The aim of this essay is to assess the differences between the two film productions in terms of the intentions of their directors in portraying Shakespeare’s classic, ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Even after watching two minutes of each film it is immediately evident that the story is set in completely different times. Zeffirelli’s version is set in the time the story was written, in the late sixteenth century and makes every attempt to capture the reality of those times, whereas Lurhmann’s thriller is set in a modern, late 20th century Verona Beach, intending to show how ‘Romeo and Juliet’ would have been acted out if Shakespeare had lived in the present day.
Zeffirelli aimed to create a picture that showed exactly how ‘Romeo and Juliet’ would have happened if the story had occurred in real life. He used many methods to do this: First of all, the motion picture was actually filmed in Verona, as it was set in Shakespeare’s play. The actors are young, as they were meant to be in the play and they wear authentic sixteenth century costumes throughout the film. The symbolisms used in the films were the original verbal symbols in the text i.e. the stars (‘The star cross’d lovers’, which symbolises the paranormal level of Romeo and Juliet’s love and their fates) and the power of romance. However, Zeffirelli does bring in his own motif for the power of the lovers’ love. He uses a recurring tune that is first heard at the Capulet party when Romeo and Juliet first meet. From then on, every time there is a scene of intense romance between them that tune is played. In Lurhmann’s version the stars’ motif is replaced by the sun, and the motif for the power of the love is replaced by water. For example, Romeo and Juliet first catch sight of each other through a fish tank and they make love in a swimming pool.
It is amazing how the directors managed to create films that fall into entirely different genres using the same play. Zeffirelli’s film is a romance that is focussed on the original Shakespeare play, whereas Lurhmann’s is a mixture between an action thriller, a spaghetti western and a romance. The directors intend their films to be in these genres as they are aimed at entirely different audiences. Zeffirelli aimed to attract a classical audience, mainly Shakespeare enthusiasts, who would applaud the film due to the thought and effort put in by the director in order to make the film as realistic as possible.
Lurhmann tried to attract the largest audience he could possibly get and those people were the regular cinemagoers who by no means had to be interested in Shakespeare at all. He created the film in a genre that would attract these people. He does this, first of all, by setting the story in the 1990s, in a modern Verona Beach. Immediately the viewers of the film can relate to it, whereas they might not be able to in Zeffirelli’s historic picture. Secondly, he used actors that appealed to the modern audience, especially the lead role of Romeo, played by Leonardo Di Caprio. Also, Lurhmann’s use of modern artists such as Des Rï¿½e, Garbage and Radiohead, who were, and are still, popular cult figures, drew in the predominantly young audience.
In modernising the film he changes the two rival families, Montague and Capulet, into mafia-like families with a stronghold in the economy of the city. They carry pistols instead of swords, which is where the action and spaghetti western parts of the film come in, as the two gangs are constantly caught up in shootouts between one another. Friar Lawrence is changed from a simple, humble priest, to a hippy figure who experiments with drugs. The Prince, renowned for keeping order in Verona, is transformed into Captain Prince, Chief of Police.
As well as this change in characters, Lurhmann cuts much of the original Shakespeare text, dampening the impact of important characters, such as the nurse and Mercutio. The viewer misses out on the bawdy humour of the nurse, which is poorly replaced by an exaggerated Spanish accent. Mercutio loses some of his eccentric individuality as he is under the influence of drugs especially during the Queen Mab speech in Lurhmann’s film, not speaking from his own mercurial mind. Overall, this does not all have bad effect; it quickens the pace of the film considerably as long speeches made by these characters are omitted adding to the action genre of the film. The constantly switching camera angles, keeping the viewer interested at all times also increases the velocity of this action film.
An important part of the play is the duel between Mercutio and Tybalt. Zeffirelli shows this as just a friendly duel, of course, as Shakespeare intended it. However, Lurhmann portrays this as a cold-blooded fight spurred on by the hatred between the Montagues and the Capulets. Romeo then goes on to kill Tybalt in revenge. I believe that Lurhmann uses this part of the play better because in his film Tybalt kills Mercutio with full intent and purpose giving Romeo a greater reason to avenge his best friend’s murder.
In both films the scene is cut out where Romeo kills Paris, which is understandable as this scene is irrelevant to the plot, however the scene where Friar Lawrence clarifies what has happened to the now dead lovers to the Prince is omitted. This is an important scene as it ties up the story and links up the scenes showing the families’ reaction to the tragic loss of their children and the ending of the feud between them.
In conclusion the only real success of the Zeffirelli film was its startling realism as to what would have happened in the sixteenth century, had ‘Romeo and Juliet’ occurred in reality. He does not show much creativity in his film using only the ideas of Shakespeare and not his own interpretation. This, however, is what Zeffirelli intended so the film was a success in its own right. Lurhmann completely takes on board his own ideas, but without really changing the script that much. His picture incorporates intense scenes of violence and passion with his modern thriller aimed only at creating box-office hit. In completely different ways, both films accomplished their aims with great success.