A Star-Crossed Adaptation: Romeo + Juliet – A Critical Response

Ludicrous car chases, intense hot pink hair and a world where Prince songs are sung as hymns; is this what Shakespeare wanted when he wrote Romeo and Juliet over 400 years ago? Baz Luhrmann’s film adaption of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, is a kaleidoscopic, punk version of the story of ‘star-crossed lovers’ that buries Shakespeare’s work amongst the flamboyant scenes. In one catastrophe, Luhrmann has mixed Shakespeare with gang wars, luring both to audiences to this production, yet disappointing all. Despite the ‘huge success’ this film has made in the box office, we can only ask; what was Luhrmann thinking to betray Shakespeare like this?

The tragedy begins with a TV news report on the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. The report is titled ‘Star Crossed Lovers’. We are then shown a quick montage, introducing the main characters before a panoramic shot displays the setting; Verona Beach, dominated by two skyscrapers displaying large lights which read Montague and Capulet. We are then immersed into this ‘future world’ where a standoff occurs between the Montague boys and the Capulet boys. We are shown an extreme close-up shot of the guns, each branded a ‘sword’ and labelled with the family crest. If the rest of the movie stuck to this fast-paced, full-on, furious style, then it would definitely not be Shakespeare, but maybe it would not be a disaster; however, it is not bold enough to abandon its Shakespearean roots, creating great confusion through the remainder of the film.

The biggest inconsistency to Luhrmann’s adaption, is the language of the play, which is kept original while everything else reflects radical modernisation and excessive modification. In such a different context, much of the dialogue is lost and misinterpreted. Often the poetic lines are screamed and shouted so incomprehensibly, that the actors might as well be speaking in tongues. Fortunately, the talented and appealing Claire Danes (Juliet) and Leonardo DiCaprio (Romeo) managed to revive parts of the film, with their vital passion and the way they speak their lines with the grace and melody that was intent by Shakespeare.

Undoubtedly, ruining Shakespeare’s masterpieces is not a method debuts in Luhrmann’s film. From ballets, to songs, to several Oscar winning movies, not all Shakespeare remakes are let-downs. Several films have taken a similar line of action as Luhrmann, including the West Side Story made in 1961 to 10 Things I Hate About You in 1999, none have been such a disappointment as this infamous Luhrmann film.

Italian director, Franco Zeffirelli, in his 1968 classic hit Romeo and Juliet manages to pinpoint the essence of beauty that was intent by Shakespeare when writing this play, during the 16th century. This British-Italian romance film, manages to capture the exquisiteness of young love, with 15 year-old Olivia Hussey playing Juliet and 17 year-old Leonard Whiting playing Romeo, manage to create the perfect emotional balance between tension, love and excitement, in the way a great film should position its viewers. Furthermore, Zeffirelli plays his part well in adhering to the renowned script, only occasionally modernising the film.

With his setting, costumes and music, Luhrmann has not been faithful to Shakespeare, modernising the majority of this production, but is this all for the bad? The film’s setting actually has a cunning twist to the original; instead of being set in Verona, Italy, it is set in Verona Beach a bustling modern beachside metropolis, which was filmed in parts in Mexico. The city has a strong resemblance with the modern Miami, possessing skyscrapers, modern cars and other modern infrastructure, all of which has been overwhelm by the city-wide feud between the houses; Montague and Capulet. The costumes have been drastically changed from the original Elizabethan dress to highly modernised Hawaiian shirts, leather boots and hot pink hair. Additionally, the music is a modern hip-hop style, utilising effects such as the electric guitar and the choir can be heard singing Prince songs as hymns.

One of Luhrmann’s greatest decisions, was to choose the two perfect actors to play the main roles. In the final scene, Luhrmann goes over the top in creating a flower-strewn altar that is lit by 2000 candles, yet the grand passion that this tragedy requires, is delivered with ease by DiCaprio and Danes. This, however, is one of Luhrmann’s only good decisions, with the rest of the production being a major disappointment. Baz Luhrmann is well known for pushing the boundaries with his unconventional methods, but in Romeo and Juliet he has not only crossed the line, but has vandalised the great Bard’s lifelong legacy.

