Table of contents
- Introduction to the Adaptation of 'Romeo and Juliet'
- Personal Reflection and Understanding
- Costumes, Setting, and Relatability
- Inclusion, Casting, and Soundtrack
- Conclusion: A Timeless Story Reimagined
- Works Cited
Introduction to the Adaptation of ‘Romeo and Juliet’
‘Romeo and Juliet’ by William Shakespeare continues to be one of the most influential and widely spread pieces of literature in history, even over 400 years after the play was written. The 16th Century play has had countless adaptations, interpretations, and works that have been inspired by the timeless plot surround young, forbidden love. In 1996, yet another version of the play was released with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The film was directed by Baz Luhrmann and produced by Baz Luhrmann and Gabriella Marinelli. According to its official IMDB page, the film grossed over $147 million. Susan Bye, a film reviewer, wrote in her comparison of the film and the play that “Romeo and Juliet is a musical and visual extravaganza, its aesthetic of excess combining fast paced editing, unconventional cinematography, an ornate and eclectic soundtrack, a pastiche of styles, and a collage of religious and pop-culture iconography” (Bye, 109). Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 blockbuster ‘Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet’ takes the classic, old English stage production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and transforms it into a fun, vibrant spectacle by injecting the original play and the lines of the original play with emotion, changing the original setting of the play into a colorful, modern cinematic masterpiece, adding a queerness and a relatability to the characters with costumes and a cast of attractive, well known actors, and adding a soundtrack and score to the film. The changes made to the play were done to reach a younger audience, mostly teenagers, to keep Shakespeare relevant and show that his original works can still be relatable and entertaining.
Personal Reflection and Understanding
I first read Romeo and Juliet when I was in high school, as part of the mandatory high school English curriculum. Beyond being frustrated with the unfamiliar old English I was being exposed to, I remember being extremely frustrated and upset at the characters Romeo and Juliet themselves. I was dumbfounded that love could make kids so careless, so naive, and so stupid. It wasn’t until I saw the play interpreted by Baz Luhrmann, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, that I finally understood a little more why and how Romeo and Juliet ended up in the situations they did, and how they eventually ended up dead. It was a mixture of all the aspects of the film- the use of the play’s original lines, Leonardo DiCaprio, the soundtrack, and the beautiful cinematography as well as the comedic nature of the work- that made me understand the original play more and understand the characters to an extent I never expected I would.
When watching Luhrmann’s interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, the visuals steal the show when compared to any other aspect of the original play. Very few plot points(but still, a few) were changed from the original play. Props, stage directions, and settings are changed drastically from the original play though. This is evident in the act one scene one ‘fight’ scene that was seen in the play. The play shows Benvolio telling his opponents to “put up their swords”, after being provoked by the House of Capulets. The play shows this scene as being a fight that starts organically, when two opposing houses (the Capulets and Montagues) finally face each other. The film, however, shows and tells a different story. The film version shows the Montague ‘boys’ riding around in a yellow convertible, seemingly carelessly. When the fight starts between the two groups, while Benvolio still states the original lines for the men to put up their swords, the scene shows the men each holding their own pistol, engraved with their respective houses. The modernity of just this first act and scene quickly showed Luhrmann’s desire to create a new type of story with Romeo and Juliet- one infused with today’s world.
The presentation of the storyline makes the original play, now in the film medium, much more relatable and palatable. One scene that stands out in particular is Romeo and Juliet’s first ‘meeting’, in the film. Like in the play, the two are dumbfounded by their attraction to one another. The film separates them with a fish tank, with the two lustfully and curiously eyeing one another from each side. While in the play, the mutual attraction (and obliviousness to the fact that even the attraction is forbidden) is evident from just this first encounter, the film uses the bright colors of the fish tank and the melodramatic costumes of the partygoers to both modernize the interpretation and use the fish tank to aesthetically and metaphorically create the divide between the two main characters.
Costumes, Setting, and Relatability
The costumes throughout the film are a sight to see. According to Bye, Luhrmann wanted to steer away from “the snobbery of the Victorian inheritance in theater and the power of the Shakespearean tale for a less hide-bound audience”. Bye, when referring to the costumes n the play, states “dressing Romeo in blue or silver and Juliet primarily in white, costume designer Kym Barrett intended for the simple tones to ‘emphasize that they are in a way like specters, the ones whose hold on life in the most tenuous’”(Bye 110). The film’s producers and contributors were intentional about every decision they made. While Romeo and Juliet follows the story of two affluent, rich, teenagers and the film could not disregard that part of the play, the film makes it its mission to make the characters relatable. Not putting Romeo and Juliet in fancy, golden garments and rather having Romeo drive around in a yellow convertible wearing ‘regular’ clothes contributes to this relatability.
The scene in which Romeo and Juliet die in the film also strays just a little from the original plot and portrayal. The play’s death scene happens after a quarrel with Paris, and Paris dies with Romeo and Juliet. In the film, Paris dies separately from Romeo and Juliet. In the film version of the play, Romeo and Juliet die together, on a beautiful altar littered with candles, flowers, and other Catholic allusions. The scene shows the heart wrenching realization Juliet has when she finds Romeo dead. Making Romeo and Juliet die alone together makes the scene more intimate and heart-wrenching.
