There are many adaptations of Shakespeare’s Rome and Juliet, but the three that seem to be the most known today are Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film, Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet, and most recently Carlo Carlei’s 2013 adaptation. I chose to focus on the prologues and the first scene of these three films because I was very impressed by how Kenneth Branagh adapted the prologue in Henry V and wanted to see how other directors adapted the idea of the chorus for their films. I wrote this blog while watching Carlei’s and Zefirelli’s films for the first time in order to capture my first impressions, but Luhrmann’s was a very enjoyable rewatch. I intended to watch Carlei’s then Zefirelli’s, but I got so excited for Luhrmann’s that I ended up rewatching it first.
Carlei’s adaptation begins with a narrator reciting the first four lines from Shakespeare’s prologue very dramatically and sets the scene “in fair Verona” as a traditional chorus would, so initially quite true to the original text. However, the opening sequence is a weird tournament going on between the Capulets and the Montagues that is never adequately explained and feels out of place. Things become more deviated from the text when Mercutio is declared part of the house of Montague, a literal relative of Romeo instead of related to the prince. We then cut to a scene where Juliet is running around her mansion playing like a child with her nurse, and the dialogue doesn’t seem to have any relation to Shakespeare’s original; aesthetically pleasing but not necessary
Eventually we see some text from act 1 scene 1 during the brawl between the Capulets and Montagues but it’s not clear who is who because of how much dialogue was cut out, spoken by different characters, and completely rewritten. There is no mention of Sampson, or anyone, “biting their thumb” to initiate the brawl, so it feels forced and messy. After a few more minutes of cringing while a childish Benvolio talked to Romeo about things not in the original text, I felt it was best to move on. There wasn’t any poetry or beauty to the language in Carlei’s adaptation, and I was ready to talk about Luhrmann. I didn’t finish watching Carlei’s adaptation. Sorry Carlei.
Luhrmann’s creativity shines through instantly. Rather than use a traditional narrator like the 2013 film, Romeo + Juliet begins with the camera zooming in on a small television set of a newscast in which a reporter announces Shakespeare’s prologue as a headline. The prologue is announced completely faithfully with the exception of the ending couplet, but it sets the dramatic tone of this modernization extremely well. The line “Is now the two hours traffic of our stage;” is an excellent ending to the prologue because the reporter has informed of us exactly what will take place. Statements of the prologue flash on the screen while flickering images of Verona prepare us for the story about to unfold.
We learn that fair Verona is Verona Beach, and the Capulets and Montagues are feuding business families. This whole sequence establishes the surreal setting of the film extremely well. The cast being shown directly to the audience is a feature that I’ve always liked because if you’re unfamiliar with the story it helps you get a grasp on who is who, but it’s also just a nice reminder that this wonderful human is in the film!
The Capulet and Montague come out for their brawl dressed in flamboyant clothes and flashing guns. Like Carlei’s scene, the script isn’t entirely faithful to the text because it jumps around, but with Luhrmann’s film it seems a lot more coherent and a justified choice because it is a modernization, it is a particular vision, while Carlei’s is struggling to be traditional yet dumbed down by not taking Shakespeare’s original poetry. The brawl also has a clear cause because the lines about biting their thumbs are spoken. The elaborate music, costumes, props and setting help create feelings of surrealism; they announce that Luhrman is here to do something that hasn’t been done before, and it is entirely original. Although Leo’s delivery in the remainder of scene 1 isn’t excellent, he does what is necessary for Luhrman’s take on the text. Luhrman’s aim is an accessible and creative modernization, and Leo was the right choice to engage young audiences in the 90s, as Claire was the perfect Juliet.
Zeffirelli’s film opens with a traditional chorus reciting the prologue until line 8, which I found to be a more effective place to stop than the fourth line in Carlei’s opening. The prologue is being spoken while overlooking medieval Verona as classical music plays lightly in the background, which is a simple but highly effective opening that establishes the setting and traditional tone of the film. This traditional tone is maintained throughout the first scene as this film is closest to the original text and maintains the dialogue about Sampson biting his thumb and enticing Abraham to fight. This sequence is as witty and entertaining as Luhrmann’s, something that Carlei’s failed to achieve by keeping the scene extremely short and not drawing enough from the original text.
The conversation that takes place between Romeo and Benvolio is also the closest to the original text. Romeo is effectively established as a lovestruck teenager through the romantic music, the performances and the dialogue chosen, which I did not find believable in Carlei’s version, and was not as sentimental or character establishing as Luhrmann’s.
Out of these three films, Zeffirelli’s is closest to the original and successfully maintains a traditional tone, and it was the one I was most excited to complete in the end. Luhrmann’s is still my favourite because of my attachment to the actors, but I was most impressed overall with Zeffirelli’s.