Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet

Romeo and Juliet PosterIn my experience, people have a strong reaction to Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: they either love it, or they hate it. A teacher friend of mine once told me, “I refuse to show my classes the Leo DiCaprio version of Romeo and Juliet because… because… because it’s such a crock of shit.” Yet another colleague called it “lush and visually stunning.”

My students often refer to this version as the “new” one. It seems strange to refer to Baz Luhrmann’s production as the “new” version, when it is now ten years old; however, I think it does retain some freshness. It doesn’t appear dated, at least not yet, but I do feel that it’s potential to become dated is greater than that of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 production (which seems dated only in some of the hairstyles).

One of the chief complaints of many people who don’t like the film is the modernization, which some believe borders on sacrilege. My department head mentioned she thinks it is weird to hear Shakespearean dialogue amidst the gunplay. Others dislike the so-called MTV quality of the film. Noted film critic Roger Ebert declared, “I have never seen anything remotely approaching the mess that the new punk version of Romeo & Juliet makes of Shakespeare’s tragedy” (via Rotten Tomatoes).

I have often hedged before telling someone I liked it, simply because those who react negatively to the film do so in such a, well, violent manner. No, no one’s ever hit me — but their crazy-eyed, passionate hatred has scared me! If I may be so bold, I have noticed that many people who dislike the film have such a strong, visceral reaction that they are unable to see that the film does have some merits. For example, given that Zeffirelli’s film is so true to the spirit of Shakespeare’s play, it might surprise you to learn that Luhrmann’s version actually contains more of the text of the play. Shocking! In fact, Zeffirelli’s version cuts one of the most famous lines: “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east, and Juliet is the sun” (Act II, Scene 2). If my memory serves, the most important line that Luhrmann cuts is Juliet’s famous “O happy dagger / This is thy sheath. There rust and let me die” (Act V, Scene 3).

I have to admit that I do not care for Luhrmann’s Balcony Scene. I don’t think there was any reason to put Romeo and Juliet in a pool, aside from amping up the sexuality. I wish also that the characters Sampson and Gregory had not been made Montagues rather than Capulets, and that Abra (Abraham or Abram) had not been made a Capulet rather than a Montague. My objection to this stems only from the fact that when I use the movie in class, this change can cause confusion.

Swapping guns for swords does not trouble me; I feel that Luhrmann handled that in a clever way, and in fact, the exchange really emphasized the violence in Romeo and Juliet’s world. Think about it: in the 1400′s it was not uncommon for the average male to carry a weapon or two. I think it makes sense that the omnipresence of weapons makes it more likely that weapons will be used. However, this was not something that particularly struck me as frightening until I saw all those guns. Why be more afraid of a gun than a sword? I’m not sure, but I know I felt as though life in Verona Beach, Florida was more precarious than life in Verona, Italy, even if this was not remotely a reality.

The massive throw-down at the gas station? It hooked me. A black Mercutio dressed in drag for the Capulets’ feast? I loved it. Miriam Margolyes’ Hispanic nurse screaming “Hoo-lee-etta!” Classic. The twist at the end, when Juliet awakes just before Romeo takes the poison? Clever and heart-wrenching. I should add that I have never had a class that didn’t laugh at Claire Daines’ echoing cry after Romeo dies. It does sound a bit, well, fake. What masterful use of the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde after she dies!

In the balance, I like both films equally, and I use both in my class, though I only show the entirety of Zeffirelli’s version. After all, we only have so much time in class and a lot o curriculum to teach. However, I invite interested parties to come to my room at lunch to view Luhrmann’s version. Two years ago, I had a couple of girls who came to lunch and watched it over and over and over. I have not noticed that the students favor one version of the film over the other. For the most part, my students have enjoyed both. If you are interested, you can download and view a Power Point presentation in which I utilize images from Luhrmann’s film (designed to introduce Shakespeare’s play to students).

[tags]Baz Luhrmann, William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet[/tags]

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16 thoughts on “Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet

  1. Dana,

    Great post… Somehow, I missed the "new" version of R&J until this year when my wife bought it from the discount bin at Wal-Mart. I do was taken. Every production makes choices, and some we like and some we don't, but overall, I have to say, "I like it."

    I want to recommend a web tool to you: Slideshare at http://www.slideshare.net/. Slideshare allows people to upload ppt and then have them on the internet… they can also be imbedded (just like YouTube videos). You can see an example of imbedded slides at my http://lantpec.blogspot.com.

    Peace,

    /s/ Peter

  2. I have also used the Luhrmann version in my classroom as a practice in symbolism. My students have several symbols they must look for throughout and note when it pops up. Water is one of the major ones, as we see it when we first meet Romeo and Juliet, and when they first meet as well. The balcony scene is set in water, Tybalt is killed in a fountain, and Mercutio is killed on the beach. By the end, the students usually work out that water symbolizes death or fate.