Film critic David Ansen wrote in Newsweek, describing Baz Luhrmann’s interpretation as “alternately enrapturing and exhausting, brilliant and glib… a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ more for the eyes than the ears”. The assessment that the film version of the play was created to be more visually appealing than other, earlier attempts of the work could not be more correct. It is peculiar that Baz Luhrmann opted to use the original lines of the play when creating and producing his film, though it feels like almost a necessity . The film takes advantage of the fact that while people may not be able to understand old English completely, they can understand love. Keeping the original lines of the play gave room to the producers to have room to play with visuals and sound, while still keeping the essence and should of the original play. Even if you do not understand what Romeo and Juliet are saying, you understand what they are feeling.
Inclusion, Casting, and Soundtrack
The characters of the original play seem as if they were written to be distant from the audience. Romeo and Juliet have a naiveness that is very unrelatable, even to teenagers. It seems in Baz Luhrmann’s version of the play, he was determined to tackle this dilemma (either out not necessity, to sell movie tickets, or out of a desire actually to enrich Shakespeare’s work). The move to make Romeo and Juliet a little more relatable could also contribute to the acceptance of the inevitable ending of the play and film, the death of both Romeo and Juliet. While desire and lust are both evident in the original play, it is withheld, especially from Juliet(most likely as a way to not portray her as too promiscuous and to give her an innocence). The film does not shy away from the fact that Juliet is just as lustful as Romeo is.
In the article posted in Shakespeare Studies, ’Audiences Writing Race in Shakespeare Performance’, “According to this theory, each age restates a Shakespearre play to represent its own particular preoccupations, so that there is a reflective relationship between cultural surrounding and theatrical performance”(Cline 112). The article written by Kline was about if audiences would be receptive to people of color in adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays and if the inclusion of people of color in Shakespeare’s plays would and could change the meaning of the works in any ways. While the people of color in the film were not a focal point of the plot, their inclusion was a necessity. Latinx and black characters are included throughout, with no reference to the color of their skin. This is pivotal in a film that is catered to an audience and generation that values inclusivity and diversity. There is a tendency to associate Shakespeare with white men on a stage(a correct correlation, considering Shakespeare wrote his plays in 16th Century England). The film, however, tackles this assumption by quietly and without fuss including various people of color, making the film more relatable and inclusive to a new generation.
Leonardo Dicaprio is a household name and is known both for his looks and acting ability. The film was released during a breakthrough point in his career: just a year before academy award winning Titanic was released. He was already a somewhat well known actor when Romeo and Juliet was filmed, and his inclusion in the film was huge. Giving the film a heartthrob gave it more credibility as a film created for teenagers. Even if the films old English lines could not relate to a younger audience- an attraction to Leonardo DiCaprio is almost universal amongst teenage girls. Attraction to a character in a film also changes how you see that character and where you want that character to go (you probably want that character to succeed and, not die). My own attraction to Leonardo while watching the film made me weary of his character’s death.
The original play portrayed Romeo and Juliet as young teenagers. In the play, Juliet was 13 years old while the entire dilemma was unfolding and when she eventually took her life. While the film was catered to a younger audience, its difficult as a teenager to relate to someone younger, or someone who looks younger than you . Maddie Weinland, a scholar from Denison University, writes that “the actress that plays Juliet in this film, Claire Danes, was seventeen at the time of production, making her appear obviously older than a thirteen year old girl… so the audience greets her with more of an expectation for maturity than they do in the play”(Weinland, 44). Making the characters appear older takes away from the usual frustration at their naiveness. Juliet gains more agency as an older character because she seems more determined about what she wants. Seeing a 13 year old girl fall in love deep enough to kill herself can be eye roll inducing. The film, however, gives time for the characters to fall in love and the characters themselves unravel on their own.
The soundtrack to the play is a huge part of its appeal. While plays that are turned into films often have scores filled with orchestras and huge string sections, Baz Luhrmann’s version took a different, and necessary route. Young, teenage audiences are not usually known to be receptive to the classic of anything. While this posed its own constraints, considering the film is a take on a Shakespeare play, the music that is in the film is another dilemma and task. The soundtrack to the film is still considered one of the best film soundtracks in a generation. The soundtrack is littered with alternative and punk rock, a staple of the 90’s. This inclusion of genre in the film makes it even more appealing to a younger audience.
Conclusion: A Timeless Story Reimagined
Romeo and Juliet is a timeless story about forbidden love. It is a classic example of literature living through hundreds and hundreds of years. Creative liberties are often taken when works are remade, and reinterpreted. Baz Luhrmann’s version of Romeo and Juliet is no exception to this. The producers of the film, along with Baz, worked to make the film more relatable to a younger, more technological and award generation. The film, a blockbuster, take the old English, 16th Century original play and injects it with cinematography that can be described as bizarre and aesthetically pleasing, characters that are relatable and attractive, and a soundtrack that is a staple of its time. The film took the creative liberties of changing the original play as a way to relate to a younger audience that does not always expose itself to theater and old Shakespeare.
- CLINE, LAUREN ERIKS. “Audiences Writing Race in Shakespeare Performance.” Shakespeare Studies (0582-9399), vol. 47, Jan. 2019, p. 112. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=138977003&site=eds-live&scope=site.
- Bye, Susan. “Love in a Lost World: ‘William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.’” Screen Education, no. 90, 2018, p. 108. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsihs&AN=edsihs.977459796803715&site=eds-live&scope=site.
- Weinland, Maddie (2010) ‘Power and Presentation: Comparing Juliet in Baz Luhrmann ‘s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet,’ Articulāte: Vol. 15 , Article 6.
- Available at: http://digitalcommons.denison.edu/articulate/vol15/iss1/6