If you stuck Shakespeare in a pop-culture blender and hit "puree," you'd probably end up with Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. Seizing on Kenneth Branagh's mission to make the Bard more accessible to modern audiences, Luhrmann produced an MTV shotgun blast to the face. Modern settings! Gang warfare! Leonardo DiCaprio at the height of his Tiger Beat cover phase! Luhrmann's film had it all, and most importantly, showed us why we still read Shakespeare after four hundred years.
Everything and nothing all at once—that's what. The dialogue doesn't change, and that's the real key with Shakespeare. You can cut lines, you can move lines around, but you absolutely do not get to add any lines. The trick, then, is to see what you can do within that framework. And as Luhrmann proves, you can do a lot.
Since he stuck with the script, Luhrmann had to pay close attention to casting choices that fit the in-line descriptions. For example, Juliet "hath not seen the change of fourteen years" (1.2.9), so you can't cast Sally Field in the role (sorry, Sally Field). Romeo's age isn't specified, but you can't make him too much older—or younger, for that matter—without things getting creepy. Hence Luhrmann's choice of seventeen-year old Claire Danes and twenty-two-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio in the leads. They're a bit older than the Shakespearean ideal, but we can still buy it (and those precious few years gave them some time to hone their acting skills too). It may sound obvious, but you'd be surprised how many productions flat-out ignore the rules and cast people way too old for the part. Luhrmann knows the rules and uses the text to define his boundaries was a filmmaker.
Within those, boundaries, however, he goes completely off the deep end. (And we mean that in the best possible way.)
A better question is "What isn't different?"
Let's start with the setting. This flick was shot in Mexico City, and has an aggressive late 20th century vibe. The characters flash automatic pistols instead of swords, they cruise around in limos, and they moon to songs by Garbage and The Cardigans. Mercutio (Harold Perrineau) is a cross-dresser. The Friar (Pete Postlethwaite) sports a crucifix tattoo on his back. The editing shows an enthusiasm for the MTV generation, with rapid music video cuts, and even the matter-of-fact prologue gets a modern-day twist, coming to us courtesy of a talking head on the news. Check out the trailer to see what we mean.
Why all that emphasis on the new and the now? Well, like a lot of Shakespearean filmmakers, Luhrmann wanted to help young people connect with the material. And he couldn't do that simply by casting a couple of hot stars in the lead roles. He needed to speak in a visual language that young people could relate to, one that matched the movies, commercials, and videos that they consume every day. Kenneth Branagh cast well-known actors in his Shakespearean adaptations, but Luhrmann one-ups him here, and in the process, shows us crazy kids why the ultimate Crazy Kids Story matters to our lives.
It's also worth noting that the film's hyperactive larger-than-life qualities have a subtle effect on the core tragedy. You can easily read Romeo and Juliet as a cautionary example of the impetuousness of youth (i.e., don't kill yourself over a guy you just met. Are you listening Bella Swan?). But some people might also argue that the tragedy isn't just Romeo and Juliet's—it's their families' as well.
Poppa Capulet (Paul Sorvino) and Big Daddy Montague (Brian Dennehy) have been fighting for so long that they don't know how to do anything else. We're treated to shots like one of Dennehy fuming in his limo, ready to drive over to the Capulet's place and blow melon-sized holes in his rival right then and there. The central couple's single-mindedness comes into play, too, but we're left with the impression that if the grown-ups had forgiven each other a little more readily, this whole mess might very well have been prevented.
Modern Shakespeare adaptations are all the rage these days, but sometimes, you want some good old-fashioned hose and doublets. While Luhrmann made a huge splash with his version, Zeffirelli's incredibly popular 1968 effort was the go-to R&J for decades. Why? It's the single greatest embodiment of what people think of when they think of Shakespeare. In other words, it's the Shakespearest!
While this version leaves a few scenes on the chopping block, for the most part, it sticks to Big Willy's original like glue, right down to the costumes, sets, and swordplay. The only real tweak here is that Zeffirelli really ups the romance ante, focusing more on these over-the-moon young lovers and their impetuous affair, rather than the stubborn feud of their stubborn parents. While Luhrmann's version had the MTV sizzle, Zeffirelli played up the doe-eyed stares and flowery love talk. And really, isn't that what R & J are all about?
And for a real old-school take, you might travel back in time to George Cukor's Romeo and Juliet which came out in the wayback days of 1936. And it feels like it. Cukor's version features a 43-year-old Leslie Howard as Romeo, and a 34-year-old Norma Shearer as Juliet, which is just plain awkward. But worth a watch, nonetheless.
So, Shmoopers, which version best crosses these lovers' stars? Shmoop amongst yourselves.