Describe how Baz Luhrmann has adapted Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet" for a modern audience

Shakespeare’s second tragedy, “Romeo & Juliet”, was written between 1594 – 1596. The tragedy is brought about by fate and the story is based on an Italian Legend, which was well known in England at the time. Baz Luhrmann directed the modern day film. It is shot in Mexico, although it is meant to be “Verona Beach which is a sexy violent world neither set in the future, nor the past. The language is still the old Shakespearean English but instead of being spoken with a proper English accent it is spoke in a modern American accent which makes it a lot easier to understand.

The story of “Romeo & Juliet” has some universal themes including; intensity and passion, youth, the division and opposition of generations, youth finding their independence and gang and sectarian warfare. Each of these themes has cultural relevance today. The representation of characters is a significant role in the film. The Capulets are shown to be big macho family always looking for a fight.

In the garage scene the Capulets drive up in a big sports car, they are dressed in black and have facial hair to give them a very tough menacing look. Tybalt also has metal heels on his boots and he has two guns. On the other hand, the Montagues drive up in a yellow convertible car all wearing bright coloured Hawaiian shirts. They seem weaker, more fun-loving characters.

Baz Luhrmann took a very modern approach to the cinematography of the film by using lighting, cameras and lenses to their full potential and to bring new senses to your mind.

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He had an advantage over Franco Zeffirelli as film technology has advanced a lot. He uses a lot of techniques such as highlighting people’s eyes like Juliet when she is talking to Romeo. The props in the film are excellent for example their guns are called “swords” or “daggers” to keep to the language of the play. They also link modern themes of today’s youth such as the scene before the masked ball where they take the drug ecstasy.

The movement of the characters in the film is done in different styles. In the scene at the garage where Tybalt draws his gun and adds a scope on the top, it is like he is praying to God for a good shot to hit the Montague. The pace of the film varies, the love scenes are slow, which gives you an idea of intimacy compared to the fast moving action scenes, which raise your adrenalin and make the film more exciting. The music also works hand in hand with the pace of the film to give you that bit more of a dramatic impact. The Baz Luhrmann film I thought was not bad. It had the right choice of actors. The choices of Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo and Claire Danes as Juliet were good. This movie was a good watch and interoperation although at parts the language was still a bit hard to under-stand as it was still in Shakespeare’s poetic style.

In this essay, I am reviewing Shakespeare’s play, ‘Romeo + Juliet’, adapted by Baz Luhrmann. Because there are numerous concerns from the public about violence in the media, my main aim is to analyze the different types of violence in this movie, how the effects are achieved, and its suitability as a school video. Also, I will be commenting on the responses the violent scenes elicit in an audience. These will be compared, along with the devices used to stimulate these responses, with the Leeds Study of Screen Violence; research carried out at the University of Leeds. While analyzing the violence in the movie, I will be commenting on the different types of violence and how I reacted to them, as well as how other students reacted, and any other possible responses.

Director Baz Luhrmann cleverly manipulates various violent scenes in this movie, and sets them out in different styles to symbolize and to accent relationships between characters using varied camera maneuvers, and cinematic and media devices skillfully and in very interesting ways. The variations in the types of violence also show how one is expected to accept the scene if it happened in real life. I’d also like to point out how from beginning to the end of the movie, Luhrmann is having a good time and ‘playing around’ by overdoing some aspects, like the surplus of the little Mary and Jesus statues and candles in Juliet’s room, and the candles in the church when she and Romeo kill themselves. Besides that, Luhrmann finds numerous opportunities to stereotype an aspect, constantly manipulating our thoughts and imagination as viewers.

The movie, like any other story or piece of media, has an introduction, a build-up, a climax and a resolution. There is a narrated introduction, presented first as a male voice-over reciting a prologue and explaining relationships and characters of the two featured families, and then by a lady, set as a news caster in a TV set, reporting a fight between the two families. This automatically sets the viewer as an audience, and gives the movie a sense of reality. Here, the first viewer-manipulating device is used; we would always take news seriously, and almost always we see only bad and important incidents on a news report.

