Romeo + Juliet Baz Luhrmann

Romeo + Juliet

Baz Luhrmann's theatrical film adaptation of William Shakespeare's play is set in Verona Beach and reverberates with pop music and gunfire.

Distinguished by Luhrmann's bravura style and Jill Bilcock's fast-paced editing, this film adaptation is a riveting introduction to Shakespeare's play and his language.

Recommended for Year levels: 9-10

Learning areas: English, Media

1. Shakespeare & adaptation

  • What are some of the reasons that Shakespeare’s plays hold such an important place in English-speaking cultures?
  • How does this influence the critical response to any film adaptation of a Shakespeare play?
  • What are some of the things that need to be considered and taken into account when adapting a Shakespeare play for the screen?

Adapting Romeo and Juliet

A feature film must capture the audience’s attention from the start, setting the scene and providing information about key characters quickly and efficiently.

Typically, the story told by a feature film has a beginning where a problem is set up, a middle where this problem is worked through and a conclusion – happy or sad that ties the story together.

1. With the above comments in mind, describe the aspects of Romeo + Juliet that make it particularly suitable for film adaptation. Give details.
2. What are some of the problems or difficulties that the play poses for a filmmaker?
3. Research the range of film adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, and note down any key similarities or differences you notice

The balcony scene

Watch this clip of the balcony scene in Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet.

1. How does Baz Luhrmann allude to this particular interpretation of the balcony scene in his film?
2. How does he go on to create his own distinctive and original interpretation of this scene?
3. In groups, discuss whether Luhrmann’s interpretation of this scene draws the audience’s attention to the richness of the original text or is a distraction.
4. How important is it that each version of Romeo and Juliet does something different from previous versions?

Focus on the balcony scene as it was written by Shakespeare.

  • Read the original text carefully.
  • Create a storyboard that explains your interpretation. The challenge is to do something fresh and new but to remain faithful to the text.

Baz Luhrman's ROMEO + JULIET

This adaptation of Shakespeare’s play was a commercial success, proving particularly popular with teenage film viewers. However, a number of critics noted that the tone was more like a glossy LA music video or reality TV episode than a feature film.

1. What aspects of Luhrmann’s film could lead to this description?
2. Give a detailed description of the techniques involved and provide specific examples of their use in the film.
3. What do these techniques add to the film and to the way the film presents the story of Romeo and Juliet? What do they take away?

As in many music videos, Romeo + Juliet makes heavy use of imagery that seems to exist purely as decoration. Think for instance about the religious iconography in a world where little attention is paid to spirituality.

1. What point is Luhrmann making?
2. How does this add to our understanding of the kind of people the Capulets and Montagues are?

Visual language vs the text

While Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet is visually rich, even overwhelming, the film’s editor Jill Bilcock argues that the spoken language is given priority: "Romeo + Juliet was led by the rhythm of Shakespeare, so that’s why I had to speed up things in between so that the verse didn’t lose its flow. And people interpreted it as a wacky new style, but it’s actually about the rhythm of the language."(Jill Bilcock)

1. Choose a scene from Romeo + Juliet and track the way the editing follows the rhythm of the language.
2. Focus too on the way that the sound editing adds to (or detracts from) Shakespeare’s verse.

2. The opening sequence

The film's opening

Shakespeare begins Romeo and Juliet with a synopsis of the events that will take place in the play.

As well as reinforcing the audience’s understanding of the details of the story, what does the opening sequence tell us about the world in which the action takes place? Focus on the rapidly cut sequence in which we are given glimpses of what is going to follow.

1. How does Luhrmann work with and reinforce this aspect of the original play?
2. How does he capture the audience’s attention from the very beginning?
3. What film techniques are used to draw the audience into the world of the film?
4. What or who does not appear in this sequence?
5. And what do we see with relentless repetition?

Editing the text

In making Romeo + Juliet, Baz Luhrmann has cut about 40 percent of the dialogue you will find in your printed copy of the play. Instead he has substituted imagery for dialogue. For instance, Luhrmann leaves out the lines spoken by Sampson and Gregory (who are Capulet men in the play and Montague men in the film).

In the play they exchange rude comments about proposed sexual activities with young maidens while boasting of their manly attributes:

Sampson: When I have fought with the men, I will be cruel with the maids: I will cut off their heads.

Gregory: the heads of the maids?

Sampson: Ay, the heads of the maids or their maidenheads. Take it in what sense thou wilt.

Gregory: They must take it in sense that they feel it.

Sampson: Me they shall feel while I am able to stand; and ‘tis known that I am a pretty piece of flesh.

1. What techniques are used in the film to communicate the gist/meaning of these lines (i.e. the young men’s sexual aggression)?

Cinematography and interpretation of the text

Compare the film techniques used in the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt with those used at the beginning of the film in the fight between the Montague and Capulet boys.

1. How is the seriousness of this scene reinforced by camera movement, position and angle?
2. When Romeo and Juliet meet, their immediate connection is communicated in the text of the play by the sonnet they create together. How is this scene ‘staged’ in the film?
3. Why do you think Luhrmann has chosen this interpretation of the lovers’ meeting?

3. Editing

Focus on the death scene above:
1. What are the main features of Luhrmann’s interpretation of this scene?
2. What has he done differently?
3. What is the overall mood created?
4. Describe the mise-en-scene (the staging) of this scene. How does it connect with the rest of the film?

The world of the film

The people living in Verona Beach are not only used to violence, they are used to taking risks and following their impulses.

1. Romeo and Juliet are young people trying to lose themselves in the beauty of their love and passion while caught in a world of uncontrolled violence. What are some of the ways this is communicated in the film?
2. Consider, for instance, the repositioning of Juliet’s speech: ‘Come gentle night. Come loving black-browned night give me my Romeo.’ (You might need to get the play out and read it as you watch the film.) What is the effect of the changes Luhrmann makes to this scene?

4. Water: a key motif


Luhrmann uses the motif of water to explore Romeo and Juliet’s growing romance.

1. How does the water motif add to the audience’s understanding of Romeo and Juliet’s love? Explain by focusing on a key scene.
2. The two lovers first glimpse each other through a fishbowl, an image that links up with the idea of water as both a refuge and a symbol of the impossibility of finding a place away from the glare of the outside world.
3. What are some of the other ways that Luhrmann reminds us of the impossibility of Romeo and Juliet ever being able to escape?
4. In the scene in the crypt, the shimmering candles cast a watery glow. It is as if the lovers are underwater. What is being communicated in this image?
5. What is the effect of the contrast between this magical image and the sight of the lovers’ bodies being loaded into separate ambulances?
6. What conclusion is the audience of the film asked to draw at the end of the film?
7. Have lessons been learnt and order restored? Explain your answer.