Baz Luhrmann Did His Job

In 1996 Baz Luhrmann released his rendition of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. He released his film with hopes to reach a younger audience. To achieve his goal he modernized the old play script, cast Hollywood hunks and did everything he could to appeal to the trends in the 90’s. However, engaging North America’s youth in old literature came at the expense Shakespeare’s art.

Luhrmann clearly knew his target audience, as drastic changes were made to Shakespeare’s play script in order to appeal to them. The fun poetic prose throughout all of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet were lost. Throughout the film it is seen that large chunks of script have been cut from making it into the film. Only the most critical lines are kept in order for the audience to have some sort of understanding of the basic structure of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Examples of some of the few scenes that Luhrmann deemed most influential to the story line are; the thumb biting scene, where the most recent tension between the two opposing families unfolds. Along with the “O loving hate” speech by Romeo, where we can see the nature of this love-sick teenager. As well, he chose to down play much of Friar Laurence’s and the Nurse’s influence over the two “star-crossed lovers”. Luhrmann knew he needed to stream line Shakespeare’s play as much as possible if it were to ever make it big in the cinema.

Luhrmann knew that the young audience he was targeting was not interested in sitting and listening to old English prose for 2 hours non-stop. Rather they wanted the story of Romeo & Juliet spoon fed to them through awesome 90’s colours and graphics. Thus, he gave it to them; with bright colours, and sequins on almost every costume and bold attention-grabbing set. Along with the very obvious attempts to make as many clear contrast and connections for the audience as he could. Luhrmann gave the audience obvious visual clues of the rivalry between the Montagues and the Capulets, with the large towers on opposing sides; each with their names in bold lettering on the top. Blue for the Montagues, and red for the Capulets, with their family’s emblem resting above. These colours and emblems are seen throughout the movie, to continue to help the audience distinguish between the two families. In addition, Luhrmann also spoon fed the audience the names and relations of each group and individual that had a direct connection with the feud between the families. Luhrmann replaced all of the poetic imagery that Shakespeare had so artfully crafted with over-done 90’s imagery. The details Shakespeare puts into his play scripts, that many people have come to appreciate, had to be dumbed-down for the masses if Luhrmann’s film were to ever be successful in Hollywood. Luhrmann needed to ensure that his audience did not miss a beat to allow them and to move past the basics so that they could start following the story line.

The story line in which Luhrmann gave the audience was accurate, yet skewed. The audience was given the gist of what Romeo & Juliet was about, yet it was not given the same tone as Shakespeare had originally intended. Luhrmann had emphasized the crime aspect involved with the Montagues and Capulets, rather than the romance of Romeo and Juliet. The scenes involving the two families battling were comparatively longer than any of the scenes showing the romance between Romeo and Juliet. With that, the long battling scenes were clearly fueled with passion as the audience is given an astounding amount of close-up shots to ensure we really understand the emotions in the battles. On the other hand, the passion on the romance side of the story was noticeably lacking. Romeo’s emotions towards Mercutio’s death were far more extreme than him finding out he will never be able to see his wife again because he has been banished from Verona. If this really were a romantic story, one would think the emphasis of emotion would be placed differently. Luhrmann knew that the ability to tap into the crime drama aspect of Romeo & Juliet was one of the greatest assets this story being a success on the big screen. With shows like Law & Order and NYPD Blue making their mark on pop culture in the 90’s Luhrmann knew that taking advantage of this crime drama aspect of the feud between the Montagues and Capulets would be the best way to leave a statement on pop culture with Shakespeare.

Luhrmann had done extensive edits, cuts and alterations to Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet to give us his 1996 film of Romeo + Juliet. He wanted his film to be successful, and he wanted a wider audience to show interest in Shakespeare’s works. He had to give the audience the Hollywood version of the story using visual acid with bright colours and costumes, along with a gritty crime drama that no one in their right mind would turn down. However, in doing so he lost much of what was intended by Shakespeare. The art of Shakespeare’s extensive and deliberate couplets throughout the play, as well as the true passionate romance of the young lovers was all lost in Luhrmann’s film. Unfortunately, Luhrmann had a job to do; and his job he did indeed.



Film watched at on June 6th, 2016

Text Referenced from “Romeo & Juliet” by William Shakespeare. Ed. Daniel Fischlin, Oxford University Press, 2013

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