Romeo and Juliet is a romantic tragedy set in Verona in Elizabethan times. Two families, the Montague’s and the Capulet’s, both noble households, continue their ancient feud, the play starting with a small skirmish in the town centre. However when some young Montagues gatecrash a Capulet party, dishonouring their enemy, Romeo meets Juliet, and the next day they secretly marry. Tybault, Juliet’s cousin, goes looking for Romeo, seeking revenge for the damaged pride Old Capulet had suffered, and when Romeo arrives on the scene, Tybault offers a duel to him, which fatefully ends in Mercutio, Romeo’s best friend’s, death.
Romeo then continues to kill Tybault and is exiled to Mantua. By her father’s will, Juliet is bound to marrying Parris, a noble friend of the family. A plot is hatched to fake Juliet’s death and Romeo should carry her away to Mantua. However a mix up leaves Romeo in the dark, and as he arrives on the scene to find Juliet apparently dead, he poisons himself.
In his dieing moments, Juliet awakens, and she too commits suicide. In this story, fate and destiny play large parts, ending in an agreement between the two households to end their feud.
In the script there is quite a lot of wordplay between the characters, for instance the first scene dialog about coals. Shakespeare also mixes use of prose, rhyme and iambic pentameter. For example when speaking about Rosaline, his love, Romeo uses a poetic rhyming verse, whereas in Act one Scene two Shakespeare uses rhyming couplets to show comedy, and also parodies the eloquent ornate prose used by people in the sixteenth century.
Shakespeare would entertain his audience using different language and verse to show different moods whether it be comedy, romance or desperation.
Baz Luhrmann, then a little known director, has taken this 16th century text and transformed it into a dazzling and accessible film aimed at the young, contemporary audience of today but how has he done this?
He has used many different methods to achieve this, the biggest point is that now, Romeo and Juliet, a classic story, is set in contemporary America. Luhrmann has used many technical film methods, types of editing, sound tracks, length and angles of shots, and special effects. But he has also, short of rewriting the script, completely transformed the play, into this dazzling film. He has changed parts of the plot, cut out large portions of text and even swapped members of the households around. But the film is still exactly the same story, told in a different way, without any new dialog or text. He has stretched the limits Shakespeare had when writing the script, and taken them to new heights in creating this amazing film.
When Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, the theatre he had, was a stage, with smaller ‘balcony’ above it. Shakespeare had to work around this, and you can see particularly in Act three Scene one where Mercutio’s body would clutter up the relatively small stage; Shakespeare instead kills him off stage, the balcony scene, where Romeo is below the window and balcony where Juliet is, and also in other places. These scenes could have been written differently for a bigger stage, as they were adapted for Baz Luhrmann’s film, but that was the theatre Shakespeare had available.
Luhrmann had quite a large budget for his film; the 20th Century Fox logos showing high production value. He used both high value studios and filmed out of doors, which is an expensive way of capturing a setting. However to partly balance this, the large cityscapes, gas station and other out door scenes were filmed in South America to push down the production cost. The city used is merely a generic cityscape, denoting the contemporary United States of America not any particular American city.
Luhrmann has modernized the setting, but still in keeping with the text. For instance the gas station in the first scene replaces a communal town square. The gas station is a public place like the square and fighting would certainly not be allowed in either of them.
Luhrmann has used a variety of different issues, relevant in today’s society and intertwined them into the story of Romeo and Juliet, without changing any of the original text. He has mainly done this using visual images and diegetic sounds. For example there is a connection with drug use in Act one Scene one, where Mercutio gives Romeo a small tablet with a heart on. There is no mention of this from Shakespeare; it is merely an invention of Baz Luhrmann.
Another example of using contemporary issues is the fact that all of the characters carry around guns. When Shakespeare wrote the play, guns had only just been invented and were unreliable, inaccurate and hard to get hold of, but most people would carry around swords. In Luhrmann’s film, it would not of made sense to have such a contemporary scene with people walking around with swords. To get around this each of the guns has a model name, which reflects its mention is the text. For instance Benvolio uses a ‘Sword 9mm Series’ and Capulet calls for his ‘Long Sword’, which is replaced by a large gun named ‘Longsword’. As the setting of the film is contemporary America, this issue is well handled, as there is a growing arms problem in America today.
The reason Luhrmann has added these issues into the film is because of audience uses and gratifications. For instance, personal identity with the characters as an example Tybault as a rebel or Romeo as a lover, or personal identity with any of the range of issues like drug use, and guns. Another value is gaining an insight into the circumstances of others, or social empathy. If you automatically condemned anyone who used a gun, you may change your view seeing this film because for example, the Montagues use theirs in self-defence, and without their guns would be shot by their enemy.
