Luhrmann and Zeffirelli introduce the characters of Romeo and Juliet in their film versions of Shakespeare's play

Films are made to make money and attract mass audiences. Most filmmakers want to aim their film at a wide range of people so that their film is a box office success. Films are more advanced than performances of plays in theatres as they can use lighting, sound effects, music and cameras to create atmosphere and influence people’s reactions by using close-up shots of things they want the audience to take notice of.

In a film the camera is the viewer’s eye so they can only see what the camera allows them to but in a play the audience can see everything at once and the camera isn’t there to zoom in on something which they need to recognise as significant as it can in a film.

Filmmakers can also use costumes and settings to suggest a character’s personality or the atmosphere of the place they are in. Also, in films, computerised sound effects and real settings can be used.

In films they can have sets outdoors, in houses and anywhere else they need to but in a play they cannot have real settings as they are all artificial and have to be changed for nearly every scene. In plays they cannot have large crowds of people for a battle or suchlike as they would not all fit on the stage so they have to have limited numbers and this, therefore, is not as realistic as it can be in films as they can have thousands of actors if they need them.

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Lastly, as the dialogue in plays is sometimes far too long, filmmakers often cut the text in places and move it around in the plot until they are happy with their scripts. This technique is not often used in plays as they tend to be more traditional and stick to the original text. The Zeffirelli version of the play was made in the late 1960s and was aimed at a wide range of people – from very young to very old. Zeffirelli wanted to give people a traditional film of the play so he kept most of the original text and used music and costumes which would have been appropriate to when the play is set.

It was a box office smash hit even though Zeffirelli shocked many people by being ‘experimental’ – he chose two, very young, unknown actors to play Romeo and Juliet and used (at the time) very innovative camera movements. Luhrmann chose a very different approach to making Romeo and Juliet into a film from Zeffirelli, as he did not do a traditional version at all. He aimed it mainly to bring the younger generation of people an understanding of Shakespeare and so modernised it so that it would appeal to the audiences of 1997.

Even though there was a 30 year gap between the making of these films, they were both very successful and attracted mass audiences. I will now look at the similarities and differences between the two versions. Both directors decided to frame Romeo the first time he is seen – Zeffirelli in an archway and Luhrmann in a cliff. Both the films suggest Romeo has been alone in the first shots of him as he is seen walking back into the city by himself.

In both the versions Romeo is implied not to be as rough as the other lads and doesn’t seem to fit in with them – in Zeffirelli he comes back to the city holding flowers while in Luhrmann he uses very soft focus on Romeo’s face and Romeo is alone, looking out to sea which implies he is very romantic when none of the other lads are. Also, in both the films, as soon as the camera switches to Romeo for the first time the music becomes slow, dreamy and romantic which is emphasising his youth and romantic feelings.

Both directors used, at the time of making their film, very innovative camera movements, for example in Zeffirelli’s version the camera went through people’s legs in the fight scenes. However, there are also many differences between the two films. Zeffirelli aimed to do a traditional film of the play so that people would know what Shakespeare is really like but Luhrmann aimed to bring the modern generation of people an updated version and to show that the story is still relevant today.

Therefore Zeffirelli chose to keep most of the original dialogue from the text, to use Shakespearian costumes and music which would have been appropriate to when it is set but Luhrmann cut lots of the text, did not use Shakespearian costumes and had modern pop music playing in the background. Also, Luhrmann did not set the film in Italy as Zeffirelli did, he set it in a big American city which showed the modern audiences that the play is still significant today.

In Shakespeare’s day, Italy was the main country and also had the most power but when Luhrmann remade the film 30 years later, America was now the Italy of the 20th century and so he set it there so that the viewers would think it applied to them, and was not just a Shakespearian play which was not relevant any more. Luhrmann also used references to modern films in his adaptation which a modern audience would understand and enjoy but Zeffirelli did not have any references at all in his film which suggests that he was maybe trying to appeal to a slightly older generation of viewers than Luhrmann was.

Zeffirelli shocked people when he made his film of the play as he chose two very young, unknown actors to play Romeo and Juliet but when Luhrmann made his version in the late 1990s he chose two older, better established, American actors. In Zeffirelli’s version all the characters except the nurse spoke RP which is often associated with Shakespearian characters but in Luhrmann’s he changed the text so that it could be spoken in American English and still sound Shakespearian.

Zeffirelli also chose to use two actors who fitted the Italian stereotype of dark hair, dark eyes and olive skin but Luhrmann chose two actors who did not fit it at all. However, I think the main difference between these two film versions of the play is that Zeffirelli opted to do a traditional version and Luhrmann updated it so that it would still appeal to a younger modern audience. The introduction of Romeo is quite similar in both films. I will look at how Zeffirelli introduces him first and then how Luhrmann does it.

In Zeffirelli’s dramatisation of the play as soon as the audience get their first view of Romeo, the music becomes slow, innocent, romantic and dreamy. Romeo is framed by a big archway which emphasises to the audience how small, young and vulnerable he is and he is walking back into the town holding flowers which shows that he must have been alone. As he is holding flowers and smiling this suggests that he is not like the other lads – he is not aggressive but is gentle and doesn’t seem to fit in with the other lads which is why he has separated himself from them and gone somewhere by himself.

He is wearing a traditional Shakespearian costume which emphasises Zeffirelli’s aim to keep the film as authentic as he could. As the music is dreamy it implies that Romeo is a bit of a daydreamer and he seems to have a dreamy expression on his face until he sees his parents and Benvolio when his expression changes to an uncomfortable, uncertain look. He moves into the shadows of the walls which suggests he is secretive and doesn’t want his parents to see him. Zeffirelli then uses a close-up of Romeo’s face which shows the audience how young he is as he has a heart-shaped face and looks small and gentle.

