Posted by: Kristen Hicks | February 22, 2012

Romeo and Juliet: A Comparison of Modern Interpretations

I find it strange that Romeo and Juliet, of all of Shakespeare’s many masterpieces, is perhaps the most known, read, taught and cited in popular culture. For most people not in their early teens, the story is fairly absurd.

Two teens, in the course of a day, fall in love with such passion that they’re willing to do and sacrifice anything in the name of their love. Based on little more than physical attraction and a handful of romantic platitudes (albeit especially poignant ones, as they’re provided by none other than the greatest poet in the history of the English language), they’re eager to cast familial love and basic self-preservation aside. They are absolutely deplorable role models; yet, generation after generation embraces the tale and it’s one taught to teenagers in high schools throughout the world with its titular characters treated as protagonists.

One can’t help but wonder, were their story to last weeks or months longer and their love to be tested by a fuller realization of the other’s personality, would they manage to maintain such a furious passion and devotion to one another? The results of the majority of teenage romances suggest not, which makes the tragedy of the story less romantic and more frustrating in its wastefulness.

That said, many have taken on the iconic play in more recent film adaptations (including one scheduled for release this year). Some leave behind the Shakespearean language to tackle the story at its base, like West Side Story, but I tend to feel the Shakespearean adaptations that work the best are those that keep the language. Why toss out the greatest strength of a work of art when there’s so much variety in what you can do while keeping it?

Netflix has done me the favor of offering up two relatively recent versions of Romeo and Juliet via its streaming service: the Baz Luhrmann version from 1996, and the Zeffirelli version from 1968.

I remember encountering the Baz Luhrmann version in my early teenage years and finding it exciting and cool. Re-watching years later, my eye’s become more critical. The movie has more of a frantic pacing than I’d recalled and some of the editing is distracting to little purpose. Too much of the movie moves faster than it needs to, as though made explicitly for the hypothetical adolescents described in essays bemoaning young generations’ short attention spans.

Some of what does work:

  • The location of the story in a modern day big city, with warring corporations that have corresponding gangs on the streets
  • The use of tv news as the modern equivalent of a Greek chorus commenting on the events of the story and showing the wide influence that the actions of the characters have on the community around them
  • The acting. The movie’s full of faces that have become much more familiar in the years since it’s release (ex. Paul Rudd!)
  • Most of the visuals. Of course, colorful, lit up set pieces are Luhrmann’s speciality, and he does them as well here as elsewhere

Between the pacing, the elaborate settings and the use of television as a narrator of sorts, the movie portrays the story at its center as larger than life, reminiscent of the way young teens are likely to see/feel their own emotional worlds and romantic experiences. I’d like to say it feels unrealistic that a large community would be so enthralled in the romance and tragedy of two teens…but the magazine images facing me in the grocery store aisle offer a reminder of how similar fascinations play a role in our cultural society.

Franco Zeffirelli takes a more traditional approach to the play, setting the film in Italy in the 15th-century. The settings are largely historic sites in Italy, lending a general air of historical realism to the scenes. Something this version really gets right in comparison to Luhrmann’s is how genuine, familiar and universal many of the moments feel. The way Romeo and his friends tease each other feels like kids joking with each other. The prolonged inability of Romeo and Juliet to leave one another–the way they’re repeatedly drawn back into the arms and kisses of the other will feel familiar to many who’ve experienced a similar magnetic attraction.

When not performed or directed especially well, it can be hard to follow the seemingly sudden and extreme fluctuations in emotion and tone exhibited in some of play’s scenes, but the way it plays out in Zeffirelli’s film makes the overdramatic feel like every day adolescence. The scene of Mercutio’s death presents a good example. The way Romeo’s expression changes quickly from lighthearted laughter when he thinks Mercutio is fine, to shocked concern and guilt when he realizes his friend is really wounded and the fault is partially his, to the uncontrollable rage and despair that takes over when Mercutio’s death has played out is all played believably and powerfully.

The aesthetic beauty of the Zeffirelli version is of a very different variety than Luhrmann’s, it’s more classical. The beauty of the settings chosen was there before Zeffirelli got to them, whereas Luhrmann’s are more created, in a way that’s intentionally obvious. Zeffirelli dwells a bit more on the beauty of youth as portrayed by his young actors, even setting a pivotal scene to a song that makes explicit the emphasis.

Both movies are beautiful and well-acted and both offer a tragic reminder of the exaggeration of adolescent emotions, per the source material. It was inevitable that Romeo and Juliet be brought to film, while it feels unnecessary that it be done again and again, it can be interesting to see such varied interpretations as these.


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