The guns issue is also related to the strong mafia connections in the film. The two families are shown as rival gangs, with both legitimate and illegitimate sides of business. There is a certain hierarchy to the families, for instance Old Capulet at the top with Tybault beneath him and Abra at the bottom. There is a similar hierarchy for the Montagues. The Montagues and Capulets own rival construction firms, and the mafia have always been associated with this, for instance the tale that if you cross the mafia you will find yourself cemented to the underside of a bridge.
The two gangs are very different in style. For example in the first scene alone, the Montagues are shown as rowdy punks, unorganised but still deadly because of their unpredictability. The Capulets arrive in a suave navy car, and are dressed more formally. They move differently to the Montagues as well. With planned, stylish moves compared to the Montagues rushed, panicky ones. A good example of this is how the two gangs show their weapons in the first scene. The Montague boys frantically rip their shirts away showing their guns. The Capulets, Abra and Tybault slowly draw back their coats to reveal their weapons. Even the way the Capulets talk is very different to the Montagues. Tybault speaks slowly showing he is not scared and is calm and collected.
It would seem the Capulets are more deadly with precision and organization. However, the unpredictability of the Montagues makes them just as dangerous. This juxtaposition is deliberate, because the split in the two families or gangs has to be very obvious to show the feud is serious.
Servants are not commonplace in America today, so the servants of the houses are shown as simple gangs members at the bottom of the hierarchy. The nurse is portrayed as a South American woman, likely to have been hired to look after Juliet, as a servant, but the lines where Lady Capulet refers to her in this way, have been cut out.
During the prologue mainly, Luhrmann creates a sense of narrative progression from the fast moving montage of images, even though they are not necessarily in chronological order in the script. He does this using editing, changing speeds of edits from one scene to the next, and also anchoring each image to a voice over. Also in the prologue, and throughout the film there is intertextuality. For example I think the still images in the prologue showing the Capulets and the Montagues along with a piece of text introducing them, relates to the television series Dallas. This shows early on, in case you haven’t already caught on, that the film is very contemporary.
One other way of using of intertextuality is the use of different genres in the film. For instance the western genre is used extensively in the first scene. The whistling wind when Tybault speaks and the way his metal-heeled boots clink on the ground, as well as the squeaking petrol station sign, all have strong connotations of the western genre. Another genre used in the first scene is action. Explosions, guns and special effects all show this. There are also comedy aspects throughout the film. The two Montague boys other than Benvolio joke continuously throughout the film, and in the first scene, are almost slapstick in their movements. For instance one of them falls backwards into the car, and the way he handles the lady hitting him over the head with a handbag.
There are several ways in which the director has added realism. Firstly he uses women actors. In Shakespeare’s time young boys whose voices had not broken played all women characters. Another way of increasing the realism in the film is the use of sound bridges. These are sounds that ‘bridge’ two or more shots together. This happens in real life so increases realism. In Shakespeare’s time you heard what you saw all of the time.
Luhrmann had a large enough budget to go on the search for some high value stars to act in his film. Leonardo Di Caprio, one of the top earning American actors, plays the main character. Though Claire Danes was unknown to the film world, this was her first big film, Luhrmann decided she fitted the act well and chose her over bigger stars. Big stars automatically bring audiences and so are an asset to the film, not only because of their greater acting skills, but also because of their previous ‘track record’ and fan’s they will bring as audience.
A lot of the props were created from scratch with incredible attention to detail. All of the guns are original designs by the props department, each bearing its own name and brand. The precision goes down to each gun even having an identifying serial number. Every single different coin and note in the film’s world was designed and created even though they were seen only a couple of times. This attention to detail is consistent throughout the film, which gives a good sense of reality.
Shakespeare could not show weather on the stage, the theatre was open air and the weather did what it pleased. To get around this, the characters say what the weather is doing. For example Benvolio says in Act three ‘lets retire: the day is hot’. The changing weather in the film is a big part of the realism created. For instance the wind and the storm in Act three Scene one. Although the storm adds realism, it also builds with the story, as it gets more intense. Mercutio’s death brings high winds and the rain begins to fall when Romeo goes after Tybault and the storm reaches its climax, with thunder and lightning when Romeo shoots Tybault.
