Task: Compare and contrast the ways in which Baz Luhrmann and Franco Zeffirelli present Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’
In this essay, I will be comparing two film versions of the famous William Shakespeare play ‘Romeo and Juliet’. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a romantic story about two star-crossed lovers whose families are at war with one another. The first film was made in 1968 and directed by Franco Zeffirelli; the second film that I shall be comparing it with was made more recently in 1997 and was directed by Baz Luhrmann. The main difference between the two films is the setting. In Franco Zeffirelli’s version the film is set in Italy, in a village in Verona where the original play was set. Whereas Baz Luhrmann’s film is set in Verona Beach a fictional place within Los Angeles. The other key difference between the two films is the time period the film is set in. Zeffirelli’s film is set in the 17th century as was intended by Shakespeare; however Luhrmann’s film is set in the modern era around the turn of the 21st century.
A key contrast noticeable between the two films is the intended audience. On the one hand is Zeffirelli’s version, which is intended for a more adult to seniors’ range, who like Shakespeare’s plays and enjoy the more traditional versions of Shakespeare. As this older film, which was groundbreaking at the time for the use of such young actors, has no loud, modern pop music or gun shootouts, rather the opposite in fact, it is calm peaceful, and how Shakespeare intended it to be. On the other hand is Luhrmann’s version, which appeals to a younger audience, from teenagers to young adults. This is largely due to the period the film is set in, the clothes the characters wear and the music. Firstly as it is set around the turn of the 21st century teenagers expect action-packed films, using guns etc. Also it uses modern, very loud pop music, modern/classical music and mellow electric guitar rifts. Not too many violins and big orchestras as in the older film.
Another contrast between the two films in Scene 1 is how the prologue is dealt with. The prologue is intended to give you an overview of the themes and issues of the play. Both films have the same words so they both do this, but it is the way the directors chose to present the prologue that is so contrasting. Firstly in Franco Zeffirelli’s version a narrator reads the prologue once in a calm and peaceful manner. The narrator is accompanied by some calm, classical music and the sound of running water, typical of the music of the 17th century, in which the film is set. As for the camera, it pans over the pretty city of Verona using soft-focus. Each one of these techniques creates a feeling of calm and peacefulness within the city, and that it is an extremely attractive, safe place.
On the other hand, in Luhrmann’s film, the prologue gives the opposite sense; it portrays the setting of Verona Beach as a dangerous, loud, busy, modern city. Baz Luhrmann does this by first saying the prologue once through by a newsreader on a television set as the camera slowly zooms in on it. This immediately tells us the film is set in modern times and draws in the attention of the audience with a clever slow zoom to give you a point of view shot of a person watching the TV. But more interestingly the prologue is then repeated this time by a narrator, Friar Lawrence. He repeats the prologue far more emphatically accompanied by very loud, emphatic, modern, classical music, much faster and less peaceful than in Zeffirelli’s version.
This music, rather than create a peaceful, calm setting and mood, it intensifies emotions and creates an immediate atmosphere and sense of location. The narration is also accompanied by close-up stills of newspaper headlines, quick panning and rolling shots of the city, close-ups of specifically important places and monuments and clips of what happens later in the film (which fits in with what is said in the prologue). All this amounts to a far more intense and exciting start to the film and also creates high expectations of what is to come unlike the Zeffirelli version.
As the first scene continues I noticed the use of music and lack of it at times continued to contrast throughout the first scene. Music can be used for many different purposes such as: creating atmosphere and a sense of location, intensifying emotions, to create an effect of realism and as a transitional device between scenes. In general the Zeffirelli film uses far less music than Luhrmann’s version but both use it to good effect. After the peaceful music of the prologue there is no music throughout the confrontation and brawl between the two rival families. Zeffirelli does however use loud hustle and bustle and high-pitched, chaotic screaming to create a background atmosphere during the early fight and a town bell ringing to signal the start of the fight and the action. The lack of music perhaps shows Zeffirelli wants not only a more traditional film but he wants the quality of the acting and the of the speech/words to shine through.
Luhrmann, however, uses music heavily throughout early confrontation and fight. Luhrmann, quite interestingly, uses music to introduce characters and give the audience a sense of these characters’ personas, something Zeffirelli does not do. For example Luhrmann plays modern, happy, lively pop music to introduce the Montagues. This gives you the impression the Montagues are fun-loving, free spirits, who are at war with no-one. The Capulets on the other hand, are introduced with a far more sinister feel again due to the music, which is western/rock music. This immediately means we take a disliking to the more evil Capulets.
Both films use some kind of music to show the power and importance of the Prince when he enters after the brawl. But again Zeffirelli uses the more traditional style whereas Luhrmann goes for modern, impacting music. On the Prince’s entrance in Zeffirelli’s version royal trumpets are played. This works in signifying that a powerful, important character has entered. There is no background music just the trumpeters alongside the Prince. They also play on his exit to create an effect of realism, as if it were a real Prince. However in Luhrmann’s film the Prince’s entrance is far more dramatic, it is very loud, emphatic, modern/classical music, similar to that played in the prologue. This also gives the impression that a powerful, important character is arriving but in far more exciting fashion.
