Romeo and Juliet
FRANCO ZEFFIRELLI VS BAZ LUHRMANN
A new film version of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy hits the silver screen today! Yet not many people are proclaiming “Huzzah!” over this news. Why? Because it’s been done and done well. In 1968, Franco Zeffirelli created what many consider to be the definitive film version of Romeo and Juliet. It captured the Elizabethan period beautifully, transporting viewers back to 16th century Verona in all its glory and danger. Zeffirelli’s bold cast and excellent cinematography created the tragic tale the way it’s supposed to be; full of passion, poetry, and pageantry.
About 30 years later, a new version was made: Baz Luhrmann’s modern day adaptation.
A pause here for all the boos to be shouted and tomatoes to be thrown.
Baz Luhrmann’s version is considered, by many English Teachers and Shakespearean Enthusiasts, to be an abomination. But is it really? Or are people just so attached to the original, that they can’t even consider a new version? I use the word “original” sparingly, as there were other film versions before Zeffirelli’s. Regardless, his version still seems to be the most popular. When people mention Romeo and Juliet, the first images that pop into our heads are that of Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in a loving embrace. It doesn’t matter what generation we belong to.
Okay, actually the first images that pop into most people’s heads, are that of cringe-inducing research papers. Or perhaps they picture nothing at all, as they were bored to the point of sleep, during English class. I’m hoping that assumption does not apply to anyone reading this article.
Despite my praise of Zeffirelli, I truthfully believe Baz Luhrmann’s version to be near equal in quality. And now I’m sure that Zeffirelli purists will want to click the “back” button on their internet browser. But I ask you to at least state my reasons. Though this article is titled “Director Showdown,” I will let you know from the start, that I recommend both versions.
But which one is superior? Read below to find out.
Let’s examine these movies in terms of four categories. I’m not including the story, because basically it’s the same story. Two kids from opposing families fall in love, marry in secret, but then the boy kills his new wife’s cousin and must go into exile. At the climax, the kids kill themselves, ending the feud between their families. Both versions make similar cuts in the original text, namely the omission of the Romeo vs Paris fight scene. Or do they?
Watch the Zeffirelli version and you’ll notice that Romeo has his sword upon entering the Capulet monument. But once he’s inside, he only has his dagger. Either they filmed that fight but edited it out of the movie, or it’s just a small continuity error.
Either way in both productions the Romeo and Paris fight doesn’t happen. But it’s not like one of the directors cut Mercutio’s Queen Mahb speech.
So let’s begin.
Faithfulness to Shakespeare
I don’t need to argue that Zeffirelli’s version is faithful to Shakespeare. He wanted the production to be very period, and he got it. The costumes, sets, and sword fighting are all distinctly Elizabethan. Zeffirelli’s characterization, storytelling, and mastery of the language are all spot on. He also took a big risk casting Olivia Hussey, considering that she was the same age as Juliet. This was not the norm in most Shakespearean films at the time. But it clearly was a brilliant casting choice, which I’ll mention later.
Then you have Baz Luhrmann’s version. A lot of people look at that movie and say “It’s a modern version. BLASPHEMY!” But really the story is still the same, it’s just put into screenplay form with a different setting. The setting of a play can change as long as the story, dialogue, and characterization remains mostly intact. Is it odd to see people in modern dress speak Shakespearean? It would be if the movie was filmed like a realistic contemporary drama. But it isn’t. Luhrmann’s Verona is a hyper-reality with rich symbolism and excessive religious imagery.
The religious imagery is there to try to replicate the culture of the Elizabethan era, a time where Religion and the State were not so separate. The lighting and the cinematography is very moody, reflecting either the great love or the absolute hatred of the characters. The music (sans the rather dated soundtrack) is larger than life, and the choreography is stylish and over-the-top. All of this makes Luhrmann’s Verona very different from our real world. This helps us accept that people here wear modern clothing, but speak Shakespearean. An unrealistic situation is more believable in an unrealistic world.
Baz Luhrmann’s films often seem way too over-the top, especially when it comes to party scenes. A lot of people did not take kindly to the bawdy, wild sequences, of the 1996 version. I admit it is weird to see Mercutio as a cross-dresser, singing in front of a dancing crowd that seems to enjoy it.
