots of shouting and ambient sound makes it seem realistic. The Prince then arrives on a horse and the camera shot is looking up to make him seem powerful. Zeffirelli succeeds in accomplishing the interpretation of Shakespeare’s play as it appears very realistic and he has kept to the storyline. Luhrmann’s next scene opens with the “Montague Boys” behaving loud and aggressive and very much in the mood to enjoy themselves.
They arrive at a gas station which is a perfect, modern location to incorporate Shakespeare’s original text that says “Verona: A public place”. The camera zooms in on the numberplate of the car which reads “MON 105” with “Verona Beach” underneath. This clearly illustrates what ‘gang’ they belong to. The Montague’s are wearing colourful beachwear and they have pink hair and tattoos, their car is orange/yellow with an open-top. I think that their clothes reflect their personality. As the Montague’s gas up their car whilst being loud, vulgar and riotous some Capulets pull in to the gas station.
The Capulet’s are in a blue car with heavily tinted windows to make them appear sinister. The camera shows a close-up of their number plate too which shows that the enemy has arrived. They are mainly wearing black and have metal on their heels along with religious symbols on their T-shirts. One Capulet even has “sin” written on his teeth. Luhrmann has clearly changed the sequence of characters because in his version the Montague boys begin the first scene, however, in Zeffirelli’s and Shakespeare’s it is the Capulets beginning the scene by joking around etc.
When the two gangs notice each other it then turns into a Spaghetti Western like film with each side representing their families and are ready to fight. Mexican music then begins to also represent this and highlight the effect. At the beginning there is a great deal of laughter, which is largely similar to Zeffirelli’s version. When the Capulets arrive they are laughing and joking which is what both families do in Zeffirelli’s. The characters do not say anything that is humourous, however, the actions and noises that some of them make may be humourous to the audience.
This implies for Zeffirelli’s too. For example, In Luhrmann’s the sound effects are exaggerated when a passenger in one of the cars is shown hitting one of the Montagues over the head repeatedly. This adds humour to the atmosphere. Luhrmann also omits the puns for the same reason as Zeffirelli. When the Capulet’s are chasing the Montague’s there is screeching of tyres to add excitement and tension to the atmosphere. As the challenge to fight is being issued the music stops and the only sound the audience can hear is screaming in the background.
Tybalt is then introduced in the same way as he is in Zeffirelli’s- from the feet upwards to make him seem very important. He is portrayed as aggressive and violent which is how Shakespeare shows him in the original play too. The atmosphere becomes increasingly tense as he slowly lights a match and drops it while the background is blurred to highlight the act; this is to increase the drama of the scene. Tybalt then grinds the match with his metal heel and the sound is exaggerated to make it seem more dramatic. The camera goes into a close-up of the two gangs’ guns and gun emblems bearing words like “9mm Sword”.
Luhrmann has used Shakespeare’s use of knives and swords and adapted the significance in the use of the makes of their guns instead. This is a way of explaining why gangsters say things like “Put up your swords”. I think that this is a very inventive interpretation of the original text to a modern-day story. Benvolio is then introduced using a close-up shot and freeze frame. He is portrayed as a peacemaker even by the first words he says which are “Part fools you know not what you do! ” Again, Luhrmann is adapting from the original text by creating him the way Shakespeare does as non-aggressive.
The music then stops and all the audience can hear are the flames of the fire (this is called ambient sound). The camera then focuses on the car notice that says “Add more fuel to your fire”. This is ironic because the sign is reflecting real life as the fuel in the gas station actually is ablaze. During the gun fire exchange the music and sound effects come together to make the quick changing camera shots seem rapid. There is dramatic Mexican/Spaghetti Western music rising in volume in the background and lots of gunshots and screams are heard. Background noises of horns of cars in traffic jams can also be heard in the din.
It then returns to the chanting music of the opening titles, which dramatically increases tension as the gas station explodes in flames. The camera then focuses on the Capulet and Montague buildings and goes into an aerial view as though in the helicopter by looking down at the chaos on the ground. The music reaches its climax as Benvolio and Tybalt drop their guns to the floor. This is done in slow motion to emphasise what is happening. At this point, everything is extremely tense as the audience watch the two guns slowely drop to the ground in unison.
Although Luhrmann has adapted this play and changed many things about it he has kept the original idea and characters of the play. In other words, this is no “West Side Story”, loosely interpreting a Shakespearean play for its own ends. Rather, it IS Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, uprooted into a new setting for a new generation and I feel that Luhrmann has achieved this very well. This is because Shakespeare’s plays were designed to adapt to any audience and with this in mind, Baz Luhrmann has created a film that applies to the modern audience through this updating.
I also watched a part of “West Side Story”, however, this takes a very free view of its source material as it uses Shakespeare’s tragedy for its plot value more than anything else. This is unlike Zeffirelli’s or Luhrmann’s as they have produced an interpretation of the film and included most of Shakespeare’s text. It is difficult to compare “West Side Story” to the other two versions as it departs so much from the story “Romeo and Juliet” that it is hardly recognizable as an adaptation. However, it does keep to the idea of the two rival gangs. ??