Romeo and Juliet (1968) vs. Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Having watched the two most famous versions of Shakespeare’s tragedy ‘Romeo and Juliet’, I decided to compare the two and say which one, at least in my opinion, is the best of the two. In this article I will try to analyse as many points as possible in order to give you a panoramic view of these two film adaptations.

Romeo and Juliet (1968) by Franco Zeffirelli

Leonard Whiting as Romeo and Olivia Hussey as Juliet in Zeffirelli’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (1968)

The most awarded and perhaps the most well-known rendition of the story of the two star-crossed lovers is Zeffirelli’s 1968 ‘Romeo and Juliet. This version is the more ‘realistic’ or ‘accurate’ of the two films, not only because of how it is in accordance with Shakespeare’s text, and how it is also set in Verona during the Renaissance, but also because of how the costumes designed by Danilo Donati – which earned the film an Academy Award along with Best Cinematography – were extremely accurate when compared to the original play and were true to the time the story is set in. Although the dialogue was cut or trimmed in parts, this version stayed as loyal to the original stage play as possible.

The cast members were almost the same age as the young lovers in the play: Olivia Hussey was 15 at the time and Leonard Whiting was 17. Zeffirelli purposefully chose among a new, talented and still unknown generation of actors. Although Olivia Hussey’s career is still strong now, Leonard Whiting’s didn’t enjoy the same popularity  –  it reached its peak in the 70s but he is no longer seen in any major new roles. In this performance together, the two share great onscreen chemistry that transcends their mixed careers and I still think that they were the most suitable and believable pair to perform Romeo and Juliet at the time despite how their individual performances were not the best, though their incredibly young age must be taken into consideration in this respect. Ultimately, I was never expecting Academy Award worthy performances from two teenagers, but Juliet did sound slightly overly melodramatic even for a Shakespeare adaptation, and Romeo never sounded quite at one with the language he used, making for an even less convincing solo performance.

I find Juliet’s reactions to be over the top, especially during the famous balcony scene or when she speaks to the priest after her betrothal to Paris, or again in some of her dialogue with both the Nun and with her mother. One example of Juliet’s exaggerated acting can also be seen when, after receiving the news of Romeo’s actions against Tybalt , she is talking to her mother and crying so loud that it becomes almost unbearable to hear. Although both actors tried to respect the rhythm of the verse, the acting overall wasn’t convincing enough in comparison to the overall quality of the picture. Leonard Whiting made a better Romeo than Leonardo Di Caprio – though I’ll get to this soon – but  he was still not quite as convincing as he could have been. Even so, I admit that his performance grew on me as the movie progressed and I eventually enjoyed watching him as Romeo. He had the looks, of course, and the chemistry he had with the lead actress was palpable. He tried his best to act as truthful to the text as he could and that is more visible in some scenes than others – for example in the ball scene, or the sequence in the church when he watches Juliet and smiles as she smiles back; a testament to their director’s abilities. In the end, I think that choosing fresh-faced actors of around the same age as the characters in the tragedy itself gave much realism to the story on screen, furthering the appeal of the picture and my appreciation for the director’s contributions.

The whole cast was more appropriate and carefully chosen than in the Romeo and Juliet 1996 version which aimed for an entirely new and different audience. Just to mention some notable names: there’s Michael York as Tybalt, who had a prolific career as a film and Theatre actor, Natasha Perry as Lady Capulet and Bruce Robinson as Benvolio.

Moving on to the use of camera: it is worth mentioning the effective use of close-ups to emphasize the most tragic moments in the play by putting into focus the character’s face and emotions. For example, when Romeo is talking to his friend Mercutio he suddenly has an omen of death, which will eventually become reality, and the camera zooms on him with a close-up on his face, right before Romeo puts on his mask. During the ball we have the use of  a subjective camera shot, when Juliet and Romeo dance the Moresca in a circle, thus the director gives us the impression of moving in circles as the main characters do – we see the blur of faces as if we were Juliet spinning uncontrollably. These are effects that can not be present while watching the stage version of the Shakespeare text and, in many ways, ensure that the art-form of film is as present within the storytelling of this famous text as the text itself.

The entire film was shot in Italy between Rome, Tuscany and the North of the country. This, along with the costumes, gave the impression of real Renaissance Italy in Verona, during the time when Romeo and Juliet are written to have lived, as well as when their tragic love story unfolded. The colours are very cheerful and bright, which means that the light was of primary importance in the sequences – there is always some light during the scenes that should be set at night. The balcony scene, for example, starts at night and ends at the first light of the day, which explains why Mercutio and Benvolio wonder where Romeo had been all night. This is a juxtaposition to the story which is, of course, much darker, and is representative of a fresh mode of visual storytelling from Zeffirelli’s team. The music is very telling as well; Zeffirelli uses compositions that could be heard during the 15th and the 16th centuries, and this is no more prominent that in the ball scene where there is also the Moresca dance, which is amongst the most popular dance types in 15th century Italy, Spain and France. Zeffirelli, who was very careful and had a keen eye for detail, masterly used this music during the dance and, I might say, beautifully too. The main theme of the film is an original score composed by the great Nino Rota, who was a famous composer during the 60s in Italy and who was the author of many important and famous film scores of the time.

