Essay about Baz Luhrmann's Film Adaptation of Romeo and Juliet
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Baz Luhrmann's Film Adaptation of Romeo and Juliet
Shakespeare's use of language reflects the theatre of his day. There were no elaborate set designs, costumes, lighting or sound effects and there were also only a small number of actors playing many different parts. This could get confusing and therefore the language and imagery had to do all the work for the audience, as the words were the only tools available to help them imagine the scenes vividly.
In the prologue of "Romeo and Juliet", line number twelve; "Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage" and the very last words; "our toil shall strive to mend", have significant meaning. These sentences, spoken by the chorus, highlight to the…show more content…
In the second sentence of the prologue, "In fair Verona (where we lay our scene)", Shakespeare carefully uses the positive modifier "fair" to describe the city. This emphasizes the fact that Verona is closely associated with God, therefore establishing it as a peaceful, moral city. However, this is contradicted by negative modifiers in the next sentences of the prologue, which are "From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean". This brings in the fact that there is an old grudge between two families. However, with this grudge there is blood shed and constant fights, some of which draw in innocent civilians. In the movie this section of the prologue is shot from a fast-moving helicopter. There is an extreme long shot and an aerial view of Verona, which introduces us to the town. A statue of Jesus is shown, immediately followed by the words "IN FAIR VERONA", in large, white letters. Then, for several seconds, there is jump cutting between the Jesus statue and the phrase. This is how Baz Luhrmann shows us that Verona is normally a good, religious city. This is then followed by some fast, substantial shots. We are shown two separate buildings; one which has the sign "Montague" at the top, and the other which has the sign "Capulet" on top. This introduces us to the two feuding families who are the
SOURCE: Martin, Jennifer L. “Tights vs. Tattoos: Filmic Interpretations of Romeo and Juliet.” English Journal 92, no. 1 (September 2002): 41-6.
[In the following excerpt, Martin compares Franco Zeffirelli's and Baz Luhrmann's cinematic adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, concentrating on their differing styles, representation of the drama's central characters, and interpretations of its most well-known scenes.]
Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann present very different interpretations of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet that imply how these directors see the world and what they value. After reading the primary text, students can sharpen their critical thinking skills by comparing the two films in terms of particular scenes, directorial intention, mis-en-scène, etc., as Shakespeare scholar and film critic H. R. Coursen suggests. The result of this line of thinking is that there is no one “correct” version: “In other words, actors and directors collaborate with the original work” (3).
When students are encouraged to view film adaptations of Shakespeare's plays in this light, they will inevitably view them more critically. A valuable technique that Coursen suggests is for students to view the same scene from a variety of film adaptations. He notes, “Comparing and contrasting the same scene in two or more versions of the same script teaches the student to look for detail” (5). Students will also begin to notice the actors' and directors' interpretations of Shakespearean text and the fact that these interpretations differ vastly from film to film, a realization that will encourage them to take more ownership of the text. Teaching students to be more critical of media sources will help them to view film/television as a text that can be deconstructed. As Coursen suggests, “Instead of merely seating students in front of the tube, we can unashamedly make what appears there the focus of study. If we help students to understand the media, we empower them” (8). In order to do this, however, we must begin to look at film critically and develop a vocabulary through which to discuss the nuances of film art.
Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 version and Baz Luhrmann's 1996 version of Romeo and Juliet present very different filmic approaches to the play and vastly different ideas about the two young lovers and their relationship to the world and each other. Zeffirelli's film casts two very young and virtually unknown actors, Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, in the roles of Romeo and Juliet. The director's vision of adolescent love is one of immediacy and immaturity. The young lovers, particularly Romeo, act impulsively and are naive pawns in a deterministic world. Zeffirelli's view of adolescence is one of impertinence and naiveté. His film is melodramatic and linear, highlighting the role of fate and the sense that the story of Romeo and Juliet could not have ended any differently. Luhrmann's interpretation of Shakespeare's text, on the other hand, pays homage not only to the primary source, but also to filmic versions that came before. However, Luhrmann's depiction of the two young lovers, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, marks a definitive departure from Zeffirelli's in that his two lovers are more grounded and reflective and show more of an inner maturity and strength of character; his depiction of adolescence through these two characters is more worldly. Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet makes much use of flashback and flashforward to add to the drama of the script. His style suggests irony and downplays the role of fate in the story.
ZEFFIRELLI'S ROMEO AND JULIET: FATE AND NAIVETé
Zeffirelli's version begins with the prologue dubbed in as a voiceover, signifying the omnipotent role that fate plays in the lives of the two young lovers. We are then quickly led into the scene of battle between the Capulets and Montagues. This fray is not glamorized. On the contrary, it seems to affect the entire village. As David Kranz states, “Zeffirelli uses close-ups in the opening brawl of his Romeo and Juliet (1.1) to underscore the violence of the action and possibly to relate this destructive passion to the upcoming love of Romeo and Juliet, which is similarly photographed” (347). We are soon shown the scene when Paris asks Capulet for his only daughter (1.2). When Capulet responds to Paris's comment, “Younger than she are happy mothers made” (216) with “And too soon marred are those so early made,” (13) he notices Lady Capulet through a window, and she gives him an evil glare as if to validate his statement. This is an interesting difference from Shakespeare's primary text—a difference that alludes to the often-dismaying situation women are placed in regarding the business of marriage. Another interesting difference from Shakespeare's primary text is Zeffirelli's implication that physical love exists between Lady Capulet and Tybalt. This insinuation is made explicit in Lady Capulet's plea for justice after Tybalt's death (3.1).