The opening scene is of the Montague boys ‘cruising’ in a convertible, wearing bright unbuttoned shirts, and screaming insults, who then have to face the apparently slick and brutal Capulet boys, dressed smartly in nothing but black clothes. The music that accompanies each character’s stereotypical appearance is, of course, very stereotypical: the loud rap ‘punk’ music with the Montagues implies they are tough but harmless, ‘pretending’ to be the big ones; the westerly cow-boy music with the Capulets, used most often in western American movies to distinguish the bad guys from the good guys. Luhrmann uses these stereotypical ideas to manipulate a viewer’s imagination and to help us, as an audience, build whole ideas and images of all the characters quickly and correctly, making sure there is not much guessing left to be done -and saving himself a lot of time on introducing personalities. This early scene is a good example of choreographed violence, where there is a sense of obvious unreality and lack of real danger: ‘just some kids playing around’ is how a viewer would interpret it.

This is achieved by the perfectly synchronized moves of the Capulet boys, and the blinding clarity and difference between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ clans. Also, the scene is very underestimated by younger audiences because of the few comic elements added: one of the Montague boys being hit on the head with a handbag by an old lady, and the glaring evilness of the Capulets and how that makes the Montague boys seem so cowardly and weak. This agrees with the Leeds Study, confirming that “violence represented humorously often seems less violent”. My classmates’ and my immediate reactions were pointing at the screen and laughing at the Montague boys, who are immediately interpreted as the humorous fools; our teacher’s response was concern for the little boy being hissed at by Abra Capulet, and the old ladies having to witness such unpleasant chaos. In either case, one will automatically develop a warm liking for the Montagues, seen and understood as ‘the good guys’, and a cold avenging feeling towards the Capulets, made out as ‘the baddies’.

This is a positive thing from a media point of view, because it means that it is not a biased or narrow-minded movie. On the other hand, the fact that a lot of people considered it a funny scene more than a violent one is worrying. The tension in the scene is the beginning of the build-up, raising all sorts of questions in a viewer’s mind such as, “Are they going to fight throughout the movie?”, “Do they fight every time they meet?” and “Is this normal?” Most of these questions are almost immediately answered by the arrival of the police -we know that the fight isn’t normal, but has been happening a lot- but the fact that there are police involved in that ‘just a bunch of kids fighting’ incident puts a viewer on the edge with the seriousness of the matter, and makes one realize the reality of consequences to violence.

Another scene that is very well represented, with the help of a lot of manipulation of the types of violence and cinematic devices, is the one filmed on a beach when Mercutio is stabbed and dies. The creative panning done by the cameraman -like the time we experience a jagged and detached close-up to Tybalt’s face- the presence of mood-matching music and the SFX are effects used to create the unsettling atmospheric mood of jeopardy and loss throughout the whole scene. Also, half-way through the scene and some time after the Capulets arrive, there is a clearly visible reddish-orange glow cast on the set and characters by the setting sun, which is stereotypically allied with danger, anger and blood.

In this scene, there is a considerable amount of physical contact, as first Tybalt aggressively pushes Romeo around, and second, as Mercutio pulls him away from Romeo and ‘beats him up’ then pushes him onto broken glass. After that, the audience experiences a blurry and confusing moment when Tybalt raises a broken piece of glass and aims to stab Romeo but hits Mercutio instead. The surplus of physical contact and hatred being expressed in angry cries and aggressive actions in this scene makes the audience feel it is an extremely violent and serious scene, far more barbarous than the harmless petrol station fight, although the latter included much more gun exposure, gun close-ups and gun shots.

