The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare early in his career about two young star-crossed lovers whose deaths ultimately reconcile their feuding families. It was one of Shakespeare's most popular plays during his lifetime and after his death and along with Hamlet, is one of his most frequently performed plays of all time. The death scene in Romeo and Juliet, act 5 Scene 3 is both a powerful and dramatic event. Baz Luhrmann’s modern movie adaptation uses a close adaptation to the text and also is dramatically affected by the action scenes that take place within. Baz Luhrmann made a modern adaptation of the play by Shakespeare and in turn made a hit movie even with the younger audience. This essay will discuss both the original text and Baz Luhrmann’s modern movie adaptation, while elaborating on the process of film to cinema adaptation.
To begin, Romeo and Juliet the play is part of a tradition of tragic romances stretching back to antiquity. The plot is based on an Italian tale translated into verse as The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke in 1562 and retold in prose in Palace of Pleasure by William Painter in 1567. Shakespeare borrowed heavily from both but expanded the plot by developing a number of supporting characters, particularly Mercutio and Paris. Believed to have been written between 1591 and 1595, the play was first published in a quarto version in 1597. The text of the first quarto version was of poor quality, however, and later editions corrected the text to conform more closely with Shakespeare's original. Shakespeare's use of his poetic dramatic structure has been praised as an early sign of his skill. The play ascribes different poetic forms to different characters, sometimes changing the form as the character develops. Romeo, for example, grows more adept at the sonnet over the course of the play. With all of this in mind, there are many changes from play to movie that change including but not limited to; The scene in detail up to the death of Juliet, Key moments in the scene, their impact on the audience and the significance of each, Shakespeare’s use of language for emotive/dramatic effect, How dramatic tension is conveyed by Luhrmann, and the social/historical context of the play and audience reaction then and now. The play and movie use the same lines that were originally written, they just keep the audience entertained in different ways. The play uses tension by making it clear that certain things are going to happen before they do, and this is initiated by the respective cast members. Throughout the death scene, the audience has a chance to become very anxious and will anticipate what will happen next. In Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation in the form of a movie, the fast-paced scenes create that tension the play has. The use of music in the movie also helped the modern adaptation as it plays on the emotions of the audience and creates an encompassing mood. In an interview by Gary Crowdus about authors adapting Shakespeare for cinema Trevor Nunn states that;
I entirely agree that a cinematic rendering of Shakespeare requires, first of all, a great deal of highly developed visual imagination and inventiveness, often beyond anything that Shakespeare delineated in the text, such as changing location, breaking scenes into smaller units, or setting them in unusual places that allow some sort of heightened perception. Unquestionably, this is the business of cinema. And you're right to stress the issue of interpretation. There's little point in making a film of Shakespeare if what one says, going into it, is 'I just want to give an honest account of this text for people who maybe have not read it before,' when clearly cinema works, at its best, because of a strong directorial concept-however headstrong, however personal. That is, it works through personal vision. (Crowdus 1999)
When adapting a play to a movie one must take into account that there is going to be some dramatization, whether that be the clothing, music, setting dress etc. A director is a type of artist so they may choose to interpret things differently depending on their vision. Also, Shakespeare would adapt with the times as well, incorporating popular music and clothing of the time so the movie as accurate in some cases. Some argued that Luhrmann did not do Shakespeare text justice through is adaptation, but according to Crystal Downing “Luhrmann's changed ending… appears anachronistic, for he displaces the linear advancement of early modern diegesis with the postmodern deconstruction of progress…Luhrmann works in the spirit of Shakespeare. For the Bard himself was a master of anachronism, appropriating most of his stories then changing them according to the values of his time.” (Downing 2000)
