Two film versions of William Shakespeare’s classic tragic play Romeo and Juliet, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 version and Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version, are vastly different interpretations that each offer a different perspective on the original text. Time period plays a large part in the cinema of both films, with Zeffirelli’s work being more of a standard translation while Luhrmann’s piece carrying a futuristic bent. This paper studies the similarities and differences between both works with regard to the Prologue and Act 1, Scene 1. The Zeffirelli film is more of a traditional take, using costumes and props that hold more classical realism, while the Luhrmann adaptation focuses on modernizing the set to create a dystopian feel that captures the combative nature of the Capulet/Montague conflict as being emblematic of social decadence and decline. While both works effectively capture the central conflict between the two houses, Capulet and Montague, the Zeffirelli piece is more of a standard take, while the Luhrmann film and its modernized cinematics hold special distinction for creative adaptation.
Both films begin in medias res, just as does Shakespeare’s original script. The Zeffirelli piece opens with foggy visuals of a medieval landscape and a voice-over script recounting the Prologue, then zooms into an Elizabethan-era courtyard inside a Gothic castle. The action continues with Sampson and Gregory of the Capulets merrily carousing the cobbled streets of Verona before encountering Abram and another Montague. The classic altercation ensues, with Sampson and Abram insulting back and forth (“Do you bite you thumb at us sir”), before the outbreak of a chaotic sword fight (and the grand entrance of Benvolio) seemingly involving the members of the entire village.

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While the Luhrmann film begins in medias res, similar to the Zeffirelli piece, the cinematics of both films quickly depart at the Prologue. Luhrmann has a unique take on the Shakespearean classic, choosing to open with a newsreel of violence between the two houses, Capulet and Montague. The newscast effect sets up the modernity of the adaptation, and Luhrmann uses modern film techniques, such as the zoom-in and freeze-frame introductions of the characters to set up the action. Luhrmann continues his unique adaptation by using modern technologies and an urban landscape (Verona looks like downtown Los Angeles) as creative interpretations to Shakespeare’s original work.

Other notable difference between the two films occur in stage props and setting, with the Zeffirelli piece using more traditional forms, such as Elizabethan Era costumes and realistic sword props, and the Luhrmann piece using modern, and outlandishly-drawn, urban costumes and nontraditional guns as weapon props. Acting is also a point of contention between the two films, with Zeffirelli’s interpretation being far more traditional than Luhrmann’s. Luhrmann’s actors use hyperbolic expressions and postured body language to enhance their dialogue. For instance, the Capulets in Luhrmann’s film use maudlin acting techniques and act fearful when the more aggressive Montagues come into the scene. Luhrmann sets up the paradigmatic conflict between the two houses in an extremely unique and modernized fashion, using the gun battle and cinematic effects of a gas station in flames to setup the film’s central tension.

While both films pose interesting takes on Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, the Zeffirelli piece remains more a traditional approach while the Luhrmann adaptation is far more modernized, unique, and reflective of a dystopian world in decadent decay. Luhrmann uses the Capulet/Montague conflict as being an allegorical reference to societal degradation. In this way, Luhrmann is able to have more impact, using his film as an urban dystopian critique.