Despite the circumstances surrounding its conception being rather hazy, Romeo And Juliet has endured for an exceptionally long time. William Shakespeare is said to have adapted the play at some point between 1591 and 1595 based on a story by Arthur Brooke in 1562, and since then, it has been adapted into just about everything you can imagine.
One of the most famous adaptations is Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo + Juliet. It’s a strange one because the language remains unaltered, yet the setting and a lot of the plot has changed rather drastically.
Updated June 7th, 2020 by Meg Pelliccio: Baz Luhrmann’s modern film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet released back in 1996, yet despite being over a decade old it has aged extremely well and still stands as one of the best play-into-film adaptations ever made. The film received critical acclaim on release and went on to win multiple awards.
Of course, as with any adaptation, the film differs from the original material in various ways, but some of the differences are more subtle than others. Which of these changes did you notice when you first watched the film?
15 The Setting
This one stands out. Obviously, the original version of Romeo And Juliet is set a long, long time ago when things were hugely different. People acted differently, the world operated with a different structure and things looked almost unrecognizable. The main change here is that Luhrmann’s version is set in the modern-day.
We’re in America and there are cars, guns, FedEx trucks, cafes, TVs, and everyone is dressed in modern clothes and have dyed hair; it couldn’t be more different, but for some reason, the language remains unchanged…
14 The Lines
Despite the language of the play remaining unchanged, notably with the characters still referring to their guns as “swords,” the original play still changed dramatically on its journey to the big screen. Many lines had to be cut because of time constraints, which is pretty understandable.
Additionally, despite the majority of Romeo and Juliet being written in iambic pentameter, Father Laurence, played by Pete Postlethwaite, is the only character in the entire film to speak in this meter.
13 The Families
Tying in with the updated location and time period, the actual presence and existence of the Montagues and Capulets is drastically different from the original play. Rather than being two families at war, which is something that doesn’t really happen anymore, the war here is between two rival businesses.
Well, they’re actually mafia empires, clear from their gun-toting relations, but they pretend to be legitimate corporations. With this comes a change in motivation for a lot of the major plot points in the story.
12 The Messenger/Prologue Chorus
As the film modernizes the original play, it naturally had to find a new way to present the role usually fulfilled by the chorus, such as in the opening prologue. This is cleverly done by having a news anchor read these lines, presenting the chorus lines as if it were news to report.
Additionally, the TV also fulfills the role of the messenger that was in the play. Instead of the cast finding out about the Capulet’s party by messenger, they see it announced on the TV.
11 Rosaline’s Role
Rosaline is a character that doesn’t actually appear in the play but still plays an important factor. She is Romeo’s first love and the reason that he is distraught at the beginning of the story, as she does not love him back, having instead sworn a vow of chastity. Rosaline is the main reason that the Montague characters visit the Capulet’s party, as she is meant to be there.
In the film, Rosaline’s role has been reduced, though she still acts as a device to get Romeo to the party after hearing she will be there. Despite Romeo brooding at the beginning of the film, his feelings for Rosaline appear to be presented as more of a crush than real love, and Romeo’s emotions are downplayed in the scene where Benvolio asks about why he is sad.
10 The Balcony Scene
The balcony scene is arguably the most iconic scene of not only Romeo and Juliet but of Shakespeare’s entire works. It is a scene that is frequently referenced in pop culture and that is well known to most people, even if they have never read or watched the play in any form.
So it’s pretty surprising that the film decided to change up this legendary scene, firstly by reducing the 190 lines to just 90 lines. Secondly, the setting changes from an orchard scene to a more modern and sexualized scene in a swimming pool.
9 The Tone of The Marriage Proposal
In the original play, the scene where Romeo proposes that he and Juliet should get married is normally perceived as being a serious part of the play. However, in Luhrmann’s film adaptation, the characters are less serious, instead they are giggling and laughing as they relay the lines that are more commonly acted out more earnestly on stage.
Of course, this could be Luhrmann’s way of presenting how happy the two are, so joyous that they keep smiling and laughing, but it downplays the importance of their union and how it would unite their two houses.
8 Paris’ Death
In the original version of Romeo And Juliet, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo goes to the Capulet crypt to find Juliet. However, when he gets there, Paris is there grieving the loss of Juliet and Romeo kills him during a fight. In the film, this is cut. Firstly, Paris is called Dave Paris, which is quite funny, and secondly, he isn’t in the crypt at all, meaning Romeo doesn’t bump into anyone there.
In turn, this means Dave Paris ends the film very much alive, while Romeo and Juliet are provided with that cruel twist ending we are all too familiar with.
7 The Ending
The cruel twist ending mentioned above is something everyone is too familiar with. We all know how it goes. Juliet fakes her death, then a heartbroken Romeo kills himself next to her body. She wakes up, sees his corpse, and stabs herself to avoid having to be apart from him.
The film, for dramatic Hollywood effect, changes this. Instead of the dramatic, heartbreakingly unfulfilled and brutal ending of the original that makes it so unique, Luhrmann has Juliet wake up just before Romeo dies, so they can share a quick kiss before her suicide. Boo!
6 The Ecstasy
One of the features of the film that really lets you know we’re in a different time period is its depiction of drugs. The original Romeo was from a well-connected family and presentation was everything; the modern-day Romeo is a young man wanting to enjoy life.
As such, just before going to the Capulet party, he takes ecstasy. As you might expect, Shakespeare didn’t have the pumping dance music and bright lights of nightclubs to base his party on, so he didn’t have much reason to pump Romeo full of drugs for his night out.
One of the elements of Luhrman’s film that must have been a difficult decision was whether to keep the swords from the original present or replace them with much more relevant guns.
Swords obviously require a lot of close combat, which means fights need to be done from close range. A gun, obviously, could end a fight in less than a second, which could really reduce the dramatic tension. Having said that, shoot-outs give the Hollywood edge and make the film fit its 1990s setting more. He chose guns.
4 The Costumes
During the Capulet party, the costumes in the original Shakespeare play seem to be nothing particularly outlandish for the time, with the characters simply wearing Elizabethan garments that would have been worn during any part of that specific era.
However, in the film, Luhrmann decides to dress each character in a costume that reflects their personality. As such, we see Juliet herself with angel wings, Tybalt dressed as the devil, and the center of attention, Mercutio, dressed as a woman.
3 The Names
The fact that Luhrmann kept the dialogue the same as it would have been so many hundreds of years ago makes you wonder if it actually makes sense to change the character names. Choose to go one way or another, surely?
Either way, Paris gets a first name: Dave. The Montagues are named Caroline and Ted, while the Capulets are named Fulgencio and Gloria. Friar Laurence is turned into Father Laurence and Prince Escalus becomes Captain Prince, a police chief.
For some reason, Luhrmann decides to shuffle the affiliations of certain minor characters around. It’s a little confusing for those already familiar with the characters and doesn’t really seem to make much sense or have any reasoning behind it.
Abram and Petruchio become Capulets despite being Montagues in the original, while Sampson and Gregory are Montagues in the film. Sampson, in particular, is an interesting one, as he becomes Romeo’s cousin, whereas before he was nothing more than the Capulet servant.
1 Friar John
Though he isn’t exactly a huge presence in the original play, Friar John nevertheless exists and has a certain role to fulfill. His character is used as a tool to send a letter from Friar Laurence to Romeo, but regrettably, he is unable to fulfill his duty because he becomes quarantined after an outbreak of plague.
His small role that is ultimately unsuccessful makes him largely irrelevant to the plot, so it’s not surprising that he doesn’t exist at all in the film remake. Fair enough.
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