Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet” is one of Shakespeare’s most interesting and well-known plays. It may even be the most well known play in the world! For this reason, many attempts have been made, by a variety of directors, to interpret and present the Shakespearian tale in their own way, tying to make it creative, original, and unique.
The two directors who have succeeded most at doing this are Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann, the two films I will be concentrating on. For those who are not aware, Romeo and Juliet tells the tale of two star-crossed lovers, Juliet (13 years old) and Romeo (17 years old) who secretly fall in love and marry. Their families, the Montagues and Capulets, have been fierce enemies for generations. Why, I hear you ask? Well there’s no real cause. In the end, their love for one another is doomed. Using this as their basis, the two directors take a very different approach in portraying the play. Franco Zeffirelli went for a more traditional style, whereas Baz Luhrmann attempted to thrill his audience with a comedic modern twist, still keeping the original dialogue.
In my opinion, Baz Luhrmanns film is aimed at a younger audience, teenagers for instance, due to the slang, comedy, hip modern feel, and gun violence culture, which seems to be a growing part of our world today. Also, it is set in twentieth century Mexico City, trying to create a modern Miami sort of feel. However, Franco Zeffirellis version, set in the fifteenth century, is aimed at an older audience, adults and the elderly in particular in my opinion.
One of the main differences between the two films, apart from the time set, is the opening scenes. The Zeffirelli version has quite a slow opening, and takes a while to get in to the action, in contrast to a fast and furious opening of Luhrmanns film. Obviously one big difference is the time periods of each movie. The older movie was set in Early Renaissance times, whereas the newer movie is set in the early ninety’s, but its the opening scenes which display an almost no comparison. Special effects is a key feature in the latest film – explosions and gunfights giving an action packed modern twist. In the older version there was no use of special effects, therefore, the movie totally relied on great acting to be convincing.
In keeping with the sets and effects, the costumes too are very different. On one hand, Zeffirellis film displays historically accurate clothing, tunics, doublet and hose, and harlequin costumes. These were all typical clothing types in the early Renaissance period. On the other hand, Lurhmanns film uses shirts and jeans, Latino boots, designer suits, beach clothes, and other modern clothing items like jewellery (chains, earrings/studs), to give a very modern feel. Another major difference in the films that is seen often throughout the Lurhmann film is the actors smoking. Obviously in the time of this play, and in Shakespearian times smoking didn’t exist. Something as simple as a lit cigarette in ones hand adds a cool and modern feel to the film.
There is also a contrast between the choice of weapons and methods of transport. There is almost no comparison between these two factors. Zeffirelli used again historically accurate swords and daggers, bow and arrows, horseback, foot, and horse and carriage. However, the use of guns, explosive effects, sporty kitted cars, helicopters, and speedboats contrasts with this in the modern film. It’s simple things like this which can straight away tell the viewer the time period the film is set. Example; space ships and flying cars, obviously in the future, modern cars, bikes, planes, somewhere within the last few decades, horseback, boat, carriage, back in the past.
The techniques of filming are also different. A good example of the different techniques is at the beginning of the two films, the street fights. In the Lurhmann version, at the petrol station there is a lot of use of long and short shots, use of close-up, aerial shots, and low angle shots, which the Zeffirelli version also uses, but also there are other techniques like speeded-up film, freeze-frames, wipes and quick zoom which Zeffirelli does not use. In the street fight in the town market, Zeffirelli uses a highly mobile camera in cinema verite style, and there is a lot of use of aerial shots, and close-ups. There was one thing I noticed in both the films, the use of when introducing Tybalt. Here the camera starts off low, looking at the feet and legs of the person, then slowing raising up the the face as they introduce the character. This is a good technique to use to introduce an important character as the audience will know it must be someone important from the filming technique.
Use of sound also differs. In the prologue in Zeffirellis version there is calm orchestral music, relaxing and slow, and also the voiceover of Laurence Olivier in an old fashioned style. Aerial shots slowly panning across the hazy morning of Verona city are used here also. However,in the Luhrmann version, very intense modern opera music is used to build the heat and the voice over is done in a more serious way, in a less calm and old voice as Laurence Olivier. A lot of wipes, quick zooms, close ups, and speeded up film is used here also. Music and sound effects is used throughout both versions. In Lurhmanns, there is spaghetti western style music to go with the gunplay and also the operatic music coming back in after the petrol station goes up in flames (due to the gunfight at the beginning between the montagues and capulets). In the Zeffirelli version there is less music to act as background sound, instead, there is sound effects like a busy market place, the sounding of the bell, and screaming and shouting as the fight breaks out. The sound of the bugels when the prince enters instantly lets the viewers know he is an important person, this is a very good sound effect used. Sound effects in Lurhmanns version are very urban, like explosions gunshots, helicopter blades, whereas Zeffirelli has used more the peaceful and natural sounds.
The images in the Luhrmann version are modern and media orientated. This is why he begins the prologue with the television set, on the news, to give the viewer the instant impression that the film is set in the modern world, with media being an important factor. Another example of modern imagery is the first time we see Father Laurence when he is conducting experiments with modern scientific equipment, which you wouldn’t see in Zeffirelli’s version! Also he has a huge tattoo on his back, which again is modern as tattoos haven’t been around for that long. Other interesting modern images you can notice in the Luhrmann version include fireworks at the party, and smoking. A lot of the characters including Romeo are sometimes seen smoking a cigarette. On the other hand, the pictures presented to the audience in the Zeffirelli version are very old, swords instead of guns, horse instead of car etc.
Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet are played by two young unknowns, Leonard Whiting (sixteen years old) and Olivia Hussey (fifteen years old). This was in keeping with the time in which it was made, when there was a “generation gap”, and they would have been seen as innocent youth taking on the mean minded older people. The actors in the Luhrmann version, however, are well known Leonardo DiCaprio, and not so well known Claire Danes who were 21 and 17 years old when the film was being made. They are different to them in the Zeffirelli version because the acting is more exaggerated, less traditional, and more stylized.
To sum up, the two films of Romeo and Juliet were both created and directed brilliantly by the two directors, and its hard to believe a some points that the films are both set on the same story! Theres so much that’s different about them! Appart from the obvious time set, one being Shakespearian times (Zefirellis) and one being the modern world (Lurhmanns), the language/dialect is different, the transport methods and weapons are different, and also the filming styles and sound effects are different! I think they are both great films and to get a true feeling of the story I would prefer to watch the older version, but I do however like Lurhmanns version more due to it being a more exciting, active and modern film.