Romeo + Juliet (1996) by Baz Luhrmann

Claire Danes as Juliet and Leonardo Di Caprio as Romeo in Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo + Juliet’ (1996)

The entire setting is completely different and therefore it is slightly more difficult to compare this version with the previous one, so I’ll try to highlight some points that had a significantly different impact on the audience while watching this version and thus made for what I will present as a more, or less, enjoyable adaptation of the story.

Romeo + Juliet won many awards –  The Silver Bear for Best Acting to Leonardo Di Caprio and the Alfred Bauer award to Baz Luhrmann, along with other important nominations – and while the movie was praised for its modern setting, it was something that didn’t quite sit right with me. I personally see very little appeal in this film, primarily because there are too many changes and inconsistencies that detract from the feel of the story and Shakespeare’s original work. Here’s why…

First of all, the story is set in modern Verona beach in the US and therefore all the characters speak with American English accents, which sounded quite weird for a start, especially if you’re used to the classical adaptation of the tragedy. I feel like the actors should have spoken British English not American English even if the setting was different from the original one, especially considering just how much of the original dialogue the movie maintained.

Secondly, I didn’t like all the cuts that were made. The dialogue between Romeo and the Nun to establish a date and place for the marriage to Juliet should have been more important, for example, as it is usually pivotal to the plot in Shakespeare’s drama – but this is only one instance I found of scene cutting that I couldn’t appreciate. Another example that I can’t quite figure out the reason for is a central scene that hasn’t been cut completely – I am, of course, referencing when the nurse speaks to Juliet about her cousin’s murder at the hands of Romeo. In Luhrmann’s adaptation we see Romeo hidden at Friar Lawrence’s house and the nurse goes to him to tell him how Juliet is. The dialogue between the nurse and Juliet is completely cut for seemingly no reason, detracting from the story due to the necessity of understanding Juliet’s emotional stance at this point in the movie which is thus completely absent, leading to a lesser understanding of the plot as a whole. There are also some cuts in Mercutio’s speeches and the whole relationship with Romeo isn’t as well explored as it probably should have been. Similarly, the scene in which Juliet talks to her parents and gives her consent to marry Paris has also been cut – it would have shown Juliet’s psychological growth if they had included it and there’s no doubting that it was an important moment as well, particularly regarding the development of Juliet, a character whose impact, development and overall story was reduced dramatically in this adaptation.

From an acting stand-point, Juliet’s marriage to Paris is better acted by Claire Danes than it is by Olivia Hussey. Danes’ Juliet is, generally, much less melodramatic than Hussey’s, though the acting isn’t convincing and lacks tone and sentiment throughout the picture. This is also true of Leonardo DiCaprio whose performance as Romeo was completely out of place due to the verses not being followed accurately and a seeming lack of passion behind his reading of them. He was dull, shoddy and lifeless; not at all the Romeo I had imagined and a lot less convincing that Leonard Whiting. DiCaprio had the looks, but the performance was lacking and his chemistry with Claire Danes was seemingly non-existent.

While a fair amount of my criticisms of Romeo + Juliet have been regarding the key story cuts made from the Zeffirelli movie, there were also some sequences in this film that weren’t to be found in the other. For example, when Romeo searches for someone to lend him a deadly poison. Similarly, Tybalt’s threat to Romeo after the ball and Friar Lawrence’s speech at the post office as he realises that the urgent letter wasn’t received by Romeo. I was happily  surprised by these insertions as they gifted more empathy to secondary characters who were otherwise overlooked.

The imaginative choice by the director was to shoot the famous elevator scene with a camera spinning in a circle around the two characters while they kiss, thus giving us a 360° view – something that I found to be quite new and creative, and artistically indicative of the whirlwind romance the two were embracing.

Likewise, the decision to shoot the balcony scene at the pool in the middle of the night made the atmosphere of the scene quite magical courtesy of vivid light reflections and therefore a more atmospheric frame. I also enjoyed the ending, even if in the 1968 version it was longer and we see Romeo talking to Tybalt’s dead body, as this version was also emotional especially with the use of the flashback after the lovers’ death – back to the start of their unfortunate story.

In this version the director Baz Luhrmann uses a lot of alternative cuts to show events that were told one after another. One such an example is the use of the close-up on Juliet’s eyes when she is first introduced to the audience, which is a constant for the character as she sees Romeo, for the first time, through a fishtank, and they swear their eternal love in the pool. The two young lovers being dressed as an angel and a soldier in a armour were also quite telling of the destiny of their young and unhappy lives. I think these similarities were very well managed and I appreciated the work of the director of cinematography and wardrobe team in this respect.

The colours and the atmosphere of Romeo + Juliet are less bright though perhaps more vivid than the 1968 version, with a bit more dramatic stress and suspense placed within the visual narrative as Romeo is shown to not see the letter from Friar Lawrence twice, once because he is on the beach and the second time because he was already on his way towards Verona Beach; or at the very end when Juliet wakes up right before seeing Romeo taking the deadly poison. Of course, the swords and daggers are replaced with guns, and the two families are like two gangster families – that was maybe a bit excessive as they could have been two rich families without some criminal background.

Conclusively, it can be argued that the two films were very different on many levels despite being adaptations of the same work. Personally, I enjoyed the 1968 version much more as there were simply too many faults with the 1996 version to overlook in this instance. So, while I did enjoy some aspects of the new version of the movie, and I appreciated a lot of the choices of the cinematographer and director particularly, Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet was not only the more faithful of the two adaptations but also the best.

Recommended for you: Baz Luhrmann Films Ranked


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