But all of this was not some excuse to have wild party scenes. Luhrmann researched the histroy of Elizabethan Theatr,e and found that audience,s in the olden day,s were sometimes quite rowdy. The groundlings came to see a show in the middle of the afternoon, often when they were drunk and loud. That’s why the plays back then had all sorts of preshows, musical numbers, anything to quiet people down and allow them to pay attention for a long time. So Luhrmann’s many scenes of bawdy comedy were used to unearth that element of Shakespeare’s plays that had been missing for so long. I love the quiet reverential spirit of Zeffirelli’s classic, but it’s a little too pretty and gentle at times. Baz Luhrmann’s version reminded us that Shakespeare’s story, when it first showed, was very bawdy, loud, and sometimes a little bit of a rough ride.
Yes there are silly moments in the 1996 version. But there are silly moments in the 1968 version as well. Don’t deny it.
Look at Tybalt’s death in this version and try not to laugh.
Now I will say that Baz Luhrmann’s version has serious characterization misstep. It implies that Lady Capulet has a sexual relationship with Tybalt. This is taking it way too far.
If it’s not on the page, it shouldn’t be on the stage!
Despite this fact, I’d say the score is 1:1.
I don’t want to make this as long as my typical college essay, so I’ll just discuss the two title characters. As I said before, Zeffirelli took a big risk casting two young unknowns as the legendary star-crossed lovers, but it was worth it. Leonard Whiting was a great Romeo. When he moans about Rosaline, in the beginning, you really get a sense of his low point. When he’s joking with his friends, you get the sense that this is his usual demeanor. And Olivia Hussey captured the innocence and excitement of a young girl in love. We also see her transformation in the film, as she’s forced to grow up and make her own decisions after her husband is exiled from Verona.
Now Leonardo Dicaprio has proven time and again that he is a talented actor. He does play a good Romeo, with all the varied emotions. You get a real sense of the danger of his passion when he blows Tybalt away. Still he doesn’t quite have the poetic quality that Leonard Whiting embodies in the Zeffirelli version. And Claire Danes as Juliet? A decent performance, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the pure and innocent Olivia Hussey.
Zeffirelli takes a 2-1 lead in the showdown so far.
Script to Screen
It’s a very difficult thing to adapt a non-movie into a movie. Look at how many movies do it wrong today, in our age of umteen million movie remakes. It’s especially difficult for a Shakespearean play, as t]The Bard wrote in age where words were almost the only means of storytelling. His actors didn’t have much in the way of sets, lighting, or special effects back then. Film, however, is and has always been a visual medium. Both Zeffirelli and Luhrmann found interesting ways to make their movies more visual, but which one was the most successful? They both were able to give “stage business” to the actors, having them do mundane tasks, like going to the market, while delivering lines in iambic pentameter. Zeffirelli’s version has great examples of this, particularly with Mercutio, who humiliates the Nurse with his actions as well as his words. Mercutio also lies in a public tub while insulting Tybalt. The best example of Zeffirelli’s visuals, however, comes during the Capulet ball. Romeo watches as Rosaline (his ex-girlfriend) dances with someone else, but then she steps away to reveal Juliet. This was a very clever way to show him move on from Rosaline to Juliet. It’s a common debate as to whether or not Shakespeare’s Romeo really loved Juliet, or if she was just another girl-of-the-week. In Zeffirelli’s version, it seems pretty clear that Romeo finds Juliet superior to Rosaline.
It may seem unfair to compare Zeffirelli’s film to one that came out thirty years later, with so much changed in the film industry. But if the 1968 version is really as timeless as people say, then it should hold up against more modern films. Even though film has always been a visual medium, films are far more visual today, and the 1996 version is no exception. “Lord” Capulet and “Dave” Paris begin a conversation in an elevator and then continue it in the hot tub. Romeo and Benvolio begin their “sad hours seem long” scene at the beach, then continue it at a pool hall. Even Romeo and Juliet’s first kissing scene takes place in a few different locations. This is the way film is supposed to function; never staying in one location for too long. The visuals are superb and a great spectacle, rising to the demands of the genre. Romeo and Juliet meet much more visually, while still including Romeo’s soliloquy. They first see each other through a fish tank in a wall dividing the two bathrooms. They flirt behind the glass, then follow each other exchanging smiles.
I’m sorry, but in terms of visual storytelling, Baz Luhrmann’s version wins. Franco Zeffirelli’s version lends itself more to theatre than film, in my opinion. When I watch the 1968 version, it often feels like I’m watching the best stage version of Romeo and Juliet ever, played on the streets of Verona with a big budget. Baz Luhrmann’s version is clearly a movie, and a good one at that.
The score is once again tied: 2-2.
