Romeo and Juliet: Zeffirelli vs. Luhrmann

by: Christine Day


This is a paper that I wrote about the two adaptations of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. There are two very different versions of this film, the first being the 1967 adaptation directed by Franco Zeffirelli, and later the 1997 film directed by Baz Luhrmann. This paper takes you through the journey of these two films, their similarities and differences, and how with two completely different styles, the same story can still be told.


William Shakespeare's “Romeo and Juliet” is the definition of a timeless love story about two star crossed lovers, trying to make it through the tribulations of their two feuding families, the Capulets and the Montagues. It is a story that has stood the test of time and is a solid definition of a true love story. Though it has been told countless times, each time it is heard, the names Romeo and Juliet are synonymous with love.

Every great story captivates an audience by the way it is told to them. Two men, Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann, told the story of “Romeo and Juliet” through their eyes, with two completely different outcomes.

Franco Zeffirelli expressed his interpretation in the 1967 version of the film, giving life to these characters in a major motion picture. His movie became the stance of these characters; and was authentic to what Shakespeare envisioned upon creating this story. In 1997, Baz Luhrmann embarked on his journey of telling this story, giving a completely different spin and face lift to an old classic. He modernized it in a way that would appeal to the present day audience, with the help of two young actors, Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio.

There are several similarities and differences between these two movies. One of the major differences is that the Zeffirelli film takes place in Verona Italy , whereas theLuhrmann film takes place in present day Verona Beach , California . Both settings are effective for the style used to tell the story. Verona , Italy is ideal for it is the city the play was set in. In the Luhrmann version, Verona Beach is a trendy, hip city for the more modern outlook, which is exactly what he was going for with his version of the film.

One of the major similarities between these two films is the language. In the Zeffirelli film, original Shakespearean dialogue is spoken. It is interesting that in the Luhrmann film, they still use Shakespearean dialogue, even when referring to their guns as “swords.” In the Zeffirelli film, the language used is no doubt effective, for it works hand in hand with the scene that is set and the costumes that are worn. It is not as distinctive, and is more natural to both hear and speak. However, in the Luhrmann film, it is unique to see the characters dressed in t-shirts and jeans, riding around in cars and not on horses, and using guns instead of swords, all while speaking in Shakespearean dialogue. This was effective because even it held true to what Shakespeare wanted to say.

In any movie, the beginning sets the tone for the rest of the movie, and for these two films this was no exception. The first ten minutes for each of these films does just that, and maintains that tone for the entire length of the film, That is why it is important to appreciate the beginning of these two films to understand their diversity.

In the Zeffirelli film, the famous opening prologue, “Two households, both alike in dignity…” is spoken by a narrator, as we are then shown a backdrop of an Italian City . The scene is set at a marketplace in the city of Verona . This version of the film was filmed in Italy , and within the first moments of the opening scene, it has a definitive Shakespearean feel to it. The costumes that worn are very traditional; the boys wearing tight stocking pants, along with the ruffled shirts with their family emblem embroidered on their sleeve. They have the old fashioned sword holders wrapped around their waist, much like a scene from any old fighting movie. The language that is spoken is traditional; their dialect accurate to that time period.

This opening scene in the movie is tastefully done. The action is rather simple, meaning the camera does not make many quick cuts or sharp turns, and it is shot to make the viewer feel that they are an eye witness to these two battling families. The only negative aspect of this scene is that it lacks the intensity of the fighting scenes that we have come so accustomed to seeing in the movies of today. There are graphic visuals, like open wounds or oozing blood that make this scene more lifelike.

The Luhrmann adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” has a completely different spin. The opening prologue, “Two households, both alike in dignity…” is spoken by a news anchor that appears on a television screen. Unlike the narrator in the Zeffirelli film, the news anchor on television is more timely which grabs the audience with a more modern approach. The camera shots are quicker than those in the Zeffirelli film and cuts right into a shot of the houses of both Capulet and Montague, with loud boisterous music filling the scene to intensify the effect.

In both the Zeffirelli film and the play, the opening fight scene takes place at a marketplace. However in the Luhrmann film, the scene takes place at a gas station, where both members of the two families are driving sports cars. The pace of the film is quick, which is perfect for the modern day movie watcher, for without action, viewers tend to get bored. Within the first few minutes of this scene, most of the major characters are introduced with a burst of loud music and a close-up shot of their face, as a feud then erupts at the gas station. Everything in the film is bold; from the cars that they drive to the gun that are wrapped around their waist. Luhrmann adds this level of intensity to each scene that ends in a shoot out followed by an explosion at the gas station.

The Zeffirelli film is much slower and has more of that romantic feel to it. Everything in this film is average; there are no spectacular over-the-top effects, which could be both a good thing and a bad thing. Some people like the simplistic nature of this film, because it is easy on the eyes and it engulfs the viewer with open arms to its romantic appeal. Others may dislike this film for the lack of action, and the rather drawn out and sometimes lifeless dialogue. It was nominated for many awards, including three Academy Award nominations, one for best picture. It continues to be the film that usually supplements the story in any English class of today. Its simplistic charm and easy going nature makes it a movie that will be around for many years to come.

The Luhrmann film is a bit more edgy, more controversial, which I feel makes it more fun. It grasps the modern audience and holds nothing back. It is more compelling, more truthful, and at the same time, more admirable. One of the most outstanding effects for this film is the use of music. The same song serves as background music for most of the encounters between Romeo and Juliet. The music sets this film apart in a very positive way from the other film. Though it is less traditional, it holds the appeal of being romantic because it is more appealing to the audiences of today.

One could write thousands of words to describe the diversity among these two films. From scene to scene, the number of differences between them is completely staggering. From music to costumes, violence to romance; it all tells the same story in two creatively different ways. Both movies are beyond stellar in their own right and for their own reasons. The traditionalists will be more compelled to see the Zeffirelli film, whereas the modernized movie watcher would be whisked away by Luhrmann's unique vision and undisputable talent. However, all differences aside, there is a common thread that ties them both together, and that is the story of true love.