William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a play adapted extensively into films, musicals, and operas, itself borrowed from an Italian tale; The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke, 1562 and Palace of Pleasure by William Painter in 1582. Romeo and Juliet became one of Shakespeare’s most well-known tragedies. Baz Luhrman’s 1996 feature film Romeo + Juliet took on the challenge of adapting Shakespeare’s play into film. While retaining the original script, Luhrman changed almost everything else; the music score, the setting, the visual style, costumes and the text type.
As a result, he created an engaging style of entertainment for a young modern audience. In his appropriation of the original 16th century play, Luhrman explores and honours the play’s major themes; love, violence, fate versus free will and gender inequality. The biggest risk Luhrman took in adapting Romeo and Juliet to the screen was the use of Shakespearean dialogue in a modern Latino setting. It was a bold move, by which Luhrman divided audiences into those who either commended it and those who despised it.
However it was recognised that Luhrman had succeeded in maintaining the integrity of the characters and plotline, creating a modern masterpiece. The interpretation of the themes in both texts is true to the context of the time in which they are set. Apparent in the original text of the late 16th century are the patriarchal values held by society, the new spiritual and religious beliefs emerging through renaissance humanism, values in regards to marriage and gender roles and the strong religious presence in the Italian village of Verona.
These contextual factors are carried through to the modern adaptation to a certain extent, but are adjusted to accommodate modern audiences. The film adaptation is set in Verona Beach Miami: a city with both Hispanic and American influence. The music score borrows from Radiohead, The Cardigans and Dess’ree. Luhrman also transformed swords into guns, friars into fathers, the prologue into a news flash and princes into police captains. Both the play and the film’s dominant theme, love, is portrayed as imperfect; it is an overpowering force that supersedes all the other factors in the lives of Romeo and Juliet.
Sprung from separate feuding families, the “star cross’d” lovers defy the desires and expectations of their families to pursue their dream of being together. Love in both texts is just as often a force of evil, as one of good. It is the love that Romeo and Juliet share that forces them to irrational violence and both characters considered suicide on multiple occasions. Romeo says “If I profane with my unworthiest hand…this Holy shrine, the gentle sin is this”, while Juliet says, “My grave is like to be my wedding bed” to escape from troubles caused by their all-consuming love.
Romeo’s love makes him an emotional wreck and pushes him to murdering both Tybalt and Paris. In the play, these ideas of love are represented in many of Romeo’s lines. The connectedness between love and violence is referenced in Romeo’s line “O brawling love, o loving hate! ” and the internal misfortunes are felt when one is in love expressed by Romeo describing love as “a madness most discreet, a choking gall, and a preserving sweet. ” Because love is a timeless and universal theme it can be adapted for a modern audience, particularly through film.
Often when love is the focus in the film, there is a presence of water. For example, when Romeo meets Juliet they look at each other through a blue fish tank, and when they meet again in the balcony scene a water feature reflects watery light, and later, they fall into a swimming pool and embrace. The water and the presence of the colour blue in the love scenes bring an element of calm and peace. The 360 degree shot of the lovers in the elevator scene shows that to each other, Romeo and Juliet are all consuming.
While it is a deeply moving and beautifully filmed scene, it allows the audience time to also ponder the irrationality of the relationship between the two young lovers, especially in a modern context. In other parts of the film, these scenes are juxtaposed with violence where predominantly red and orange sets are used for example when Mercutio gets shot. As a theme in both texts, violence often takes the form of vengeance and plays a big role in the action and drama of the play and the film.
In the original text, the battles were mostly swordfights, which at the time were almost as much participated in for sport as for settling quarrels. Occurrences of violence in Romeo and Juliet are almost always as a result of passion of some sort. In many cases, the passion causing the violence is love, and the line defining love as pure and good is blurred. Angry vengeance drives many others to violence, and through these fiery fits of passion the characters are often disillusioned to the impacts their violent acts will have until after they have performed them.
