The leading characters in the 1996 version are older, more experienced. Leonardo DiCaprio (Romeo) at the time was 21 and Claire Danes (Juliet) was 16 in comparison with 17-year-old Leonard Whiting (Romeo) and 15-year-old Olivia Hussey (Juliet).
In the Zeffirelli’s version characters use British- English, meanwhile in the Luhrmann’s one characters speak American – English. Luhrmann explained “When Shakespeare wrote these plays, they were written for an accent that was much more like an American sound, and when you do Shakespeare with an American accent it makes the language very strong, very alive”
In the 1968 version there are not many differences, since Zeffirelli sticked closely to the original play. Except for some scenes, for instance Romeo did not go to the apothecary and get the poison there. In this adaption the Montagues are way braver than in the modern one and the Capulets are kind of childish, offensive and combative.
This version also did not show the Capulets and Montagues apologizing. This version has a long opening.
It keeps the purity from Shakespeare’s tragedy, it is more calming and historical accurate.
Zeffirelli did not spare any literal detail. Nevertheless the rival between two families was not taken too serious. Zeffirelli did investigate, mixed a lot of music styles to fit to the mood of the scenes, unlike Luhrmann, whose adaption left out the music and engrossed the crowd noise.
In the 1996 version swords were replaced with guns, but then again their brand names remind the audience of the originally used weapons, for instance Benvolio’s Sword, Tybalt’s Rapier and Mercutio’s Dagger.
Another transformation is some character’s occupation and background or even families, for example Friar Laurence turned into Father Laurence, Prince of Verona in the play became a police chief whose name is Prince Escalus and Paris was not just any nobleman but a wealthy businessman, a governor’s son.
Four characters shifted family Gregory and Sampson were originally Capulets, but in this movie they are Montagues, Abram (Abra) and Petruchio switched to Capulets. Beside that Lord and Lady Capulet, Lord and Lady Montague were given first names (Fulgencio and Gloria Capulet; Ted and Caroline Montague).
One more outstanding change that Luhrmann made is Mercutio’s and Prince’s skin color, The Nurse’s ethnicity – she clearly has a Spanish accent, she says “Romeyo” and “Huliet” instead of “Romeo and Juliet”.
It brought up a problematical topic about racism – actors of color are rarely recognized for their artistic accomplishment. Luhrmann wanted to lead people into a more liberated state of mind, to show them the diversity of races and ethnics.
And Lady Capulet’s makeover also played a role in the characterization of the modern film, in the play she seems to be a relentless, stonyhearted looking woman, meanwhile in the movie is more fun, wild and adventurous.
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