Romeo and Juliet: Franco Zeffirelli versus Baz Luhrmann

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Famous works of the world literature such as plays by Shakespeare and Chekhov, novels by Dickens, Flaubert, Austen and others have always attracted movie directors. A good movie implies adaptation of the plot, ideas, and finding actors to portray characters of the book on the screen. It goes without saying that every director presents his own interpretation of the work by a writer, though the core of the original should remain untouched and carefully rendered. However, not all the directors and producers can cope with this task properly which leads to appearance of screen version that ruin the image of the literary original and do not create any valuable interpretation of the source text. Correspondingly, the purpose of this essay is to analyze and assess two screen versions of a famous literary work and to define which one is better.

Shakespeare is one of the most popular writers whose plays inspire a lot of movie directors – there are several hundreds screen versions of his plays. Some of them are world-known, others are local; still every new Shakespearean movie is an important event, even when it is a new version of the old movie. The tendency to modernize Shakespeare in order to attract young audience has proved to be a successful strategy recently: directors dramatically change the plot and settings. Due to the massive plot reaccentuation, Shakespeare’s texts may be deprived of their  primarily dramatic effect and psychologism, and characters described by the Bard may lose their authentic qualities. Moreover, their personalities may become perverted in terms of age, race, and even gender, and the overall movie can lead to the misconception of authentic source. Postmodern cinema productions, such as Romeo and Juliet directed by Baz Luhrmann, create a lot of tension as soon as they appear, even though their artistic values remain questionable. However, some movies, for instance, Romeo and Juliet directed by Franco Zeffirelli remain eternal classics which attract a lot of new spectators every year.

Zefirelli’s Romeo and Juliet is a true Shakespearean movie of all times, as it combines historicism with timelessness of ideas and concepts introduced by Shakespeare. At the same time, the Luhrmann’s version, shot as a blockbuster, concentrates upon modern times and can be fully decoded only in the historical context of the late XX century. The criteria, which this paper  uses to prove the thesis, is the settings, cast and script of the two movies.

The settings of medieval Verona appeal to Shakespeare's original text in a more appropriate manner than those of a modern American town Verona-Beach. Zeffirelli’s movie is awash with the spirit of the Bard: it refers to the authentic productions of the Globe theatre and fully conveys the chronotopos of medieval Italy (with regard to some reference to Renaissance England). Thus, the unbreakable connection of the screen version with the Bard’s text is kept. Meanwhile the chornotopos of Luhrmann’s movie clearly states that the overall story takes place somewhere in the USA, in modern times and, correspondingly, has little or no relation at all to the original play. The scenery of Romeo and Juliet is basically applicable to any Hollywood action movie, in such a way, it does not reflect Shakespeare’s historicism. Moreover, the authentic style and manner of the Bard’s text which is used as a script for both movies is more harmoniously perceived in the medieval settings, rather than modern ones.

Zeffirelli made a very innovative cast choice: he employed teenage actors (Leonard Whiting, 18, and Olivia Hussey, 17) to play initial roles in the movie. Their age was rather close to that of actual Romeo and Juliet. This experiment helped to create a special atmosphere of young and innocent love in the movie and twice more deepen the tragic aspect of the play, as the spectator could watch the tragic fate of two truly young people. Such directing element helped modern spectators to really feel the idea of the Bard – before Zeffirelli, Romeo and Juliet were played mostly by actors in their late 30s – early 40s, as it was believed that young inexperienced actors would not be able to cope with the task and to convey all the tragic elements properly. Luhrmann generally followed Zefirelli’s tradition and chose young actors – Leonardo DiCaprio, 21, and Claire Danes, 17 – to play Romeo and Juliet. However, the overall interpretation of the story of Montague and Capulet as  the conflict between two Italian mafia clans imposes a lot of brutality on both Romeo and Juliet. Therefore, Shakespeare’s plot interpreted by Luhrmann and acted out by DiCaprio and Danes is perceived as an action movie rather than a love story.

Shakespeare’s original text used as the script for both movies has a different meaning in each of them. In Zeffirelli’s version, it makes the the cornerstone of interpretation, and all other directing elements are based on it. In Luhrmann’s version, the dialogues conflict with the settings, as Shakespeare’s style does not correspond to informal, and even slang speech that is  used by teenagers and mafioso of Verona Beach. This discrepancy between the speech style of characters and the chronotopos of the movie creates a conflict in spectator’s perception, which leads to misconception of both the original plot and the idea of the screen version.

To sum up, Franco Zefirelli’s Romeo and Juliet is a combination of both directing innovations and experiments with careful approach to the original text and its cinematographic interpretation. Such strategy allowed the Italian director to create one of the best versions of Romeo and Juliet of all times. Meanwhile, the approach of Baz Luhrmann, which implied extreme modernization of the chronotopos almost destructed the authentic Shakespeare’s play and turned it into a blockbuster rather than a deep multi-level psychological tragedy. The case of Romeo and Juliet proves that any kind of cinematographic modernization applied to classical texts must be fully justified and sometimes even inevitable if the director’s purpose is to convey the classical plot to modern spectators. If the extreme rate of modernization can be escaped, it is worth avoiding it and concentrating on the interpretative potentials of an original story.

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