The death scene in Luhrmann’s cinematic adaptation opens with Paris and his Page entering the churchyard where the Capulets family tomb is, and where Juliet lies. Paris arriving has already created dramatic tension, as we know Romeo is on his way from Mantua. Because of this we can tell there is going to be conflict between Romeo and Paris right from the start of the scene. Paris’ intentions for being at the family vault are very simple; he wants to see Juliet on his own so he can grieve in peace. This shows Paris has genuine feelings for Juliet as if he just wanted to see Juliet so that people would think he has feelings for her he would have come when everyone else did, but he comes by himself at night when no one is around. Paris sends his Page off to hide in the churchyard and to give him warning if anyone is coming. Almost immediately after he has hidden, he whistles to Paris warning him someone is approaching. Paris says “What cursed foot wanders this way tonight.” (Luhrmann 1996) This is very ironic as it is Romeo coming and he is cursed, he’s a “star crossed lover destined to die.” Along with the irony the tension is greatly increased here as we know what Romeo is planning to do and we can see why Paris would take it the wrong way. As Romeo smashes at the tombs gate with his crowbar, Paris apprehends him. Paris misunderstands Romeos intentions and believes he is there to cause more trouble after killing Tybalt, which he thinks lead to Juliet’s suicide. Paris says, “Can vengeance be pursued further than death?” (Luhrmann 1996) confirming Paris blames Romeo for Juliet’s suicide. Paris, on many occasions, refers to Romeo as a “villain” this just reinstates that he doesn’t understand Romeo’s intentions and can not imagine he is there to grieve for Juliet… yet he is taking the ultimate sacrifice for her, ending his life to be with her. At one-point Paris says “Obey, and go with me, for thou must die” because Romeo is there to do just that, kill himself for Juliet, this is verbal dramatic irony. Romeo retaliates to Paris’ verbal onslaught by calling him boy, he says “Wilt thou provoke me? Then have at thee, boy!” This shows Romeo’s disrespect for Paris, and that he thinks he is inferior. Romeo pleads with Paris to leave but he does not listen. Romeo also says “tempt not a desperate man” meaning, what Romeo is there to do is important, and if Paris gets in his way, Romeo is prepared to kill him by any means.
To continue, eventually the evident outcome begins, and Paris draws his sword. They fight and Paris is slain. Paris’ Page runs off to get the civil watch. As he dies, Paris asks Romeo to lay him beside Juliet and Romeo complies with his last wish, and descends into the Capulet tomb, carrying Paris’ body. The fact that Romeo does lay Paris beside Juliet shows he has great respect for Paris, which contradicts with him calling him boy previously. It also shows Romeo to have compassion towards Paris, and that he never really wanted to kill him, and this is Romeo’s way of making amends with him. Romeo mentions Tybalt, this shows he is also trying to make amends with him and never wanted to kill him either. At this point in the novel we feel incredibly sympathetic towards Romeo as we can see he feels bad about killing Tybalt and Paris, also after everything he has done for Juliet he now thinks she is dead, what’s more is we know he is about to kill himself for Juliet however we know that Juliet is still alive and so we feel immense sympathy for Romeo. Throughout the movie and play Romeo referred to Juliet in terms of light and when he sees her, he says, “A grave? O no, a lantern, slaughtered youth; for here lies Juliet, and her beauty makes this vault a feasting presence full of light.” (Luhrmann 1996) (Shakespeare 1599) Even in a dark tomb, with dead bodies all around her, he sees her just as beautiful as he always has. Romeo takes notice to all of the signs of life but doesn’t put it all together and it never occurs to him that she is still alive. Romeo says, “Thou art not conquered; beauty’s ensign yet is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks and deaths pale flag is not advanced there.” (Luhrmann 1996) There is a great deal of irony here that Romeo is just about to kill himself for Juliet, just as she is recovering from the drugs. Romeo takes the drugs and says “Thy drugs are quick. Thus, with a kiss I die.” Romeo dies… and just as he does Friar Lawrence enters the family tomb.