In Zeffirelli's interpretation of the Capulet feast (1.5), Rosaline is depicted—a difference from Luhrmann's version—and Romeo is focused on her until he sees Juliet. His immediate transference of affection demonstrates his emotional immaturity and his need for immediacy in matters of love. Romeo and Juliet seek each other out with their eyes, and Zeffirelli makes much use of the close-up. As Kranz states:
Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet uses numerous close-ups on the young lovers to help us feel their passion and side with them against Veronese society. This is especially evident in Act 1, Scene 5, the Capulet ball, where juxtaposed close-ups of Romeo and Juliet are interspersed with medium and full shots during an elaborate Renaissance dance.
The focus on the eyes of the two lovers illustrates their innocence, inexperience, and naiveté.
The balcony scene (2.2) in Zeffirelli's version focuses on the physical attraction the two lovers have for one another. Zeffirelli makes much of the fact that the two lovers share an intense physical passion. During the marriage ceremony (2.6), Friar Lawrence has to physically keep the two apart, for they cannot keep their hands off each other; they are impulsive and seek immediate gratification. When Romeo learns of his banishment and Juliet of her inability to avoid the arranged marriage to Paris, the two are desperate and hysterical. The Friar acts as the calming, paternal figure for them both.
Zeffirelli's interpretation of the conflict between Tybalt and Mercutio (3.1) is one of playful bantering; the two seem to enjoy joking with one another and to share a mutual admiration and respect. Tybalt looks absolutely dismayed when he realizes that he has wounded Mercutio, a sense of regret that is absent from Luhrmann's version. In the film, it is Romeo's impulsiveness that has caused this death.
When in Friar Lawrence's cell after killing Tybalt (3.3), Romeo's grief manifests itself as whiney and immature. Friar Lawrence strikes him and is represented as an authority figure. Romeo is shown here as an impulsive youth, unable to control himself. Zeffirelli here depicts adolescence as an emotional, impulsive time; wiser, adult forces must contain adolescent desires.
At the Capulet tomb where Juliet is to be buried, Friar Lawrence smiles and then remembers himself, as he presides over the ceremony. We are given the sense that the Friar's intervention will triumph. However, his paternalism soon turns to cowardliness in the film. The Friar's line, “I dare no longer stay,” is repeated several times, suggesting his fear; likewise, he is not given the chance to explain the events that lead to the two deaths, as he is in the primary text. Romeo and Juliet are carried out together on a platform, dressed in their wedding clothes, as if to signify their idealization. The Prince's last lines, “A glooming peace this morning with it brings. / The sun for sorrow will not show its head. / Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things; / Some shall be pardoned, and some punished; / For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo” (306-11) are dubbed in a voiceover as Lord Capulet and Lord Montague walk out together, followed by Lady Capulet, Lady Montague, and the others, truly signifying the resolution of the strife between the two families.
LUHRMANN'S ROMEO AND JULIET: POSTMODERN MONTAGE
Luhrmann's interpretation begins with a television newscaster reading the prologue, which is then repeated in both voice and text as we are introduced to the setting, Verona Beach, and the cast of characters. Capulet and Montague are CEOs of corporations. Luhrmann's interpretation of the play is postmodern in that it pays homage to other Shakespearean works (e.g., a store on the beach is named “The Merchant of Verona Beach,” a run-down theater in town is named “The Globe,” and the name for the local cleaners is “Out, Out Damn Spot Cleaners”) and to other film adaptations of the play. For example, Luhrmann takes Zeffirelli's incestuous overtones between Lady Capulet and Tybalt and makes them more explicit. According to Levenson:
Luhrmann's revision also reflects its era, perhaps most specifically, in its postmodern style: it echoes key figures in film history, from Busby Berkeley to Federico Fellini to Ken Russell; it uses techniques and images familiar from television networks (MTV) and genres (evening news, Miami Vice). At times it even looks back to strategies originating with Garrick, such as the encounter of Romeo and Juliet in the tomb.
A striking difference in Luhrmann's version is his use of religious imagery. The Priest (Friar Lawrence in Shakespeare's primary text) has a tattoo of a cross on his back, religious statues loom ominously over the action, and Juliet's room contains scores of angels and a shrine to the Virgin Mary. Although the society depicted in this version is fast-paced and violent, perhaps the religious imagery illustrates the spiritual aspect of the love between Romeo and Juliet. The love between DiCaprio's Romeo and Danes's Juliet is strikingly more tender and not so violently immediate and physical as that depicted in Zeffirelli's version. Simultaneously, Luhrmann's use of religious imagery also suggests that religious dictates represented by the preponderance of religious icons are inadequate in explaining the confusion of postmodern life.
The society Luhrmann depicts is