As well as not being able to show weather, Shakespeare had no electricity or source of controllable light. As a result of this, most plays were performed in the daytime when it was light. Luhrmann has used different amounts of light in the film quite a lot. There are a lot of daytime scenes, which although filmed outside would need extra electric lighting as well for the camera’s to pick up a good picture. Likewise the church scene in Act five with candles. The candles don’t give off enough light for the camera’s on their own, so the light was boosted using filler lights. These extra lights allow the director to have dark scenes like the balcony scene at night, without the viewer not being able to see the action.
In the first scene of act one the shots start long as the mood is relaxed and fun, but towards the end of the scene as the tension rises to a climax the shots get closer and closer. For instance at the start of the scene there are long shots over the whole gas station for instance where Abra shouts ‘Hubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble’. However at the climax of the tension, there are extreme close up shots of Tybault and Benvolio’s eyes, staring each other down. This is one method Luhrmann has used to create tension.
Another way he creates tension is by speeding up the editing. For instance in the prologue, it starts off with a long shot of the television slowly zooming in. By the end of the prologue the images are flashing past your eyes so quickly you barely have a chance to take them in. This is the unique selling point of the film. That there are so many intense images and fast moving scenes; it bombards you with a mass of sound and visual awe.
Baz Luhrmann also uses visual imagery to enforce things already in the script, and he cuts out pieces of script to show the meaning visually instead. For instance instead of the joking and punning about the word coals in the very first scene, you have the Montague boys shouting and messing around in their car. This is because of the Elizabethan wordplay, which a contemporary audience would not find particularly funny.
Again in the original script, Sampson and Gregory joke about raping the women of their rival’s household. However in the film, there is only a short sequence where one of the Montague boys makes a gesture at a group of nuns. One other way Luhrmann uses imagery to enforce the script is where Tybault points his gun at a boy showing that Tybault is a rebel and lawless. This is shown again when he lights his cigar in front of the no smoking signs. This is meaning is connotated by his actions in the play but is not actually in the script.
There are lots of other cuts in the script, partly to shorten the running time of the film, and partly because sixteenth century language is not easy to understand at full speed in large blocks. Most of the long speeches have been cut in length; the Queen Mab speech for instance is cut to only ten lines or so, from forty lines in Shakespeare’s script.
In the original text, Romeo goes to the apothecary to buy some poison. Instead of this in the film, Romeo buys the vial of poison from an old man, the pool hall’s owner’s house. Romeo would not be able to buy it from an apothecary or chemist because it would be illegal for them to sell him poison. There is also no Friar John in the film. Instead friar Lawrence uses the mail service. This is a simple modernization of the script.
Sycamore Grove in the original sixteenth century text was an orchard of sycamore trees. In the film, this grove is transformed into a run down beach funfair, with a derelict stage, a procenium arch, which turns out to be the stage for Mercutio’s death. Another scenery change is the entire concept of Verona. In the play it is a slightly high-class city in Italy. In the film however, Verona is Verona beach, a run down derelict holiday resort in west coast North America.
Another major plot change is that Romeo does not kill Paris in the film. This is to do with making the film ‘public friendly’. Romeo is made out in the film to be the good guy, whereas in the script he is more neutral. Having Romeo murder an innocent man is supposed to show desperation. However in today’s society, killing a man is a very serious crime and would not make Romeo a popular hero. Instead the director chose to have Romeo take a hostage, showing the same amount of desperation. The only person Romeo is shown to kill in the film is Tybault, who is portrayed as the evil character. Also Romeo killed Tybault in blind rage at Mercutio’s death, which partly justifies it, especially in the viewer’s eyes.
In the film, Samson and Gregory are the Montague Boys, whereas in the original text, they are servants of the house of Capulet. Likewise Abra, Abraham in the script, and Balthasar, unnamed, are Capulets whereas in the script they are Montagues. This makes no difference to the plot, but the way Luhrmann has arranged it works excellently, without changing the plot at all. Abra is named what he is instead of Abraham in the film, because in America Abraham is recognised as a Jewish name, whereas Abra has the accent, and appearance of a South American man.
Baz Luhrmann uses both diegetic and non-diegetic music in the film, to give a sense of the emotion of the scene. For instance the non-diegetic music in act two scene two where Romeo and Juliet are in the pool shows the romance, and the diegetic music in act one scene five from the female singer and piano again shows the romance. Another mood shown by diegetic music is in Act two scene one of the film, where The Montague boys are leaving the party. They are singing with the car stereo ‘We are a pretty piece of flesh’. This shows they are in an aggressive, intimidating mood.
So these are some of the many ways in which Baz Luhrmann has turned William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into a contemporary film.