In the play violence is often justified as being necessary to protect masculine honour and the honour of the family, and is also claimed to be in the name of revenge, leading to a long chain of violent acts that perpetuate the family feud between the Capulet’s and the Montague’s. This protection of masculine honour appears in Baz Luhrman’s adaptation, and the feuding families remain, tied up in modern gang warfare tinged with racial conflict.
The aspect of the Hispanic versus Anglo racial conflict makes the play understandable to a modern film audience, and the gang violence keeps the importance of masculine honour tangible and believable. In the film, the swordfights are transformed into dramatic gun battles, and it is evident in the gas station fight scene that the violence has been choreographed, typically seen in Hollywood films. The speed of the film’s action is altered at times to create dramatic effect and imagery of fire emphasises anger and violence.
Religious imagery is also used in extremely violent scenes, for example the crucifix on the butt of Tybalt’s gun as he stares down the Montagues in the gas station scene. While the religious symbols on the violent weapons are direct visual parallels to the theme of religion in the play, it also elucidates the proximity of evil and good in modern America. Don McAlpine’s cinematography includes lingering close-ups of key characters and rich religious symbols. In his muscular approach to storytelling, Luhrman borrows from other master film makers like Scorsese, Tarantino and Lynch.
Gender roles at the time of the play were very conventional. Elizabethan society was unarguably a patriarchal society. The role of women was limited to domestic care. Most girls were married in their early teens and had little or no choice in husbands. These constraints caused problems for Juliet in her love of Romeo. From her parent’s point of view, her love was not hers to give, and it was expected that an appropriate suitor would be selected by her parents (primarily her father) and accepted by his daughter without complaint.
Thus Juliet’s father was extremely angry at Juliet’s refusal to marry Paris; by refusing to marry Paris she was rebelling against the expectations of her as a daughter and member of the Capulet family. It can be seen in the modern film adaptation, as well as in the original text, that the women in the play, notably Juliet, spend their time inside their houses or churches, whereas the boys spend a lot of their time out on the streets.
It would be easy for this practice to come across as alien and unfamiliar to a modern film audience, but the large amounts of danger and gang violence on the streets of contemporary Verona Beach serve as an explanation as to why young girls like Juliet are kept inside for protection. Fate versus freewill as a theme in Shakepeare’s Romeo and Juliet takes its roots in the emerging belief in theories of renaissance humanism. At the time the original play was written, people were starting to believe that although they were created by God, it was they themselves who had the power to change future events in their lives.
People generally became less strict about religious matters, but it was still believed that without a religious base and the right constraint on freedom, disastrous effects would result. This conflict between fate and freewill is paralleled in a youth versus age conflict. Romeo represents rash, fast-thinking youth, enthralled in the pursuit of love and happiness, and Friar Lawrence is the balancing figure of religious sensibility, wisdom and constraint. The heavy religious influence in the original text is carried through to the modern appropriation through the setting.
Being set in a Hispanic society, the Catholic influence is still understandable and the superstitions upheld in the play are not too far from reality for a modern audience to accept. In the play, Romeo’s quick temper and fast decision making often lead to unexpected and unstable circumstances, and Friar Lawrence advises “Those stumble who run fast. ” Though the character of Friar Lawrence in the film remains a wise religious priest, his character is changed in ways to make it more familiar to the contemporary audience.
For example his everyday attire is casual, which is a reference to the film being set in a post Vatican II era. Because Baz Luhrman’s adaptation had to conform to film conventions, sections of the play have been removed, condensed or taken out altogether to suit the change in text type. The original plot included Romeo murdering Paris. This has been removed in the film because Paris is a sympathetic character, and having him killed for no obvious reason, would not have fitted with Hollywood film.
Luhrman wanted the audiences to be able to sympathise with Romeo and therefore had to exclude the murder of Paris. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is one of the English language’s most enduring texts. Baz Luhrman’s modern appropriation of this classic tragedy is a masterpiece in its own right. He successfully re-contextualised the Shakespearian play to entertain and engage new audiences around the world, while still managing to preserve the integrity of the original story (by maintaining key themes as well as language).