Film Reviews: Directors' Decisions In Romeo And Juliet

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An exploration of interpretations of Shakespeare's work, Romeo and Juliet, by several film directors and the subsequent effects on the play as a whole.
    William Shakespeare (1564 –1616) is the most famous English poet and playwright and is considered to be by far the greatest writer of the English language of all time. He is known as England's national poet, and is sometimes referred to as the "Bard of Avon" or the "Swan of Avon". Already popular in his own lifetime, Shakespeare became more famous after his death. He wrote approximately 40 plays and 154 sonnets which were translated into every major language, and his plays are incessantly seen and performed all over the world. By artfully using characterization, plot, action, language, and different genres he created a popular theater that is admired equally by intellectuals and those just seeking entertainment.

     The depth and complexity of Shakespearean characters intrigued artists for generations. Many directors of theater and film created various interpretations of the masters’ work and shared their views with the audience. To enhance the impression, or to make a play more acceptable by a broader audience of today, some directors used different creative approaches and symbolism. For instance, the film Romeo and Juliet, directed by Baz Luhrman (1996), sets the play in a modern Verona Beach that is somewhere in between Miami and Mexico City. The director replaces swords and daggers with guns, and horses with fast cars. He creates a hybrid background by mixing diverse periods of the 20th century.

Baz Luhrman's interpretation is fundamentally different from anything the audience has seen before. (Image Source)

The atmosphere is contemporary and the set clearly appeals to a younger audience. In the film, the director uses symbols such as water to represent life and death, as well as stars and numerous candles to symbolize fate holding the whole world in its grasp. To strengthen the drama, the sky darkens rapidly in the film; and when Romeo seeks revenge (chasing Tybalt in a high speed car pursuit) the sky turns completely black. The director also creatively experiments with the camera angles and uses stunning theatrical props. 

    Another outstanding example of Romeo and Juliet in a modern interpretation is the classic film by Franco Zifferelli (1968).

In Franco Zifferelli's Romeo and Juliet, the setting and costumes are in agreement with the period. (Image Source)

The film is romantic, beautiful and slow. Image enhancing techniques include camera and lighting variations. For example, Zifferelli shows people of high social status by tilting the camera upward, making them look superior to other “inferior” persons. In comparison to Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet, Zifferelli’s film is slow paced, less dynamic and much more loyal to the Shakespearean text.

     In his time, Shakespeare was known mainly for his theater work. Through centuries, his work was adored and appreciated by many generations. It does not become old-fashioned and out of place. The audience can relate to his plays today as much as they could in old times. Thus, the director’s decisions to shape interpretations of a story only affect the way it is viewed by the audience, while the meaning remains unchanged. The creative techniques that are used today are not meant to improve the genius of Shakespeare, but to bring it closer to the understanding of people in the modern world.

© 2010 Gregory Markov

Additional References

Cover Photo - (Image Source)

Romeo and Juliet, By William Shakespeare (E-Book)

IMDB - Romeo and Juliet (1996)

IMDB - Romeo and Juliet (1968)

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