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thus they appear more comical because they are outdated.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