Perhaps beyond all argument is the assertion that no other work by William Shakespeare—and certainly none of the Bard’s tragedies—has been adapted for the stage or screen in a looser manner than Romeo and Juliet. Doubtlessly, the popularity of the play and its expansive potential for adaptation is due to the story of star-crossed lovers being more universal than, say, the story of an ambitious gangster or identical twins crossing paths. As history has proven quite strongly, that universal issue of couples whom others believe should not be has the power to transcend not just time and space but genre. Romeo and Juliet has been told with dancing gangs of New York on film and on stage as a severely compressed play within a play in which the actors on stage play students being given twenty minutes to create their own ten minute version.
What director Baz Luhrman realized quite early on during the process of choosing Romeo and Juliet to be the follow-up to his breakthrough film Strictly Ballroom is that staging a simple representational version of the one Shakespearean play that almost literally every person on earth seems familiar with not only seems impossible, but fruitless. When a piece of drama reaches the level of saturation into the fabric of society that the Bard’s tale of "TWO households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona" (Shakespeare 245) it is almost as if producers have no choice but to consider some way of injecting a little bit originality into it—in any way possible—to perk up the proceedings. Which is why fair Verona in Luhrman’s film becomes Verona Beach in a version that Buhrmann has declared to be his vision of what a film version of Romeo and Juliet directed by Shakespeare might look like.
Those expecting merely to see two ridiculously overaged movie stars trading Shakespearean verse in a movie such as when Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard appeared on screens in the 1930s or two age-appropriate actors enjoying their moment of fleeting stardom like Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in the 1960s should prepare themselves for the shock of West Side Story without the name changes (or, at least, not such drastic name changes) and with a soundtrack that is decidedly more Johnny Rotten than Johnny Mathis.
What Baz Luhrman’s redesign of Italy’s Verona into California’s gang-infested Verona Beach manages to accomplish is not all that far removed from the kind of bare-bones budgeting of an experimental community theater mounting a multimedia production in which production design requires the services of a talented graffiti artist and costume design consists basically of hitting local thrift shops. Or any one of thousands of other examples of how the stultifying familiarity of Shakespeare’s most timeless love is every year adapted by some independent filmmaker or theater with the creative hope of appealing to audiences not normally considered a segment of the mainstream audience for whom Shakespeare represents must-see entertainment. Baz Luhrman’s appropriation of Romeo and Juliet which ultimately results in some members of Shakespeare’s Capulet clan becoming part of the Montague gang in the film and vice versa and which introduces drug abuse, guns and music by the Butthole Surfers into that sea of familiarity represents another step forward in the progression of Romeo and Juliet in which the only possible effective staging of the tragedy inches ever closer to the avant-garde.