The whole scene is an example of depicted violence: “explicit violence, which attempts to depict violence as it would appear in real life, although frequently exaggerated to create tension or drama”. All the violent events in this scene, with their different types and forms, correspond with the Study, which indicates that, “the more personal contact there is between aggressor and victim, the more violent the scene appears,” “the more often violence occurs, and the longer it goes on for, the more violent an act seems,” and “seeing the effects on the victim” -observing Mercutio’s gaping stab- “increases viewers’ awareness of violence”. This scene is indeed very dramatic, including as many effects and violent aspects as possible to elicit the empty sorrowful relief one feels after Mercutio is dead, and is one of the important build-ups making a viewer completely alert -especially after Romeo takes off furiously at the end of it.

The next scene, although it includes death too, portrays stylized choreographed violence and it seems much less violent: when Romeo, out of revenge for Mercutio’s death, shoots Tybalt. Most emotions aroused in an audience as an after-taste of the shock and sadness of Mercutio’s death would be: hatred towards Tybalt; concern for him after he sinned during what was supposed to be a harmless teenage gangster fight; dislike towards Romeo for not fighting back when necessary, resulting in Mercutio’s death; and concern and worry over Romeo for losing a best friend right after getting married. As a personal reaction, I felt strong liking and sorrow for Romeo, but disappointed after he shot Tybalt because Tybalt was a favorite character, and because by marrying Juliet earlier, Romeo had vowed to learn to love all Capulets.

This scene includes a lot of expressed anger and would make a viewer upset, but in fact there are very few gunshots and physical contact before Tybalt died. The scene actually looks much less violent than any others because of the lack of aggression. To compensate that, Baz Luhrmann has brought out the violence in other ways, using cinematic effects such as casting a bluish glow over the whole set -blue being associated with coldness, cruelty and sadness- creating rainy and stormy weather, and adding the most gnarring buzz of music in the background, with a steady panicky beat representing a heartbeat. Sound effects like twisting metal and screeching cars were added too, which are the stereotypical noises heard during a car-chase.

Tybalt is shot more than once in the chest, and plunges backwards into a pool where he lies motionless, and his blood spreads out under his body like a pair of red wings. Although this might seem rather irrelevant to the violence, the serenity and calmness of Tybalt’s death amuses me. This cool death is the result of the short time in which it occurs, the gunshot being a fast killer unlike Mercutio’s slow and agonizing stab. The lack of Tybalt’s suffering while dying makes it seem a lot less violent, thus a lot more acceptable to some viewers. This matches well with the Leeds definition of what makes a scene less violent: “the longer it goes on for, the more violent an act seems.”

After Tybalt is killed, there is a super-imposed clip of Juliet safe in her room, looking concerned as if she can feel Romeo’s anger, pain, worry and fear. We then observe an extreme close-up of Romeo’s face as the realization of what his fury lead him to do dawns. We see him looking at a big statue of Jesus, which is built to apparently look down on Romeo with its arms open. This implies that Romeo knows God will punish him for sinning. This could also be interpreted to mean that Jesus’ arms are open to Romeo in affection or welcome, but this does not fit the context as Romeo is seen looking terrified and guilty.

Another symbolic feature is how the statue of Jesus’ right half is covered by a certain half-built structure. In my opinion, this signifies how the people who are superficial -those who care only about their money and gadgets and lead the world in technology- contrast with and try to ‘take over’ those who are very close to their religion and their God. The built structure represents the modern-age people, and the exposed half of Jesus, slowly getting hidden and shoved back by the gradual increase in the size of the building, represents the good holy people who follow their religion. Another idea that struck me as I watched is that the uncovered half of the statue could stand for Romeo himself, or the Montague family as a whole, given that Romeo’s most trusted friend is the priest, and the other conflicting half covering the statue being a representative of Juliet and her family, their first scene being a big costume party with the mother being carried across as the stereotypical young, rich and frivolous blonde.

This symbolizes how violence really is a brutal thing, driving people away from their religion and beliefs, causing them to be punished. Another reason I associated the Capulets with the building and not the holy statue is that I remember how Tybalt Capulet’s first words were “Peace? I hate the word,” and how he was the one who had started the two fights in the petrol-station scene as well as the beach scene. Watching him being shot and killed, amplified by the silence that falls and the general dark, blue atmosphere, is another way of making the audience realize the seriousness of violence and its consequences.