    They also, having studied Shakespeare himself, have to keep an eye out for 'nods' to the bard, such as the theatre on the beach and having Mercutio dress as a woman for the party.

    They tend to do very well and feel extra smart when they are able to figure all of this out by the end. (I have never had to explain the symbols to my classes by the time they were done).

  3. Personally I have to say – I love this film! I watched and I thought it was incredibly touching! I also showed it to my class of year eight students who extremely enjoyed watching it. They were able to work out the simalarities and differences between the scenes and understood the ways in which it had been changed. I think the modern version is a great idea and makes it easier for the class to understand the story. I think that this film is very educational and can teach the students a very detailed story.

  4. I love the "new" version! I remember going to see it in the theaters with some other English major friends of mine and us all walking out in silent… stunned by the overload of eye candy and the crazy twist at the end.

    As I've surveyed other versions for use in my classroom, though, I continue to come back to this one and Zefferelli's because both directors took some big steps in their decision making. What about in Zeff's version, when Mercutio is stabbed in the street fight, and everyone's standing around laughing at him, thinking that he's just hamming it up while he's dying? My kids are normally more affected by that than Luhrmann's street fight or even the Juliet/Romeo twist at the end.

    In the three years I've taught R&J with both movie versions, I always do a compare and contrast paper, which the students really do good work on, since they normally feel passionate about one version or the other. I require them to write about 4-5 differences, including music, costume, set design, acting/line delivery, direction, casting, and a category I call "other," which includes anything else. Looking at the movies from a director's point of view after working through the unit in Shakespeare Set Free is really effective, I'm finding.

  5. =O We studied it in class and I have to do an NCEA exam of it on Thursday :|

    What are some themes?

    Oh yeah, I believe the new Verona takes place in LA?

    Swimming pool scene ties in with the water motif (First shot of Romeo = Beach. First shot of Juliet = Bathtub. First shot of them meeting = Fish Tank. =/

  6. Dana,

    1st post, but an avid reader.

    I struggle with using the Luhrmann film in teaching for the reasons you outlined. For me, there is a personal connection with the adaptation that extends from seeing it in high school on up into using it as a primary text for a Master's (mini) thesis.

    What bugs me about the Ebert-type reactions is the shadow of Zeffirelli. Even your defense says "given that Zeffirelli’s film is so true to the spirit of Shakespeare’s play."

    This is what has me grinding my teeth (all four?) since Zeffirelli is far away from the conventions of Elizabethan stage AND the overwhelming dark imagery that pervades the play.

    As an film adaptation of a 400 year old play, Luhrmann captures these elements better than Zeffirelli:

    1: foreshadowing

    2: potency of the vendetta

    3: rushed action (chronographia)

    4: paradoxical opposites

    He knows better than anyone how his film would be received against the 1968 version. Why else would he swap the colors (blue and yellow) from Zeffirelli's pallet?

    When teachers (and students) cry this was not how it happened, it is tough to demonstrate how Zeffirelli is also not how it "happened."

    Oh, #5 on my list (thanks Molly for reminding me) is Symbolism. Water is key, and most of the imagery written by Shakespeare gets tossed out of Zeffirelli. Amazing choice with water for the pool sequence- they fall in on the line "newly baptized"

    Yet, the over hyped gas station yelling, Juliet's sobs, Mercutio's sexuality, all have most yearning for a good "Moreska" dance sequence. To my personal chagrin.

  7. I completely love the Lerhmann version of Romeo and Juliet. While I will most definitely show this version in my classroom, it will be accompanied with the Zeffirelli version. I think to pair the classics with its modern counterpart is what students of today need. Moreover, I think that showing two vastly different versions of Romeo and Juliet, along with reading the play itself, gives the students the idea of creativity. I feel that students will get more out of the play if given more options in which to study it.

    Kelly A. Mezick

    Auburn University

    Auburn, Alabama

  8. Well, i just havee to point out that the reason julie and romeo were put in the pool is because the water symbolize the begining of their love.

  9. Lubo, there is nothing in the text of the play to support such an interpretation; rather, it is a device Luhrmann used exclusively in his movie, and one could argue removing the scene from a balcony to a pool substantially alters it.

  10. I'm actually gearing up to do an interpretation of Romeo and Juliet this spring and have chosen to set it in the American Old West. We haven't even begun, and I hear all of the same complaints that people have against the "modern" R&J. The biggest being, "How can you have them speaking in Shakespeare in cowboy outfits?" or "Are your cowboys going to carry swords?" It's amazing what kind of preconceived notions people have about Shakespeare…particularly those who haven't really studied him. I'm hoping to combat some of those wild-eyed lunatics by showing how much fun you can have with the Bard.

    I respect many of the choices in the Luhrmann film and use clips of it when I teach the play. If only the actors had been better…Claire Daines doesn't do it for me. Olivia Hussey inspires more empathy from more of my students.

