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Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet

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Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet

 

      Sex, drugs, and violence are usually a potent combination, and only

William Shakespeare could develop them into a masterful, poetic, and  elegant

story.  In the play, "The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet," all these aspects of

teenage life absorb the reader or watcher.  It is understood that Hollywood

would try to imitate this masterpiece on screen, and it has done so 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

this 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 an 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 over a

backdrop of an Italian city.  For most modern viewers (especially teenagers),

the Luhrmann picture is fast-paced, keeping the spectator intrigued, while the

Zeffirelli picture is dreary and dull, an endless maze of long and boring

conversations, foreshadowed by the prologue.  In Luhrmann's film, the actors,

instead of carrying swords with them, hide guns in their shirts and wield them

expertly.  The death of Romeo and Juliet is (as always) blamed on the post

office, for not delivering the letter properly.  And, to be politically correct,

Mercutio appears at the Capulets' ball dressed as a large woman.  The actors in

Zeffirelli's version of Shakespeare wear colored tights and bulging blouses;

thus they appear more comical because they are outdated.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.  Evidencing this viewer-friendliness, the 1996 "William

Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet" made almost twelve million dollars in the month

of November alone due to its clever alterations.

 

      As well as updating Shakespeare's play to the present decade through

props, Baz Luhrmann's film is more enjoyable because of the 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,

for 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 night clubs 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 most

famous balcony scene.  In the latest rendition of the play, though, the balcony

is skillfully interchanged with a pool.  This produces an intense scene (in

which the actors are fully clothed) that is more interesting than the

traditional balcony scene of the Zeffirelli film because it is more extravagant

and revolutionary.

 

      The setting change and the constant updating in Luhrmann's film is only

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

be able to understand its connection to Tybalt.  The actors do not wear any

identifying marks (such as the mark on Tybalt's jacket) 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 consequently captures the spirit of Shakespeare's writing: to entertain

any audience.  Said the director, Baz Luhrmann 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 are there to clarify what's being said,

because once [the viewer understands] it, the power and the beauty of the

language [work] its magic.

 

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