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How does Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” visually highlight Shakespeare’s rich language and imagery? Shakespeare’s use of language reflects the theatre of his day. There were no elaborate set designs, costumes, lighting or sound effects and there were also only a small number of actors playing many different parts. This could get confusing and therefore the language and imagery had to do all the work for the audience, as the words were the only tools available to help them imagine the scenes vividly.
In the prologue of “Romeo and Juliet”, line number twelve; “Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage” and the very last words; “our toil shall strive to mend”, have significant meaning. These sentences, spoken by the chorus, highlight to the audience the key plot elements to come. It gives the audience an idea of what they are about to watch or read and makes the ensuing action more intelligible. This dramatic convention therefore acts almost like a movie trailer. In Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of the play, the prologue begins with a long shot of a television (within a television), with a reporter speaking to us from inside of it.
Behind the reporter’s left shoulder are the words “star-crossed lovers” and a symbol of a broken ring. This, in the first minute of the play, already introduces us to the fact that Romeo and Juliet are star-crossed lovers, which is a major theme throughout the entire play. The news reporter then delivers the whole prologue from beginning to end, before the camera zooms further and further in until the point of extreme close up, at which point the prologue changes. This is how Baz Luhrmann achieves a similar effect to Shakespeare’s dramatic use of the prologue.
By doing this, it is almost as if we are “entering” the movie and if you do not wish to “go in” then it is your choice not to continue watching. In the second sentence of the prologue, “In fair Verona (where we lay our scene)”, Shakespeare carefully uses the positive modifier “fair” to describe the city. This emphasizes the fact that Verona is closely associated with God, therefore establishing it as a peaceful, moral city. However, this is contradicted by negative modifiers in the next sentences of the prologue, which are “From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean”.
This brings in the fact that there is an old grudge between two families. However, with this grudge there is blood shed and constant fights, some of which draw in innocent civilians. In the movie this section of the prologue is shot from a fast-moving helicopter. There is an extreme long shot and an aerial view of Verona, which introduces us to the town. A statue of Jesus is shown, immediately followed by the words “IN FAIR VERONA”, in large, white letters. Then, for several seconds, there is jump cutting between the Jesus statue and the phrase.
This is how Baz Luhrmann shows us that Verona is normally a good, religious city. This is then followed by some fast, substantial shots. We are shown two separate buildings; one which has the sign “Montague” at the top, and the other which has the sign “Capulet” on top. This introduces us to the two feuding families who are the centre of the play. In addition, a police car which says “Verona Police” is filmed. All of these key points visually highlight Shakespeare’s imagery and language. The police car is an indication of the violence to come that is caused by the feud and upsets the normal, peaceful status quo.
The first six lines of the prologue are essentially the most important in establishing the plot – for example lines three and four from the prologue: “from ancient grudge break to new mutiny” and “where civil blood makes civil hands unclean”. Luhrmann usually emphasises these points with newspaper headlines shown in the movie with those exact sentences on them. These lines of the prologue are also heard as the voice-over of the Friar. Jump cutting is used to move from headline to headline and the newspapers are shot in extreme close up, surrounded by flames of fire.
With each sentence of the prologue that is said, an accompanying image is shown on the screen with it. These include violent images such as police cars and police helicopters. Overall, expressive lighting is used in the film, to add even greater intensity to the conflict between peace and war in Verona. This, along with words such as “death”, “rage” and “blood”, really start to show the dark side of the plot and ironically contrasts with Verona being described as a “fair” city previously.
Next, line ten of the prologue, “the continuance of their parents’ rage”, establishes the fact that the grudge between the families is a long-standing ordeal. This is represented in the movie with a montage, showing the many magazines which talk about the hatred of the two families. Line five in the prologue, “from forth the fatal loins of these two foes”, aims to introduce the parents of Romeo and Juliet and in fact the two main characters themselves. Therefore, at this point, Baz Lurhmann shows a short clip of each significant actor in the movie.
This is followed by a freeze frame on them, with the name of their character and any outstanding relationships he or she might have with other characters. The freeze frames are extremely close up on the characters’ faces and it sets the scene for the rest of the movie, so we know who to look out for. This is also an opportunity for Baz Luhrmann to give some limited information about the characters’ status. He does so by filming Montague and Capulet at a slightly lower angle than the others, making them appear more intimidating than the rest.
This is how he effectively shows that they are the heads of the two households. In lines six and nine of the prologue, Shakespeare uses such phrases as “star-crossed” and “death-marked” to describe Romeo and Juliet’s love. First of all, “love” and “death” are oxymoronic and are not commonly found together in the same sentence. Secondly, “star-crossed” implies that they have no control over their love. It implies that Fate is in control and the minute they fell in love both were destined to die. In the film during this time, loud, fast and rising operatic music is played.
This is incidental music significantly increases the level of tension and drama in the prologue. This is therefore appropriate for trying to emphasize the fact of the couple’s fated love. What Baz Luhrmann does here is basically pull the whole prologue together. Proceeding this, after the prologue has been explained, Baz Luhrmann tries to increase the level of suspense even further, to truly point out the violence and the tragic ending of the play. Therefore what he does, with the opera music still playing, is show most of the prologue on the screen in writing.
Jump cutting is used between each sentence, but it is barely readable since the editing is at such a high speed, so the prologue is literally flashing before your eyes. Afterwards, Baz Luhrmann shows snippets from the entire movie to the audience. Jump cutting is used and the images flash at a very high speed before you. He goes from the end to the beginning of the movie, and what he achieves is, in a sense, a visual prologue! At the very end of the prologue, the title “Romeo + Juliet” comes up and the ‘plus’ sign is actually made to suggest a Christian cross. This subtly reminds us of the religious side of the play.
This includes the Friar, who is a religious personage, the wedding that Romeo and Juliet have and also the whole theme of destiny and some divinity or higher power looking over and controlling us in life. So in conclusion, this is how Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of the prologue from “Romeo and Juliet” successfully visually highlights Shakespeare’s rich language and imagery. We can see how he has gone through the prologue and then fairly systematically translated its deeper meaning, in remarkably creative ways. He effectively translates all the messages of the prologue in a contemporary and entertaining context.