Romeo and Juliet (Film 1996)

Romeo and Juliet (Film 1996) Study Guide

Perhaps 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. The popularity of the play and its expansive potential for adaptation is in part due to the story of star-crossed lovers being more universal than, say, the story of an ambitious gangster or identical twins crossing paths. Romeo and Juliet's performance history demonstrates that universal stories about doomed love easily transcend not just time and space, but genre and medium. Romeo and Juliet has been told, for instance, as a musical about interracial romance set in New York's Upper West Side, as a romantic drama set in an all-male high school military academy, and as a severely compressed play-within-a-play that requires actors to perform the text in under ten minutes.

What director Baz Luhrmann realized after choosing Romeo and Juliet to be the follow-up to his breakthrough film Strictly Ballroom was that staging a simple representational version of what is perhaps Shakespeare's most well-known play seemed not only outdated, but fruitless. Especially when a dramatic work has saturated the fabric of society so entirely, directors and producers are under pressure to innovate in order to defamiliarize and re-introduce a new and compelling artistic product. Consider for example how "fair Verona" vibrantly becomes, in Luhrmann’s film, the seedy and violent Verona Beach—ostensibly a heightened, theatrical version of present-day Venice Beach in Los Angeles, California (though much of the film was actually shot on location in Mexico City). Consider, too, Luhrmann's decision to make the film's first image a television set, immediately establishing a jarringly contemporary media environment. Ironically, Luhrmann has also declared his irreverent, populist cinematic vision to be very near to what a film version of Romeo and Juliet directed by William Shakespeare himself would look like.

Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet was distributed in a wide release in American theaters on November 1st, 1996, by 20th Century Fox, and grossed around $147.5 million dollars worldwide—the most profitable Shakespearean adaptation in world history, then and to date. This is in large part owing to Luhrmann's fierce commitment, which he related in interviews, to the idea that his film should exemplify Shakespeare's own crowd-pleasing approach to providing dramatic entertainment: "We don't know a lot about Shakespeare but we do know he would make a 'movie' movie...his competition was bear-baiting and prostitution. So he was a relentless entertainer." It was according to this logic that Luhrmann transformed Romeo and Juliet, the Elizabethan manuscript, into William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet—a shimmering collision of visual and sonic ideas that gleefully plunders from genres and styles as disparate as the Hollywood action-thriller, the soap opera, silent film, the nightly newscast, the MTV-style high-concept music video, the young adult/coming-of-age narrative (Claire Danes was best known then for her role in the high school drama My So-Called Life), among many other genres and styles.

The film, which re-imagines the Capulets as a Catholic Latin-American family and Mercutio as a queer African-American drag performer, also channels the increasingly multicultural and queer-friendly promise of the Clinton era, laced throughout with the recklessness and decadence of youth/street subcultures like rave, punk, hip-hop, and ball culture. Its setting transforms the Capulet and Montague feud into a racially tinged, all-out gang war in Los Angeles, echoing a number of 90s-era political controversies, such as the publicity surrounding L.A. "gangsta rap" artists like N.W.A. and the real-life gangs that produced them, and racially polarizing events like the 1992 Rodney King Riots and the trial of O.J. Simpson. Christian themes and imagery also pervade the film, especially in scenes with Tybalt, Father Laurence, and Juliet's maid, alternately symbolizing the grace of love, and the judgment of fate. A slightly modified crucifix even works its way into the film's stylized title, which replaces the word "and" with the symbol "+".