He also fits the stereotype of Italians with his dark hair, dark eyes and olive complexion but in the Luhrmann adaptation Leonardo DiCaprio does not fit this stereotype at all as he is blond with fair skin. This shows how Zeffirelli was keen to keep his version a traditional one whereas Luhrmann wasn’t. Zeffirelli also suggests that Romeo is defensive as when he is with Benvolio he crosses his arms and says ‘is the day so young’ which implies that he is in a world of his own and enjoying the fact that he is miserable.

Then Romeo is shut out from the injured man because the door is slammed in his face. This is a reminder of the feud between the two families and after his event, Romeo flounces off which suggests he no longer wants to be a part of it. The way in which Luhrmann introduces the character of Romeo is quite similar to the way in which Zeffirelli did it. As in Zeffirelli, when the camera switches to the first shot of Romeo the background music becomes slow and dreamy and Romeo is alone, framed in the cliff on a beach.

Romeo is sitting with his back to the city which is symbolic as it shows he does not want anything to do with the feud and he is looking out to sea which immediately suggests that he has depth and is not shallow like the other lads. Then Luhrmann zooms in on Romeo’s face but uses very soft focus so this gives the impression that Romeo is gentle and romantic but not aggressive and violent like the other lads he is friends with. The camera then zooms back out and shows that Romeo is dresses like a business man but casually as he has his top button open.

He is writing and speaking the words as he writes them – these are actually his lines but as he is writing it looks like he is writing the play which makes him seem romantic. As in Zeffirelli, when Romeo sees his parents he suddenly looks annoyed or uncomfortable but different to Zeffirelli’s version, he does not fit the Italian stereotype as he is blond and pale-skinned. However, the Romeo presented in this film of the play is also bored with the feud and fighting which is the same in Zeffirelli so Luhrmann did try to keep some authenticity but not as much as Zeffirelli did.

I will now look at the introduction of Juliet in both the Zeffirelli and the Luhrmann dramatisations of the play. In the Zeffirelli version there is a scene before we see Juliet in which Paris has come to ask her father for Juliet’s hand in marriage and her father accepts but asks Paris if he could wait a year or so, so that she would be a little older as she is only 13. This prepares the audience for the fact that Juliet is going to be so young and vulnerable even before they get to see her. This scene does not take place in the Luhrmann adaptation.

When the camera first switches to Juliet the music becomes very light-hearted and seems to be skipping along so this stresses Juliet’s youth. Juliet is laughing and playing with the nurse which shows how childlike she is compared to Romeo. She then appears at a window which she is framed in so that she looks like a Renaissance painting as she is very elaborately dressed and heavily made-up. There is then a close-up of her face which shows her to be very young, have a heart-shaped face and be very demure, innocent and wide-eyed which again stresses her youth.

She also fits the Italian stereotype perfectly and looks even younger than Romeo did as her hair frames her face as well as the window framing her. She is wearing a red dress which is very bright and rich but also symbolises romance, blood, passion and danger and so stands out when she attends the ball later in the film. Juliet is then called for by the nurse who says her mother wants to see her and immediately, Juliet straightens her hair and dress and runs off in her mother’s direction.

This shows she is still very obedient and only cares about doing what her mother wants her to do. She is a contrast to Romeo in this scene as she is in a family home, skipping and laughing but Romeo is moping around by himself so this implies that Juliet is still a child without any thoughts of romance or marriage but that Romeo is older and more mature. When Juliet arrives at her mother’s chamber the mother sends the nurse out of the room and Juliet looks puzzled and uncomfortable without her presence.

This shows that she is actually closer to the nurse than her own mother which the audience will find sad. The audience know that her mother wants to talk to her about her marriage to Paris but Juliet doesn’t and seems to be worried when she is wondering why she as been sent for as she bites her lip. When her mother asks her if she will marry Paris, Juliet says she will but she only seems to be saying so because she knows her mother would be angry if she refused.

This shows that Juliet’s mother is very controlling of her daughter, even if she hardly ever talks to or does anything with her. In the Luhrmann adaptation the first shot of Juliet is a close-up of her face. She doesn’t match the Italian stereotype and seems to be much older than the character from the play really was. As in Zeffirelli, Juliet is very wide-eyed and her face is framed with her hair but she is not heavily made-up as Juliet in Zeffirelli was.

She then plunges her head into the water which symbolises freshness and nature which in turn symbolise her youth. She is dressed in white which is different to Zeffirelli and this symbolises purity and nature. When the nurse calls for Juliet, Juliet is still obedient as in Zeffirelli’s version but she doesn’t seem as respectful to her mother – she has a teenage ‘look’ on her face as if to say ‘oh, not my mother again’ which is one of the things Luhrmann has updated.

When she reaches her mother’s room Juliet looks impatient when waiting for her to talk as if she thinks she has better things to do than listen to her mother but she did not do this in Zeffirelli. This has, again, been updated to appeal to the audiences of 1997. Then, her mother shows her a photograph of Paris and Juliet looks puzzled at fist but then she says the same lines as she did in Zeffirelli which shows she is still obedient, if not as respectful.

After her mother leaves the room, Juliet looks thoughtful as if it is beginning to dawn on her that a marriage has been arranged for her and this is much faster than in Zeffirelli – the whole play takes place over a few days in the Luhrmann film but in Zeffirelli it is much slower. In conclusion, I think that both films were successful in introducing the characters of Romeo and Juliet but that Zeffirelli kept to his traditional aims in doing it and Luhrmann used a more modern approach.

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Luhrmann and Zeffirelli introduce the characters of Romeo and Juliet in their film versions of Shakespeare's play. (2017, Dec 03). Retrieved from

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