The scene I have selected for comparison is the opening to Act 1 in Shakespeare`s Romeo & Juliet play, which includes: the Prologue and Act 1 Scene 1 up to line 90 in the text. I will be comparing this scene as depicted in the opening sequences of two film versions : Franco Zeffirelli ‘s film released in 1968 and set in the Italian Renaissance; and Baz Luhrmann’s contemporary version, released in 1996 and set in the late 20th century, noting how each director interprets the text differently.
The Prologue opens the Act in both film versions, as in Shakespeare’s text. In Zeffirelli`s film, it is delivered in voice-over as the camera pans across the foggy, misty landscape of Verona at sunrise. Soft instrumental music plays under the words of the prologue as the camera transports the viewer into the setting of the busy, noisy, bustling town square on market day. The director has chosen a setting and atmosphere close to that illustrated in the text. The dominating colors are reds, browns and yellows as the camera tracks Capulet servants, Sampson and Gregory, as they walk. Here, Zeffirelli has chosen to omit most of the spirited exchange of bawdy puns between the servants in Shakespeare’s dialogue, opting instead, to speed the narrative along to the climax of Scene 1: the outbreak of violence. Just enough text is retained to establish the plot. The only lines used, “The quarrel is between our masters and us their men” (l.16), “here come of the house of Montague”(l.27), and “Quarrel, I will back thee”(l.28), serve to emphasize the feud between Montague and Capulet, and set the scene up for the confrontation to come. Several extra-textual lines and actions are added, for example: the addition of Sampson spitting on the ground in front of the Montagues immediately after biting his thumb; significant because it makes the gesture even more insulting and conveys more meaning for the modern audience who may not be familiar with the “bite my thumb at them”(l.34) gesture. Another example is the addition of the cheering and shouting out the names “Capulet!” and “Montague!” by the respective sides at the start of the brawl, where the stage direction only states “they fight”. Most of the fighting is filmed by handheld cameras cutting back and forth. Close-up shots are mixed in, especially focusing on Tybalt. Crane shots then show the fight escalating and the market square turned into a chaotic brawl scene with vegetables flying everywhere, until trumpets signal the entrance of the Prince. The camera shoots him from a very low angle perspective, mounted on his horse, to symbolize his position of authority. Prince Escalus immediately puts an end to the brawl. The length of his speech here, is cut in half, from 24 lines to 12. The trimming of, and changes made to the text in this scene, however, do not alter the general structure of the plot or the setting and atmosphere of the original. The editing style in this scene is mostly subtle and unobtrusive.
In Luhrmann’s film, the Prologue takes the form of a newscast where the news anchor serves as the Shakespearean Chorus delivering the introductory content in a format more familiar for a modern audience. The prologue sonnet is then repeated again in voice-over to accompany news footage covering the latest outbreak of violence stemming from the ongoing Montague-Capulet feud. Through a rapid succession of cuts from shot to shot, Luhrmann quickly establishes the landscape, setting and atmosphere. The camera shows aerial shots panning across a modern city landscape, as the words “IN FAIR VERONA”(l.2) flash on the screen, establishing setting. This extensive media coverage of the violence in the streets, illustrates how the entire city is impacted by the “ancient grudge”(l.3), presenting Verona as a city divided by chaotic violence. Luhrmann also quickly identities major characters using title cards in freeze frames. As the sonnet begins, “Two households, both alike in dignity,”(l.1) the camera zooms out from the headline to show the two feuding families pictured on the front page of the newspaper. The ‘two households’ are depicted as two rival corporations. The opposing parties are established, using images like the two skyscapers (shown bearing the name of each respective family) overshadowing the city, juxtaposed with lines from the Prologue displayed as headlines from newspapers and various media. These opening shots, with their graphic images of the feud-ravaged city, set the stage for the subsequent action of the film. This sequence also introduces the film’s recurring focus on religious imagery such as the Jesus statue and other religious icons. It moves along at a relentless pace in a flurry of cuts, with most shots lasting less than a second; this aims to create tension and anticipation.
Lurhmann makes creative choices that directly interpret the text; for instance, the setting of the ‘Phoenix gas station’, which moves the original setting of the busy, open public space of the town square in Verona, into a modern-day North American city gas station. As well, the swords are replaced by handguns made by the manufacturer “Sword” . When Benvolio asks all to lower their weapons, the word ‘swords’ is not exchanged for ‘guns’.( l.51) Original text wording is largely retained. While so much of the action is modified for the sake of being understandable to modern audiences, he also interestingly chooses to retain the Shakespearian gesture of the biting of the thumb, meant to insult and provoke the Capulets (as opposed to translating it into a modern gesture like say, flipping the middle finger) .
Notable deviations from the text are also made here. The audience is first introduced to the Montagues, in contrast to the text where the Capulets are introduced first. Sampson`s original line “a dog of the house of Montague moves me”(l.7) is given to a Montague, as the first line of dialogue heard. It is shouted at the camera from the back of a speeding convertible. Apparently, the characters of Sampson and Gregory are transferred to the Montague side by the director. This would only be noticed by audience members quite familiar with the text, probably not by the film`s target audience, so it is easily overlooked. The ‘street brawl’ is depicted as a chaotic shootout scene that comes across as a crazy mix of a Western movie with a goofy cartoon. It borrows from Westerns in style, with its extreme close ups of Tybalt and Benvolio (revealing close details of their facial expressions, particularly their eyes). The film score attempts to build up suspense as they draw their weapons. The goofy sound effects, and lines of the text being bizarrely screamed out by the characters, make it hard to take this scene seriously. The camera shots are dizzying. The frenzied pace of the editing, the sign spinning around, guns twirling, bullets ricocheting, point-of -view shots, reverse shots, fast forward movement followed by the slow motion shot (of a match dropping to ground, igniting a fire), create chaos. The character of Prince Escalus is replaced with a modern-day police chief. The scene ends in his private office, as opposed to the public space where the fight scene took place, reflecting more modern norms.
Clearly, Zeffirelli’s film adaptation is the more conservative, and Luhrmann’s, the more radical, ultra-modernized of the two. Both retain the function of the Shakespearean Chorus of providing commentary on events about to unfold, both set this scene in an open, busy public area (much like Shakespeare`s text indicates) and both contain the original Shakespearean language with trimming and re-arranging of parts of the text, but beyond that, the styles are drastically different. There is great contrast in context, atmosphere and mood. Zefferelli sets his film in the Italian Renaissance period where the story originated. Luhrmann chooses a modern city as the setting for his film to present an urban environment familiar to a 1990s cinema audience. Luhrmann’s scene is a fast-paced, rougher cut style than Zeffirelli’s. The editing styles differ almost as much as the setting.
Romeo and Juliet, Franco Zeffirelli (1968)
William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, Baz Luhrmann(1996)
Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare. Editor Daniel Fischlin Oxford University Press, 2013