Romeo and Juliet (1968) and Romeo + Juliet (1996): A Study in Contrast

Sep 6, 2021
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Romeo and Juliet can be considered as William Shakespeare’s most successful play in terms of popularity and impact on popular culture, and there is plenty of evidence to prove it. It has been mounted on stage in numerous productions, adapted into film many times, used as basis for hundreds or even thousands of other works, and referenced countless times in art and popular culture. More than that, Romeo and Juliet has been studied by students and scholars for generations. The sheer number of essays, research papers, and reaction papers written about this play is a solid reminder of its importance. The average person will likely be able to tell you the gist of Romeo and Juliet even without having seen any of its productions or adaptations. Romeo and Juliet, of course, is famous for good reason. After all, most people can relate with the theme of forbidden love. For this reason, people should see the play at least once in their life. But if seeing the play performed live on stage is not possible, there’s always the option of watching film adaptations. Among the many films made about this play, two of the most important are Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 adaptation of the same name and Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo + Juliet. Though both films depict Shakespeare’s play, the two cannot be more different in their approach to adaptation. Whereas the 1968 version presents a more traditional approach to production, the 1996 version takes great artistic license in its interpretation of the work.

To start with, it is clear that both films are faithful to the original play as far as the language and general plot is concerned. True to the text, both films begin with the famous prologue: “Two households, both alike in dignity, / In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, / From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, / Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” This allows both films to set the stage for the drama about to unfold. Furthermore, both the 1968 and 1996 adaptations use the original Early Modern English text. Many adaptations modernize the language to make the dialogue easier to understand and relatable to modern audiences. However, the two films present the story in its original language, which means that both are faithful to the material when it comes to language and retain much of the play’s poetic forms. The same faithfulness is observed with regard to the general plot. Both films open by establishing the conflict between the Montagues and the Capulets, and from thereon proceed to present major scenes until the climax where Romeo and Juliet dies in each other’s arms. In this regard, the two versions offer a more or less complete picture. While both films are faithful to the language and the general plot, the two wildly diverges when it comes to the approach to production and aesthetics.

Zeffirelli’s 1968 version of the film can be considered as a more traditional adaptation, since the film presents Romeo and Juliet within 16th century Italy. Most productions of the play set it within the traditional context by dressing the characters in 16th century clothing. The same is true for this version. For one, much of the film takes place in locations that were built during the Renaissance Period. For example, some of the locations used for the film are the Palazzo Borghese, the town of Gubbio in central Italy, and various places across Italy. The opening scene, in particular, shows the unique characteristics of Italian cities during the Renaissance such as narrow streets and stone structures. The rest of the play also features markers of the Italian Renaissance through its art and architecture. While the movie was not shot in the real-life city of Verona, it certainly convinces the viewer that the movie takes place in an Italian city in the 16th century. Apart from the setting, the 1968 version also uses 16th century costumes. It is clear the film pays attention to detail when it comes to the characters’ wardrobe so that they match the setting. The music used in the film sounds like the music that one can expect to have been played in the 16th century. Finally, even the way the play is performed on screen is traditional. This version stays well within naturalistic acting despite the characters’ highly dramatized performances. All in all, it can be said that Zeffirelli’s version of Romeo and Juliet is faithful to tradition because it places the story within its original setting. The only difference is that adapting the play into film offered new possibilities such as making use of real-life locations instead of stage props and flats. Indeed, it can even be argued that Zeffirelli’s version is intended to present the play in the way that Shakespeare might have imagined it: a tragic tale that takes place against a romantic Renaissance Italian backdrop.

Whereas Zeffirelli’s version attempts to stay true to the play’s 16th century context, Luhrmann’s 1996 version consciously deviates from traditional depictions by taking great artistic license in its approach. This version not only shifts the setting to the modern era, but it applies a distinctly punk theme as a twist. For one, Verona is no longer the romantic Renaissance city recreated in most productions; in this film it has become a hostile and crime-ridden city characterized by harsh urban decay. In line with the blighted urban landscape, the characters are dressed in modern clothing but with a distinctly punk style. If in the 1968 version the characters’ social standing is communicated through their luxurious Renaissance clothes, the 1996 version conveys the wealth of the characters by way of garishness. Everything in Luhrmann’s film is excessive: the cars are big, the guns are bigger, the colors are assaulting to the eyes, and the jewelry overflows. The music, too, is modernized, since the songs used for the movie are hits from the 1990s. As for the performances, this version involves a high degree of theatricality. While the 1968 version is dramatic but still naturalistic, the performances in this version are modified so that the characters appear angrier, more dejected, or more uninterested. Furthermore, many of the elements are changed or updated, such as when Mercutio performs in drag and when Juliet uses a gun to commit suicide. In the end, the 1996 version of the play is undoubtedly intended to fulfill the director’s unique vision. It uses a highly stylized approach that sharply deviates from tradition. Whether good or bad, that is for the critics to say. What is clear, though, is that Luhrmann offers something new.

If ever there is one play by Shakespeare that everyone will agree is his most famous, no doubt the answer will be Romeo and Juliet. More than four hundred years after it was first played, people still study it by way of literary analysis and adapt into new forms. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 version and Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version are just two of the many, many films about the play shown here and in other countries. But while both films are faithful to the language and the plot, the two differ when it comes to production and aesthetics. Zeffirelli’s version is more traditional in its approach. It sets the story within 16th century Italy and uses locations, costumes, and music that are reminiscent of the time. On the other hand, Luhrmann’s version is highly stylized. The directory clearly took great artistic license in modernizing the work. Departing from the traditional approach that Zeffirelli abides by in his dramatic adaptation of the play, Luharmann’s version applies a punk theme that sees the action taking place in a hostile world. This is not to say, however, that one is better than the other. Surely each adaptation has its merits. Ultimately, it is up to the viewer to decide which adaptation they prefer—the 1968 version for those who like their Shakespeare classic and the 1996 version for those who like their Shakespeare with a twist.

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