Religious Imagery in Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet

Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, the 1996 cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, is imbued with religious imagery. The feuding families display such images on everything from their cars, to their clothes, to their guns. In addition, a statue of Jesus Christ looms over the city, bearing witness to the events unfolding. When taken at face value, religion should bring a person peace and give additional meaning to their life. However, throughout the film, the presence of religious imagery often indicates conflict and violence. Luhrmann uses the omnipresent religiosity to contrast against this violence and to heighten the sense of tragedy.

The religious imagery is indicative of conflict. Luhrmann opens the film with the recitation of the prologue in a modern interpretation in which it is read by a newscaster. In Luhrmann’s hyper-visual style, the sequence quickly becomes chaotic as the camera quickly zooms into the television then pushes through to an image of a street in Verona Beach. The camera rapidly zooms through the streets and lands on the face of a large statue of Christ, reminiscent of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. This statue is revealed to be framed by two large buildings which are owned by the Capulets and Montagues. The frenzied opening is backed by a religious chant, which further heightens the tension and indicates the large presence of religion that will be reoccurring throughout the film. When Romeo and Juliet first meet at the party, Juliet is dressed as an angel. While angels are usually regarded as symbols of peace, Juliet’s angel brings conflict as she falls in love with Romeo- a rival of her family. When the two marry, the church that they are in is filled with with religious symbols. While these symbols fit the context, the church is more extravagant than any regular church. The purpose of this is to further remind the audience of the lavish nature of this setting. Because this scene features the secret union of a Capulet and Montague, it is laden with conflict. The children have gone behind their parents’ backs to marry, and the undue amount of religious imagery present here reflects and contrasts with this conflict.

Moreover, the presence of religious imagery often marks violence. In the comical first scene, the Capulet and Montague boys clash at a gas station. Before they come to blows, members of both houses are shown harassing a group of young nuns. This scene shows both physical violence and sexual violence. Nuns are chaste, so the boys and their lustful comments pose a verbal attack on them. Later in the film, the Montagues and Capulets fight once again on the beach. Religious symbols in this scene are subtle, but distinctly present. Mercutio wears a necklace with a cross on it and Tybalt’s gun has an image of the Virgin Mary on it. The cross is often used as a symbol of protection, yet in this scene, Mercutio is killed. The Virgin Mary is also contradictory as she is a symbol of purity, yet Tybalt uses this gun for murder. As Mercutio dies, a hymn plays in the background. It adds a heightened sense of ominousness to the scene as he calls for “a plague on both your houses.” In the next scene, Romeo kills Tybalt in revenge, using Tybalt’s own gun. It is revealed that this is done directly in front of the ever-seeing statue of Christ. Romeo looks up at him as he cries “I am forgetful,” and Christ looks down on him in a manner that can be viewed as damning.

The deaths of Romeo and Juliet occur in a tomb. As opposed to the typical idea of a tomb-dark, somber, frightening- the tomb is well lit because of the countless candles lit around Juliet’s body and the fluorescent crosses that light the path to where she lays. The pain and suffering that has been brought upon the families because of the strife between them climaxes with the deaths of their children and heirs. The bright and beautiful tomb, full of symbols and figures of crosses and saints, signifies the peak of the feud and how it ends in death. As Romeo and Juliet die in the tomb, the light coming from the candles and crosses contradict the darkness that will befall their families, whose bloodlines end with the two lovers, upon their demise.

Luhrmann’s prominent religious imagery contrasts with the significant violence and conflict that occurs throughout. While religion often represents peace and virtue, Luhrmann uses it to represent the opposite in the film. The presence of religious figures and images contradicts the turmoil that occurs over the course of the film and serve to heighten the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.