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Discuss the challenges faced by a film director in adapting Shakespeare’s work to the big screen, consider the ways in which Baz Lurhman meets these challenges, through a detailed exploration of the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet.
Many challenges arise when a film director is faced with the task of adapting a Shakespeare play to the big screen.
The film to be a big success has to appeal to a wide range of people. The director will have to create a balance that will attract non Shakespeare fans to come and see the film but at the same time not to change it to much as to offend Shakespeare fans, who would not be impressed if the film did not do the play justice.
Not only does the film have to appeal to these people but it has to appeal to a wide age bracket as well. To include all of these people in the succession of the film a number of techniques, devices and alterations to the film have to be made and used.
These include language, the setting, music, time management, costumes, and actors/actresses. Without the appealing to a wide audience the
Language is a huge challenge. In the Shakespearian time period the language is now referred to as ‘Old English’. Not many people nowadays can easily understand the language used in Shakespeare’s plays. To over come this problem an intelligent use of characters, props, setting and music is used to help the audience understand better the story line and to be kept entertained by the film.
The setting of a film is very important. It is especially important when trying to adapt a Shakespeare play because the director finds himself in a dilemma. He has two choices, he can either keep the setting orthodox to keep in with time the play was set in, or he can choose a modern setting. With both if these choices comes problems. If the film director was to choose a setting mentioned in the play then it may not interest as many people, yet if he chooses a modern approach then part of the plays authenticity may be lost.
Music has to play an important role when creating a film like this. Music can identify characters; create moods and atmospheres, drama, action and entertainment. It can also reflect the way a character is feeling at a certain moment in time. Music can help the audience understand more easily what is going on in the film if they find the dialogue confusing. Music can capture the audiences attention and involve them more in the film because for a example a certain type of music may signify a fight and so they are waiting for the an anti climax.
When ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is acted on stage as a live play, the play may easily cover a period of time of two to three hours. This time must be shortened when taken to the big screen; a three-hour film may get boring for some people, especially the younger audiences. Time management has to be carefully looked at and considered, when producing a film from a Shakespeare play.
Costumes in a sense have the same problems as the setting does. The director again is faced with two options again. The director can either keep the costume modern or keep the original costumes in the play. Also here the director is faced with the decisions of who wears what and what they will reflect about them. Costume is a very cleverly used technique. Costume can determine different sexes, groups, gangs, class and different personalities. This has to be looked at very carefully by the film director.
Finally the actors and actresses need to be chosen. Using familiar faces might encourage more people to go and see the film, due to recognisably impressive acting skills formed from previous film releases. Also finding the right people to play each part. Certain actors and actresses can adapt more easily to different film genres and character personalities and these things need to be matched to the perfect actor.
The film I am going to look at in closer detail is Baz Luhrman’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. In all Baz Lurhman has directed three films, these include ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Moulin Rouge’ and ‘Strictly Ballroom’. His three films are known as the red curtain trilogy. This is because all three of these films are taken from the stage and have been adapted by Baz Lurhman for the big screen. All of his films are famous for being highly stylised, non-naturalistic and heightened cinematic language. His films an unusual amount of extreme close ups, montages and stills to emphasise certain snapshots and moments, his use of music and choice of all of the above devices gives his films a certain apocalyptic feel. This is clearly shown in “Romeo and Juliet’.
In Romeo and Juliet, the first thing to be seen is the prologue. The prologue in the play is a brief outline of what is to happen in the play. The prologue would most probably be hard for the majority of the audiences to easily understand and so Baz Lurhman uses a variety of devices to over come this issue. The audiences will here the prologue twice in the opening scene. The first time it is heard it is seen in the form of a news report. A small 1960’s television is brought into vision from the middle of the screen. On it is a young woman saying the prologue. The only noise is the woman’s voice. Also as she speaking the television is moving closer to us, representing time, it makes us feel as though the film is emerging out of the past and the story is enclosing. After the prologue has finished the television switches off and the screen grows black. Suddenly loud operatic music is entered into the film.
Over the music a males voice repeats the prologue. The prologue is reinforced, random words from the prologue are shown as white words against a black background, which are intercepted by colourful film snap shots called a montage. In the montage stills are used to show different characters in the film. Normally when stills are used to show different characters in the film the name shown with their still is normally their ‘real name’ however in Romeo and Juliet the characters name is used. This is to make it easier for the audience to identify the different characters and to familiar to which family they are from. The two different families in Romeo and Juliet are the Capulets (Juliet) and the Montagues (Romeo).
These two families are introduced in a dramatic fashion. The first camera shot is panoramic and seen is two buildings, tall, modern skyscrapers. Above one of the buildings is the name Montague and the other Capulet. This shows that the families are very powerful. Both buildings are of equal height and so the power amongst the two families is also seen as equal. In between these two buildings is a statue of Jesus Christ. This gives the film a religious and epic feel. The opening scene resembles a real of news images and so it seems to appear that the battle between the two families is forever the top news stories, and it effects everyone. Amongst all of this images from throughout the film are shown to give the audience inside knowledge of what is to come. Out of these images violence is extremely highlighted in the sense that the images that really stand out are those of fighting, fireworks, guns and blood really stand out.
