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
This is a very good piece of creative written work by Tom Sichel (S4) who attends our Kip McGrath Education Centre in Balerno, Edinburgh South. Tom has worked exceptionally hard this year and is creating excellent work in English. Pip Watt who runs the Centre has very high hopes for Tom’s exam results.
Romeo and Juliet
Baz Luhrmann is the director of the modernised film Romeo and Juliet- written by Shakespeare in the 1700s. Luhrmen uses cinematic techniques to help make Shakespearian dialogue understandable to a modern audience. He uses techniques such as camera work, appearance and props to convey the idea of a higher power creating an unchangeable destiny for Romeo and Juliet. The director also uses slow motion shots, low angle shots and close ups to help put across the meaning of Shakespeare dialogue. He also employs symbolism to convey the idea of Romeo and Juliet’s chaotic lives. By the end of this essay I will have shown how well Baz Luhrmann made this Shakespearian play understandable for a modern audience through his use of cinematic techniques.
From beginning to end Baz Luhrmann uses modern film techniques to create Shakespeare’s 17th century play into something visually captivating for a modern audience. Baz Luhrman wanted to exploit the crucial beginning of the film by using a montage to help them understand the prologue. One example of montage in use is whilst the narrator speaks of “the break to new mutiny” he uses violent images to convey its meaning.
The director uses images from newspaper headlines (Montagues vs Capulets) to suggest a tension between the two households. The use of special effects and a visually captivating montage help to bring a better understanding of what the prologue means.
The idea of Romeo falling in love with a young girl at first site and to be willing to die for his love would be difficult for a modern audience to relate to. Baz Luhrmann had to make sure of two things, to make sure that his audience could easily accept that Romeo is a desperate hope for love and Juliet being so naïve and innocent she could fall in love with Romeo so easily. The director illustrates these believable characteristics when we first see Romeo or Juliet in the film. When Romeo first emerges he is seen depressed. He smokes a cigarette whilst writing poetry wandering aimlessly on a grey clouded day. The cameras zoom on face of Romeo’s melancholic expressions. Baz Luhrmann uses these shots to bring impressions of a man who is lost and upset. Not long after this point in the film Juliet is introduced as being a young girl with an innocent personality. Her father’s face is zoomed into when he speaks of Juliet being still a stranger to the world- which implies that she is naive and could be easily seduced. This is done to emphasis the dialogue. In other scenes close-ups are done on her makeupless face an aspect that makes her more innocent. By using modern media techniques Baz Luhrmann could allow for his audience to believe that love at first site between these two people was possible.
At the point of meeting, Romeo and Juliet are separated by a large blue fish tank; it is calm and peaceful. Deep blue water, soft pastel colours of pink and blue all give the effect of romance. Both Romeo and Juliet’s faces are zoomed into to help the audience acquire an understanding of the deep love both characters have fallen into. Capulet and Montagues had been historically in anger and fear of each other- meaning Romeo and Juliet’s love almost impossible to last without being torn apart by their families. A crucial point that sparks this anger is finding out of the secret marriage. This is soon found out by Tybalt (Juliet’s brother) who in his rage looks for Romeo but is only met by a fight with Mercutio (a close friend of Romeo’s).
He brings the audience’s attention through uses of cinematic techniques. He uses fast moving cameras, low angle shots, special effects, close-ups, slow motion camera shots, music and pathetic fallacy to make his audience feel a sense of suspense and thrill from the action scenes. Tybalt disliked Romeo and takes his rage out through violence. At the crucial point of engagement he is confronted by Mercutio. The director chooses to have the camera move quickly between the two foes to create almost a blurred vision effect. This gives the audience confusion amongst the scuffle to mimic the experience the characters feel. The camera closes up to show. Tybalt responds by stabbing Mercutio with a shard of glass. This critical moment is slowed down to dramatize the seriousness of Tybalt’s actions. Low angle shots are quickly met by Mercutio falling to the floor and shouting:” a plague on both your houses”
Baz Luhrmann uses low angle shots to underline the significance of Mercutio’s words.
At this point a thunder storm comes about, and the camera angles changed to high above the heads of the men below. The use of pathetic fallacy and the suggestion that theseactions are being judged by a higher power, both combine to help the audience understand the Shakespearian language. By using the weather to mimic the characters emotions the significance of his words are amplified. Romeo is met with feeling of vengeance and anger which lead to Tybalt’s death soon to come.
Bazz Luhrmann opens this scene with a setting in dark streets with fast music to set the pace of the fight between Romeo and Tybalt. Focus is put on the faces of both Tybalt and Romeo to give more understanding of the rage being felt by both characters. Noises of car engines, loud bangs, shouting and thunder make the scene thrilling and exiting. Just before Tybalt is shot, the cameras zoom onto the gun to highlight its importance in the fight. A crescendo in the music is employed to build up to the climatic death of Tybalt. The gun fire is very loud and startling to underline the crucial moment when Tybalt dies. a close up on Romeo’s face of realization which adds even more unhappiness to the scene is used to emphasize his depressing thoughts. The camera slowing down and zooming on Romeo’s falling gun is the final cinematic technique used to imply the wrongness of Romeo’s actions. Every technique used by Baz Luhrmann used in both these fight scenes were all specific to helping his audience understand Shakespear’s sometimes confusing word. This made the director successful at keeping the audience’s attention and understanding.
The final crucial point that Baz uses many techniques to help understanding is the final scene. Baz Luhrmann intended to make destiny a believable reason for Romeo and Juliet’s death. He sets the scene at a church filled with lit candles and large crosses. To symbolise a higher power is in play. High angle shots are used to amplify this idea. As if to say that this was an evitable ending between Romeo and Juliet he uses those. The fact that the director brought religious aspects to his use of props and high angle shots creates a believable ending that could not be avoided for it was their destiny. Death seemed believable and inevitable at this point.
In conclusion Baz Luhrmann had clearly made his film approachable and understood by a modern audience. He clearly used a vast amount of cinematic techniques at points where the meaning of character dialogue was crucial to be understandable by his viewers. His ability to create two believable characters that could fall in love so easily was outstanding. Even though it would usually seem absurd to a modern audience Baz Luhrmann still manage to create the believability, by using techniques such as a use of props (Romeo smoking and writing poetry about love) or even a use of close up angle shots to emphasize the importance of dialogue speaking of Juliet being still a stranger to this world. In my opinion Baz Luhrmann did a perfect job of emphasizing important points, creating symbolic meanings, creating believable characters and enrolling a religious aspect to the film without losing audience acceptability.