The crown of English literature “for plays,” embedded with timeless and priceless gems, rests certainly on the head of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare has created masterpieces in every possible genres of play. Romeo and Juliet is an everlasting (or ever grey due to tragic over tones?!) play which draws undivided or unparallel attention of the writers even during this modern era.
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Apart from enjoying immense popularity when it was enacted as a drama during the early part of the sixteenth century, the beginning of mid twentieth century witnessed this play being converted into movies in 1968, and 1996. Both the movies stayed faithful to the original storyline; however, the 1996 version, Baz Lurhmann adopted the storyline to reflect the revealing trend of dispute among two feuding families. It is an exciting task to make a detailed study of the play, and its comparison in different aspect with the immensely popular 1996 version directed by the Australian, Baz Lurhmann.
Romeo and Juliet, though termed as tragedy carries more of Shakespeare’s comedy elements. Love is obviously the dominating and most vital theme of this play. The whole play is intertwined on the romantic love between Romeo and Juliet at their first sight. In this play, love supersede other characteristics such as loyalty, emotions etc. In this play, the lovers deny the family and the entire world and proceed with their marriage. This is evident from the words of Juliet, “Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, I / And I’ll no longer be a Capulet” (Romeo and Juliet. 2.2. 38-39).
Romeo abandons his close friends, Mercutio and Benvolio and even risks his life and returns to Verona for the sake of his lady love even after being sent in exile. Love becomes a riding force for every incident narrated in the play. The lovers are emotionally triggered and take impulsive decisions; by this, they go against the norms of this world. Also, love is described as a religion. This is clear in the lines describing Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting. The readers can observe that Juliet has no words to explain her love for Romeo and thus refuses to describe it in words. “But my true love is grown to such excess / I cannot sum up some of half my wealth” (Romeo and Juliet 2.6. 33-34).
Thus, it is clear that both the lovers are not able to explain their love and differentiate it with the society, family and religion. Their inability to draw line between their love and other ties can be said as a vital reason for their tragic end. By this, their love takes a back seat and death and violence occupies the front seat. The delicate ingredients of family feud, immature teenage aspirations and above all the raging love between the teenagers provides a great and ideal platform for Shakespeare to come up with an immortal tragedy. It is quite natural that film makers were inevitably attracted and motivated to make an interesting movie from the play.
The project of making a movie on Romeo and Juliet certainly has some challenges to be encountered. Firstly, in the narrative, the vivid descriptions of the various scenarios are brought out in a several lines of verse; while the same can be made into a visual presentation involving much lesser times and words. Secondly, certain specific features in the realm of plays such as soliloquy are brought out in a distinctive style but picturization of the same is a different proposition altogether as the technical advancements has facilitated to project the actor’s expressions and bodily gestures by way of close-up shots and suitable editing in a forthright manner which is not possible in the play. Again, the advanced film making technique with avenues like lightning, wide variety of locales, costumes, advanced make-up facilities, make-up for an effective combination to produce excellent visual effects as compared to the limitations in the enactment of the play. Thus, the avenues are open for effecting the most picture perfect visualization.
Baz Luhrmann has been successful in innovating the adaption of the screenplay in a different background scenario drawing a unique visual style, reflecting the politics and trends that existed in a combination of 1940’s, 1970’s and 1990’s. Luhrmann deposits the play in the modern Verona beach; this can also be interpreted as reminding part decaying Miami and part Mexico City as ‘frequent and high crime rate’ areas (Berardinelli, 1996). Accordingly, fast cars with roaring engines in the movie replace the horses in the play. Guns come in to occupy the place of swords and daggers. This kind of a hybrid with an old play in new setting makes a startling impression on the viewer.
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While trying to bring out the director’s intent, it would be in order to bring out certain important scene of the play, especially pertaining to the love-scene. The way it has been brought out in picturization acquires a special credit. Firstly, ‘the balcony scene’ is considered by many scholars to be the highlight of the play where the impact of youth love is brought out vibrantly to be stronger than all the forces that work against it. Luhrmann takes Shakespeare’s use of 190 lines and reduces it to 90 lines. He also switches the venue from the orchard to the swimming pool. However, he manages to retain the main intent of the lovers (“Modern Film Adaptations of Shakespeare”). Again, the camera work here is quite impressive: in usual cases the camera is moving frantically, however here the camera remains fixed in a tight close-up as Romeo’s dialogue, “But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?” (Romeo and Juliet 2.2.2), and the camera stays extremely close to the lovers as they discover each other and realize how much they are attracted to each other and how deep in love they are with each other. This scene take place in the pool courtyard of the Capulet mansion and is noticeably more muted than other scenes; the importance of words and feelings gain ascendancy allowing Shakespeare’s poetry to come through in full bloom (“Modern Film Adaptations of Shakespeare”).
While essaying on the director’s perspective, it is worthwhile to discuss about the technical credits of the movie: the camera is always seen roving around; there are many instances in the movie where rapid cuts and screaming soundtrack might make the viewer doubt whether he is watching a rock-video! Also, the camera tricks, the special effects such as a roiling storm and the rebellious splash of colors right through the movie gains priority relegating the romantic theme into the background, in the process, lose certain more intangibles of intricate romance. This is more manifested in the first few scenes of the movie and tends to get corrected as it progresses.
In conclusion, any adaptation of a Shakespeare play is determined by two major factors. The first is the competence of the director. The second factor is the ability of the main cast members. Any other innovations and unconventional flourishes applied by the director and technicians will not carry any significance. With these viewpoints, the litterateur can appreciate that the play ‘Romeo and Juliet’ has fallen in the capable hands of directors and actors such as Luhrmann, DiCaprio and Danes. This 1996 film version of the play, despite being interpreted as a loud and brash version, and despite being unacceptable to the high-level experts as a classic, it has certainly helped widen their perspective to venture into any movie that bears the credit ‘based on play by William Shakespeare’.
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