  11. One word in advance – I'm not a teacher. I'm just a bookworm from Germany who happens to pop in here.

    I've read this and some other plays by William Shakespeare. And I love Luhrmann's film. He made a great job of copying Shakespeare's own tricks. His most important trick IMO was the combination of contrasting elements (a thing Ian already mentioned), such as:

    - noise and silence

    - fast speed and slowness

    - funny and tragic elements

    - dirty talking (especially by Mercutio) and the couple's sweet, romantic talking

    Luhrmann made these contrasting elements clash whenever he could and thus made his R&J such a gripping, such a highly emotional, magic film.

    The opening scene at the gas station is hated by many viewers, but I like it because it is just another example of combining opposites: the characters we see are violent, but they're like clowns too.

    As for the balcony scene: yes, one reason for shooting it in a pool (aside from the reason lubo mentioned) was amping up the sexuality. But is it a bad thing to amp it up?? We shouldn't only see this from an academical point of view. Romeo and Juliet is world literature's most famous love story, so the passion must be visible. And visible it is.

    One word about Claire Danes: her crying doesn't look or sound fake to me. Just extravert when necessary. She's a fine actress with a very, very expressive face.

  12. Lurhmann uses alot of reoccouring symbolism in Romeo + Juliet, such as water and religious symbols. i believe that he put Romeo and Juliet into a pool when they confess love for each other as a symbol, rather than amping up the sexuality. Next time you watch the movie pay attention to the symbols, it is very interesting.

  13. I think that balconies at Shakesperian times meant something for teenagers like wealth, fun, a luxury… in the 90's the pools represented that.

  14. Luhrmann's film actually made me physically sick and caused a nervous breakdown that lasted for three days (I could hardly move my limbs for anger and screaming). Of course, saw it when I was a great deal younger, and I cared a lot more about Shakespeare then.

    Like the updated "Hamlet" with Ethan Hawke, the text is mumbled, mushed and regurgitated with little feeling and less understanding. The characters (can I even call them that?) scoop, whine, and roll over their lines, but they rarely ever speak them naturally. Worst of all, this movie bored me. I was forced to watch it in my college classroom. Halfway through, I was clutching my head, trying to hold within myself sobs about the mangled text and horrid, constantly-changing camera angles and the people in drag who couldn't act and who had missed the entire point of Shakespeare. *breath*

    Near the end, I cheered up a tad, believing that at least watching these horrible spoiled teenagers die would grant me some sort of catharsis. No such luck. Unfortunately, I was doing an intensive study of Richard Wagner's music at that time. When the transfiguration music from "Tristan und Isolde" piped on over Juliet's suicide-by-tacky-looking-gun, I literally ran from the classroom. I did wait until I was outside of the building to scream, though.

    You may be wondering why I did this, and so I'll tell you. Baz Luhrmann took art–*real* art, born as you and I were born, in the minds and hearts of its creators–and he whored it out. The "Verklarung" has nothing to do with suicide, or sex, or even love. Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet's older and more mature cousins, embody ideas more complex than that. "Tristan" is, simply put, about oblivion (not suicide/love) as a release from suffering–a very Buddhist belief. It has nothing to do with "Romeo and Juliet" (the play or the movie) at all, and Baz Luhrmann should be ashamed of himself for appropriating one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed for his own sick ends.

    I could go on and on about the music alone–the Prince, the Mozart–but I won't. I think I've made my (somewhat meandering) point.

    In sum: this is one of the few movies I have ever seen–and believe me, I've seen plenty–that made me want to kill myself to escape the pain. I'm not being melodramatic; the above statement is absolutely true. And so I do the only thing I can do: I avoid the movie like the plague. Unfortunately, I've been assigned to study it *yet again*, so I'm ranting here.

    My apologies in advance to people who actually do enjoy this movie. I just can't.

  15. I feel even the most traditional Shakespeare critics should notice that Baz Lurmann's film is entitled, "William Shakespeare's Romeo+Juliet." In college, all of my instructors called it "Romeo plus Juliet." The title frees people both to credit Shakespeare and to discredit Luhrmann, doesn't it?

    Still, to me, "Romeo+Juliet" seems to preserve the original idea of a family feud buried in young lovers' blood. And I still feel the Dicapprio Romeo would waste the Zeffirelli Romeo, whereas nobody should have defeated John Leguizamo in combat. But even that leads to a valuable discussion with students; an actor's previous roles generally affect our perception of his present roles.

    It's not always a simple relation. I personally prefer the Heath Ledger "Joker," while preferring the Michael Keaton, "Batman." Yet I think Christian Bale makes for the exceptional Bruce Wayne. Today, Michael Keaton's other roles are virtually unkown, and I'm not certain they affect my perception of his performance. Christian Bale's other roles ("Newsies," and, "Reign of Fire," and "Terminator: Salvation," etc.) seem communicable. He doesn't seem very tough in any film, though, which is why he is a great Bruce Wayne. No one is supposed to suspect that Wayne is Batman.

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