Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann’s adaptations of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet are both examples of how sex, drugs, and violence can be combined to create a masterful, poetic, and elegant story. In the original play, “The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet,” these aspects of teenage life are central to the plot. Hollywood has attempted to recreate this masterpiece on screen, resulting 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 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 a 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 against the backdrop of an Italian city. For most modern viewers, especially teenagers, the Luhrmann picture is fast-paced and keeps the spectator intrigued, while the Zeffirelli picture is dreary and dull, consisting of an endless maze of long and boring conversations foreshadowed by the prologue. In Luhrmann’s film, the actors hide guns in their shirts and wield them expertly instead of carrying swords. The death of Romeo and Juliet is blamed on the post office for not delivering the letter properly, as always. Mercutio appears at the Capulets’ ball dressed as a large woman to be politically correct. The actors in Zeffirelli’s version of Shakespeare wear colored tights and bulging blouses, making them appear more comical because they are outdated.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. The 1996 “William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet” made almost twelve million dollars in the month of November alone due to its clever alterations. Baz Luhrmann’s film updates Shakespeare’s play to the present decade through props and 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. 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 nightclubs 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 famous balcony scene. In the latest rendition of the play, the balcony is skillfully interchanged with a pool. This produces an intense scene that is more interesting than the traditional balcony scene of the Zeffirelli film because it is more extravagant and revolutionary. The setting change and constant updating in Luhrmann’s film are 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 understand its connection to Tybalt. The actors do not wear any identifying marks 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 captures the spirit of Shakespeare’s writing: to entertain any audience. The director, Baz Luhrmann, said 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 clarify what’s being said. Once the viewer understands it, the power and beauty of the language work their magic.”