After the first scene the two families are clearly identified. They are identified by the clever use of props, music, costume and stills. For example the Montague boys are identified by a number of things. The scene opens with the Montague boys cruising around the town in a convertible, with loud music playing. This music is Hip-hop type music and matches the boy’s personality, relaxed and having fun. They are dressed in Hawaiian shirts and can be easily separated from the Capulet boys.
The Capulet boys are very different. Both groups of boys meet at a petrol station in the first scene. The Capulets pull up in a more race type car with blacked out windows and a kit. Already we can see a huge contrast between the two families. Spaghetti western music is played when the Capulets are on the screen and their costume compliments the choice of music. They are dressed in cowboy attire and have spurs on their boots etc.
Also a lot of religious iconography is used by the Capulets. On Tybalt’s (Capulet) there is a picture of Jesus and on the guns of both families are religious emblems along with the family’s symbol.
Another way that Lurhman separates the families is by the movement of each character. Tybalt (Capulet) in the play is known as the prince of cats, and so he is expected to be light on his fight and move swiftly. To add more entertainment to the film Lurhman decided to choreograph Tybalt’s moves to match is title. His moves are in a flamenco style. Compared to the Montague boys who have no co-ordination or specific movement patterns in the fight scene at the start of the film.
The setting was a particularly difficult choice for Baz Lurhman. Baz wanted to find a setting that would leave a lot of people wondering where it is and create an intriguing atmosphere. If the film had have been set in New York for example then a large number of people would be familiar with the setting and would not be as involved with the film as they would not feel as though the scene had actually taken place because they knew where is was. Lurhman wanted to set it in a remote but modern setting. He chose a small town in Mexico. His first scene was set in a petrol station on a desolate road in Mexico somewhere. In the play the opening scene is set in the town square but however Lurhman wanted to modernise the film to a certain extent so he changed this to the petrol station. Both of the families are very rich and so young rich boys our days would own cars and at some point their cars would need a refill of petrol and so therefore the two families could meet at a petrol station.
Baz Lurhman in Romeo and Juliet kept the same Shakespearian language. This would make the film quite difficult to follow. For example a Montague boy ‘bites his thumb’ at Tybalt. In the present day this would not appear to be that offensive but we can see from Tybalt’s reaction that it was found very offensive. Also the language has been altered to suit the setting and modern equipment. In the play swords would have been used in the fighting scenes yet in Baz Luhrman’s film guns are used but they are still referred to as swords; sword 9mm which is the name of the gun.
The first scene in the play has a sense of humor about it, however in the play it is the Capulets creating the humor yet in Baz Luhrman’s film it is the Montague boys making the scene comical. The violence escalades throughout the first scene creating anxiety for the viewers as well suspension for the fight between the two families. Tybalt aggravates the situation and instigates the fighting as he ‘despises the word peace’ however Benvolio (Montague) is known as a peacemaker in the play. In the first scene Lurhman has to show these two personalities to the audience and does so very well. He achieves this by extreme close ups of both of the characters. A close up of Tybalt’s teeth are shown; on his teeth is a metal cap with ‘sin’ engraved on. This shows that Tybalt is very fierce; also Tybalt’s body language shows him to be very proud and unreasonable. The most successful close up to show the difference between Benvolio and Tybalt’s personality is when an extreme close up of Tybalt’s eyes are shown and the hatred is very prominent in them, this is immediately followed by an extreme close up of Benvolio’s eyes which are filled with fear.
Lurhman felt that some of the play was irrelevant and so to keep the film at reasonable time length he cut out some of these parts to make the film more dramatic and more entertaining for the viewer. By doing this he also kept the viewer interested in the film because there was always something going on, on the screen.
The main problem overcome by Lurhman was the decision of which actors and actresses to choose for each part. Lurhman wanted to choose actors and actresses that would be able to really become involved in their part and sell the film to a wide variety of audiences. Lurhman knew that a lot of people would go and see a film because of who is in it from previous film releases they may have been in. For example in Romeo and Juliet, Leonardo Dicaprio played the part of Romeo. Lurhman chose Leonardo Dicaprio because of his popularity amongst the young people from being in films such as Titanic and The beach. By using Leonardo this would have encouraged more people of a younger age to go and see the film. Other characters such Juliet was played by Clair Danes. She was chosen because of her innocent appearance and her unique to become Juliet. All the actors did the their parts justice and contributed the great box office success.
The end of the first scene ends by ‘The Prince’ descending to the ground in a helicopter. By him coming down from the sky he represents power and authority. When the Prince demands the boys to stop fighting the weapons are dropped and they all back away from one another. There is a still when The Prince is first introduced to the audience with his character name at the side of him to tell the audience who he is. This theme of stills runs all the way through the opening scene and gives the audience opportunity to become familiar with the characters.
I think with all the techniques above and different and creative use of devices like music, costume and props Baz Lurhman manages to create a film to please many different types of audiences. Through all the different techniques used I think Baz Lurhman has done an excellent job in involving the viewer and keeping their interest and making them want to carry on watching the film.
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