Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) is one of my favorite film adaptations. Like Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing (2012), it takes the original play’s plot bones and verbal muscle, and gives it a fresh new skin, more appealing – and familiar – to modern movie audiences.
In that, I think Luhrmann and Whedon and their ilk are very much heirs to William Shakespeare’s legacy of creating entertainment for the masses, probably more so than those directors painstakingly recreating Elizabethan-styled staging and delivery.
Furthermore, I think most of what some may perceive as Luhrmann’s liberties are in fact true to Shakespeare’s original intent. The Capulets and Montagues are engaged in a senseless but ancient turf war; Luhrmann gives it to us with sleek skyscrapers, grim news headlines, and explosive street riots. Fittingly, Sword, Longsword, and Dagger are brand names of arms makers. Shakespeare’s noble Prince is entirely unable to force a peace upon the warring clans; Luhrmann gives us a frustrated police captain, a senior civil servant, trying – and not unexpectedly failing – to do the same. Shakespeare and Luhrmann both give us a sizzlingly cool Mercutio and icily smoldering Tybalt, a matched pair who, while they live, inevitably steal the show. And, both set their story in a world of wealth and privilege, a world in which image is everything. Luhrmann brings this world to life in absurdly customized automobiles, flamboyant clothing, bacchanalian mansion parties, and omnipresent commercialization.
Shakespeare was an adept self-promoter, so I think he’d be tickled by – and appreciative of – Luhrmann’s nods to his other works, all cast in the light of modern consumerism. The Merchant of Verona Beach is a shopping mall, the Globe Theatre a pool hall, and Rosencrantzky’s a sprawling hot dog cabana. A billboard for Prospero scotch whiskey is headlined “Such stuff as dreams are made on;” both the brand and the line come from The Tempest. Another billboard for bullets proclaims “Shoot forth thunder,” a line spoken by a noble character about to be executed by pirates: “O that I were a god, to shoot forth thunder/Upon these paltry, servile, abject drudges!” (Henry VI, Part 2, 4.1) The Capulet house ad reads “Experience is by industry achieved,” a line from The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1.3) which in its entirely reads “Experience is by industry achieved /And perfected by the swift course of time.” Naturally, the iconic Coca Cola script and colors show up everywhere, but the ad copy reads “Wherefore, L’amour.” And, my personal favorite, the express delivery service is named Post Post Haste Dispatch, a line from Othello (1.3). For the most part, these aren’t mere parroting references, but are each relevant to the story and pointedly, at times ironically, apt.
I’ve said before that I think the key to Shakespeare’s continued relevance lies in the constant reinvention of his plays. Each generation remakes Shakespeare’s work in its own image. I think Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is the definitive Romeo and Juliet for the 1990s.
Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. Directed by Baz Luhrmann, screenplay by Craig Pearce and Baz Luhrmann, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1996.