The arrival of the police gives the scene hollow hopelessness, letting us know that not only will Romeo be punished by God but by the law as well. This seems to be the climax of the movie, leaving us to wonder how Juliet will abide after he is banished and whether or not they will remain husband and wife. I am now going to explain my point of view and judge the movie as a school video and its significance as a piece of media. The movie is, in fact, rated 15. Given that I go to an all-girl school in Dubai, I would have to agree that the movie should be rated 15, and is definitely not suitable for students in year 9 and under to watch.

Because of the movie’s Shakespearean dialogue and complicated plot, the movie is aimed at a rather mature audience. Also, I had watched the movie previously at the age of about 13 and had not understood or enjoyed it. The amount of violence featured in the movie, especially in the realistic scenes such as when Mr. Capulet was beating Juliet, and in scenes that included police or death, would make the movie unacceptable by most parents as a school video. Also, the surplus of kissing and expressed desire in the movie between Romeo and Juliet is another aspect that does not make it a suitable video at all for younger students and children in Dubai. Even in my year, where we are all between 14 and 16 years old, our teacher had to censor some parts that she found were inappropriate.

It is good, though, as a topic of study because it is so well constructed and there is a lot one can write about. There is plenty of material to observe and analyze. The movie includes a lot of symbolic features, cinematic devices put to skillful use, and innumerable details that can’t all be discovered at once or even after watching the movie numerous times. Overall, the movie is a beautiful one, directed in a very smart and interesting way with lots of variety of music, SFX, violence and elicited emotional responses throughout. I might seem to contradict myself after I commented that it is not suitable, but that was as a school video; but as a piece of media, the unconventional adaptation from Shakespeare’s 1595 play is greatly successful.

All violent scenes seem to agree with the Leeds Study, which is another back-up point that it is a successful movie. This phrase may be misleadingly interpreted to mean that because it is violent it is popular. However, my intended meaning is that it ‘follows the rules’ as a piece of media. Also, I believe that an audience does find violence entertaining, which is why statistics prove that action, thriller and horror movies are much more popular than romantic and comedy ones, especially among teenagers and young people, who are usually the most regular customers of a movie theatre. This might be because it gives the viewer something to respond dramatically to, rather than a romantic movie that goes round in circles with an expected ending. Although ‘Romeo + Juliet’ is a romantic play, the violence added to ‘Romeo + Juliet’, the movie, gives it flavor, and accents the love between the two young stars, showing us how they would kill -literally- to be together. Director and producer Baz Luhrmann really does deserve credit on his adaptation of ‘Romeo + Juliet’, the play, bringing us ‘Romeo + Juliet’, the movie.

On a different feel, although the types of violence mentioned above are all included in the Study, there are some that have not been used in the movie, or that I haven’t elaborated on. One violent scene that would be especially good to analyze is the one where Juliet’s father is angry with her and the mother and carries out domestic violence. This scene is very realistic in the fact that it includes a daughter defying her father, which a lot of general people can relate to. Another point mentioned in the Study about realistic fictional violence like this is: “if the victim is particularly vulnerable, the scene will appear more violent,” which fits in well because Juliet is a young girl, first seen dressed like an angel.

Another unelaborated point about this movie is how there is excessive gun exposure. Not only as a fighting instrument, but Tybalt’s gun seemed to be his life – always out when he’s around, and once even he kissed it as if to bless it. This idea was used to symbolize Tybalt’s downfall just before Romeo killed him, when his gun fell out of his hand and Romeo picked it up. The surplus of gunshots proves the gun culture of Verona.

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Describe how Baz Luhrmann has adapted Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet" for a modern audience. (2018, Dec 29). Retrieved from

Describe how Baz Luhrmann has adapted Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet" for a modern audience
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