Consequently, Baz Luhrmann’s modern adaptation of Romeo and Juliet did surprisingly well in the cinema, even introducing the younger generation to Shakespeare who previously wouldn’t have been interested in it. Although, in the adaptation there are a lot of bits left out none of the tension is lost, it could even be argued that the death scene in the adaptation is more emotional than the one in the play. The first noticeable change in the adaptation is that Paris is written out and so the fight between Paris and Romeo doesn’t take place. There is a fast, action-packed police chase in the place of the fight. The chase has just as much tension as the fight. Then instead of laying Paris beside Juliet, a way of Romeo showing respect and compassion to Paris, he has a hostage, which he lets go, showing compassion towards the hostage instead of Paris. Just before he lets the hostage go, he shouts “tempt not a desperate man” to the police, which he said to Paris in the play before the fight broke out. Tybalt is also written out; this is to focus the most moving scene on the two lovers. Then as Romeo enters the chapel the atmosphere changes dramatically, from the chaos outside to the tranquility inside. This may be trying to show how much better things are when Romeo is with Juliet. Romeo then goes on and shuts the chapel door a ray of light leads him to Juliet, this is a visual representation of the line “For here lies Juliet, and her beauty makes this vault a feasting presence full of light.” (Luhrmann 1996) She is laid out on the alter like a fairytale princess, surrounded by candles, which twinkle like stars, this reminds us they are “star crossed lovers fated to die.” Then as Romeo approaches Juliet there is haunting church music in the background, which gets louder and louder as he gets closer to her body. This has a very strong effect on the audience as they can feel Romeo’s despair and it is a very moving moment when he sees’ her dead body. The music also increases the tension as we know Romeo is going to drink the poison and we also know Juliet is going to wake up any minute. As Romeo is standing over Juliet’s lifeless body there is an extreme close up of Romeo. He then comments on the fact that she still shows signs of life “…thou are not conquered…” This is dramatic irony as he is saying she doesn’t look dead but still thinks she is, and we know she isn’t. This has a powerful effect audience. Romeo then says his last words and lifts the poison to his lips. Just as he drinks it Juliet touches his face. This is probably the saddest bit of the movie as this is where they both realize exactly what has happened. As Romeo lies dying, Juliet kisses his lips to try and get some poison off his lips. He then says, “thus with a kiss” a tear rolls down his face… “I die.” (Luhrmann 1996) Juliet then lets out a cry which echoes around the whole church, this emphasizes the isolation that Juliet feels now that she is alone how alone. There is then an overhead shot of the gun, this makes the audience very tense as we know she is going to use it.
To continue, Juliet then picks up the gun, cocks it and the shot is heard off screen. There is then a shot up the transect of the church and we can see an inverted cross, this may be a reminder that suicide is against Christian doctrine. At this point we feel tremendous pity towards them as we knew they never had a chance as they were “star crossed lovers fated to die.” Then the camera pulls away and this suggests their souls are ascending to heaven together. Luhrmann then puts together a montage of clips from the movie, this includes when they first meet at the Capulet party and see each other through the fish tank, the morning after the wedding, it then returns to the church. Then it goes back to a previous bit in the movie again, the kiss in the swimming pool. The water may be a symbol of rebirth. Then it whites out, this may be a symbol of them going to heaven as heaven is seen as all white to many. The music of the woodwinds at the end of this sequence, after everything the two loves have gone through, gives a sense of peace at last. It is an unconventional adaptation of “…the classic love story moved…” to the futuristic backdrop of Verona beach. It has been classed as “spellbinding” and “wildly inventive.” Baz Luhrmann “…has delivered the end he promised: to make a movie 'the way Shakespeare might have if he had been a film maker.” (Lehmann 2001)
In conclusion, although the play and movie use the same lines originally written, they keep the audience entertained in different ways throughout Act 3 Scene 5.The play uses tension by making it clear that certain things are going to happen before they do, and this is initiated by the respective cast members. As the play continues, leading up to these specific points the audience becomes very anxious and are anticipating what will happen next. In Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation in the form of a movie, there are fast paced scenes to create that tension the play has. The use of music in the movie also helped the modern adaptation as it plays on the emotions of the audience and creates an encompassing mood. Overall, the adaptation of play to movie was successful.
- Crowdus, Gary, and Trevor Nunn. “Adapting Shakespeare for the Cinema: An Interview with Trevor Nunn.” Shakespeare Bulletin, vol. 17, no. 3, 1999, pp. 37–40. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26355711.
- Downing, Crystal. “Misshapen Chaos of Well-Seeming Form: Baz Luhrmann's ‘Romeo Juliet.’” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 2, 2000, pp. 125–131. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43796975.
- Lehmann, Courtney. “Strictly Shakespeare? Dead Letters, Ghostly Fathers, and the Cultural Pathology of Authorship in Baz Luhrmann's ‘William Shakespeare's Romeo Juliet.’” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 2, 2001, pp. 189–221. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3648667.
- Luhrmann, Baz, director. Romeo Juliet (Motion Picture: 1996)--Electronic Press Kit. 1996.
- Shakespeare, William. “The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.” The Oxford Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Jan. 1599, pp. 136–138., doi:10.1093/oseo/instance.00007327.