One of the many things that is fascinating to me about cinema is what happens when artists tell the same story in different ways. I love how they make bold choices when adapting a work of art which causes it to feel original and fresh, while at the same time honoring the qualities which made it special in the first place. At its best, a daring adaptation can make you feel as if you are experiencing a story for the first time, even if the source material has existed for centuries.
That’s the case with two of my favorite film adaptations of William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. Both films — Romeo and Juliet (1968) as well as Romeo + Juliet (1996) — tell the same iconic story of the titular young lovers who must navigate their family’s blood feud as it flares up in the city of Verona, Italy. Since the two films tell the same narrative, there are many scenes which are identical to each other, right down to the dialogue. But while these films tell the same story, they feel very different from one another thanks to the differing approaches taken by their directors.
What makes director Franco Zeffirelli’s film Romeo and Juliet (1968) so special is its combination of immersive production values and naturalistic lead performances. Everything about this film from a visual perspective — including but not limited to the Italian locations where Zeffirelli shot most of it to the period-accurate costumes by Danilo Donati (who won an Academy Award for his work on this movie) — makes you feel like you have traveled back in time to the Renaissance era. But these traditional elements exist in exquisite tension with the then-non-traditional casting of the lead roles. Despite being written as young people (with Juliet explicitly identified as being 13 years old), the title characters were often portrayed by actors who were much older. For example, Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer were respectively 43 and 34 when they starred in Romeo and Juliet (1936).
But the main and most famous innovation of Zeffirelli’s film is that it casted real teenagers to play Romeo (17-year-old Leonard Whiting) and Juliet (15-year-old Olivia Hussey). Their youthful looks and unrestrained performances bring out an essential dimension of the text that would not exist in an adaptation where Romeo and Juliet are played by older actors. Both Whiting and Hussey have an innocent appearance and a knack for expressing emotions strongly, as if they are experiencing them for the first time. While their interpretations can feel a little too youthful (both of them weep like little children at several points in the film), that has the unintentional effect of reminding you that Romeo and Juliet were more kids in love than anything else. That may end up being the most universal and realistic aspect of a film that is highly regarded for its realism.
In contrast to Zeffirelli’s naturalistic approach, director Baz Luhrmann went in a wildly different direction with his film Romeo + Juliet. Instead of shooting in Italy to create a sense of realism, Luhrmann shot most of his film in Mexico City to concoct the fictional environment of Verona Beach. While Zeffirelli had period-accurate costumes in his film, Luhrmann’s costume designer Kym Barrett created more contemporary costumes which also have a funky flair that give them a distinctive character. Even the film’s approach to casting feels different because the lead roles are played by Leonardo DiCaprio (who was 22 years old at the time) and Claire Danes (who was 17 years old), and their greater age and experience as actors makes their interpretations of Romeo and Juliet feel like more fully realized people but at the price of that innocent edge which Whiting and Hussey brought to their performances.
But what really gives Romeo + Juliet its own identity is its unique visual and editing styles. Zeffirelli filmed many scenes in a traditional way, namely from a few set-ups that have conventional angles. The narrative rhythm that he and editor Reginald Mills created from these sequences is often a stately, measured one. Luhrmann’s approach, however, is to film scenes from many different angles (ranging from grand wide shots to extreme close-ups that include a delightfully jarring one of Lady Capulet’s mouth yelling Juliet’s name) and piece them together into brilliant collages with editor Jill Billcock. This is not to say that Luhrmann can’t film a scene conventionally, but more often than not he takes a maximalist approach which helps make this centuries-old story feel as vibrant and contemporary now as it did then.
One interesting paradox of both films is that they both begin with the phrase “William Shakespeare’s” before it. Personally, I consider that to be a bit misleading. While Shakespeare did write the original text (or didn’t, if you’re an Anti-Stratfordian), both versions owe as much to their directors as they do to their original playwright. They bring their own fascinating visions to Romeo and Juliet, which are original in their own right while also being true to the text’s depiction of themes related to youth and passion which helped make it a theatrical hit hundreds of years ago. These films prove that, if done right, the right adaptation can make an old story feel as vibrant and powerful as it did when it was first told.
Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet will be screened at IU Cinema on Sept. 15 while Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet will be screened on Sept. 17 followed by a Q&A with costumer designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis and IU professor Linda Pisano. Both events are part of this fall’s Re:Made series.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.