Once again, both versions deserve their credit. Baz Luhrmann’s cast makes the iambic pentameter sound very natural. The mistake many actors make is they get too caught up in the poetry, that the dialogue sounds like just that; dialogue. Also, the 1996 version has a lot of clever sight and language gags that work well. However many people had the opposite reaction when they saw the words “Sword 9mm” on Benvolio’s gun. The words were there only so Benvolio could still say: “Put up your swords.”
Zeffirelli’s version beautifully captures the poetic nature of Shakespeare’s language. The actors in the 1996 version may have handled the dialogue naturally, but perhaps too naturally. I mentioned earlier that Zeffirelli’s version is not as visual as Luhrmann’s. Conversely, Zeffirelli’s version does handle the language better. Why? Because Zeffirelli relied heavily on the language, and the actors’ delivery of it, to convey the emotion of the scenes. You might argue that the reason Shakespeare’s language is so beautiful, is that it was his only real tool to tell his story\ies. As previously mentioned, he had minimal sets and lighting to work with. Zeffirelli didn’t have those problems, but he really captured the poetic spirit of the original text. He may not have had a pool for Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, but they did just fine without one.
So while Baz Luhrmann’s version is more visual, Franco Zeffirelli’s version does have better control and mastery of the language.
Zefirelli finds himself once again in the lead: 3-2.
A weird final category, but then again, fight scenes are this site’s focus and specialty. I hate to sound like a broken record, but both versions do well. Baz Luhrmann’s version features some flashy gun choreography, keeping with the style of the production. Tybalt (John Leguizamo) fights as if he’s a Mexican ballroom dancer. This flashy style nicely matches Tybalt’s arrogant character. I actually tried to mimic some of his poses when I portrayed Tybalt in a stage production last year, although I had rapier and dagger instead of two guns.
The problem with shootout scenes, however, is they don’t really make for good “fight scenes.” Unarmed combat and swordfights are full of blocks and avoidances, allowing fights to last longer without becoming too silly. But how many times can a character dodge a bullet, and not make the other gunman look ridiculous instead of threatening? The 1996 version tries to solve this problem by making the Mercutio and Tybalt duel into a fist fight. The Tybalt vs Romeo fight consists of one car crash, then Romeo steals Tybalt’s gun and shoots him. Hardly much of a fight scene, if you ask me. More like a murder scene.
Now if this were just about fight choreography, I might have made this another tie. But good fight choreography recognizes the word “scene” in “fight scene.” It has a beginning, middle, and an end. The characters change in the course of the fight, not just because of the outcome. Zeffirelli does this masterfully in his version. Tybalt’s duel with Mercutio starts out as more of a friendly bout. Tybalt disarms Mercutio, who whistles as he waits for what Tybalt is about to do. Tybalt smiles and hands Mercutio his sword. But then it’s Mercutio that has the upper hand, and he uses the opportunity to make jokes. Tybalt fails to find it funny and begins to feel threatened. Romeo gets involved and that’s when Tybalt kills Mercutio. In this production, it doesn’t seem like that was ever Tybalt’s intention at any point. And he’s about to leave well enough alone, before Romeo challenges him. Tybalt decides not to hold back, and we see the tension mounting in both characters until Romeo gets a lucky shot, showing that he is truly “fortune’s fool.”
This is why Zeffirelli wins this category. He finds the drama within the great fight. And it is great fight choreography, at least for the time, as this is before stage combat became more sophisticated. The Romeo vs Tybalt fight is one of few rapier and dagger duels on the silver screen. I like that because that style was more common in the Elizabethan era than single rapier.
Zeffirelli makes another palpable hit: 4-2
As movies, I prefer both versions about the same. But based on the criteria I outlined, it seems that the Franco Zeffirelli version is the better one. When I set out to do this article, I was originally thinking it would be a stale mate. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt the Zeffirelli version is superior. However, I plead that Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo and Juliet is a valid version, and shouldn’t be cast aside simply because it’s not traditional Shakespeare.
That said, the Luhrmann version seemed to open all kinds of doors for new versions of Shakespeare. Sounds good, but it’s gotten to the point where film and stage directors almost feel obligated to have some kind of high concept for Shakespearean films. It’s like they can’t do the traditional version. There’s a real shortage of traditional Shakespeare on the stage and the screen. I use the word traditional, sparingly, as pure traditional productions cast boys to play girls. I do want to see more traditional approaches to Shakespeare, and while I’m not overly excited about the new Romeo and Juliet, I’m glad that they went the traditional route, because old is now new.
So what do you think? Am I right to choose Zeffirelli? Why? And was I right to give so much credit to Luhrmann? Comment and let me know 🙂