The contrast in music between the two films lessens towards the end of Scene 1. Both films use slow, peaceful melodies but not at the same parts. Zeffirelli chooses calm, classical violins (similar to the prologue) and Luhrmann chooses a more modern, steady guitar rift. Luhrmann’s music continues through Benvolio’s chat with Romeo’s parents and Romeo’s entrance, however Zeffirelli chooses for there to be no music up until Romeo’s entrance, but both achieve the same effect. The effect is to make Romeo’s entrance seem a little more refreshing, as there is happy upbeat music after bloody fights. This also makes Romeo seem more pure and innocent in amongst the madness of civil brawls.
Perhaps the biggest contrasts between the two films are the costumes and the setting. In Zeffirelli’s film set in Italy, Verona is a beautiful market town, very peaceful, calm and quiet and close to the countryside, generally a tranquil setting. Whereas in Luhrmann’s film set in the U.S.A., perhaps L.A., Verona Beach is quite the opposite. It is a downtown inner city on the coast. It is very modern in the inner city part with tall skyscrapers and lots of traffic and pollution. But further towards the beach it is very poor and worn down. It is very violent and has problems with prostitution etc. This all amounts to a far more dangerous and anxious atmosphere.
As for the costumes they could also not be much more different, but both suit their settings nicely. Zeffirelli chooses to fit in with the traditional theme and everyone is wearing 17th/18th century clothing. With two different colours to signify the different families, red/yellow for the Capulets and grey/blue for the Montagues. The extras just wear traditional Shakespearean clothes with nothing too colourful so as not to stand out and confuse with the rival families. In Luhrmann’s film however to also fit in with the setting the characters wear modern costumes and use guns rather than swords to fit in with the period of time the film is set in. Cleverly though, the guns are named after different blades so as to fit in with Shakespeare’s original script, which involved swords and not guns. To distinguish between the two families the Montagues are dressed very casually with baggy trousers loose Hawaiian shirts and spiky haircuts. The Capulets wear more sinister smart black suits and waistcoats with metal-heeled shoes, to fit in with the western music; they also have more slicked-back jet black hair. This shows that although both films use different costumes to distinguish between the families Zeffirelli just changes the colour, whereas Luhrmann gives each family completely different costumes to give them different styles and personas.
Another interesting contrast between the two films is the biting of the thumb exchange. In Zeffirelli’s film a Capulet bites his thumb at a Montague, Unlike Luhrmann’s version in which a Montague bites his thumb at a Capulet. Not only is there this difference but it is the manner in which the exchange is handled. As Zeffirelli decides for it to be, at first, a humorous bit of ridiculing, between the two men. However in Luhrmann’s production this exchange is far more serious with raised voices, anxious faces and a slow drum roll to add to the tension.
Another major contrast between the two films is the use of camera angles, especially in the prologue (which I have already mentioned), in the big fight at the beginning and in Tybalt’s entrance. Zeffirelli chooses to capture the main fight from an overhead shot at a high angle, he does this so as to show the scale of the brawl when it first starts. The camera then goes to a close-up of Benvolio’s fight with Tybalt, so we can watch a key part of the first scene in detail where Benvolio appears to get injured. The camera then switches between close-ups of individual fights and women fleeing to increase the emotional intensity and chaos of a civil brawl. Luhrmann however scales down the fight and therefore does not use any overhead, high-angled shots. Instead he uses quick camera changes between characters and lots of close-ups to vastly increase the intensity and sense of action that is a shootout. Luhrmann also uses a point of view shot of looking down the sight of Tybalt’s gun to increase the viewer’s identification with Tybalt.
The way Tybalt’s entrance is captured is even more interesting but not that contrasting. Both films use a slow pan up Tybalt’s body starting with a low-angled shot of his feet up to a close-up of his face. However before this Baz Luhrmann decides to have an extreme close-up of Tybalt’s metal-heeled shoe grinding a match as he steps out of the car, this is also the cue for the western music, which all adds up to a very dramatic and sinister entrance for Tybalt. Zeffirelli doesn’t do anything like this, as it wouldn’t fit in with his aims, he just sticks to the traditional slow pan up the body.
The film which I preferred was the more modern version by Baz Luhrmann. The reason for this being is that I preferred the music in it which was used to fantastic effect and very well thought out. Also it had that Hollywood slickness that only comes with a big budget. It was generally more exciting and engrossing probably because it was so different to your average traditional Shakespearean play. The modern slant on a timeless classic just gave it that edge.
In conclusion I believe both films were successful in achieving what was intended. They both appeal to their target audiences. For the 1968 version the older, more traditional generation and for the 1997 version the younger, more action-hungry generation. Zeffirelli’s film also showed that young actors can produce a great film and can act as well as there more experienced counterparts