William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet was first published in 1597. The play tells the story of two young lovers, Romeo and Juliet, whose families are feuding, and therefore despite their love, they are both caught up in the ensuing conflict. Both Romeo and Juliet end up dead at the end of the play following a series of misunderstandings occasioned by the continued fights between their families (The Literature Network Para. 7). Romeo belongs to the Montague family while Juliet is born of the Capulet family.
There have been several film adaptations of the play but the film adaptation referred to here was produced in 1968, under the direction of Franco Zeffirelli. The film, going by the name “Romeo and Juliet” just like the play, starred Leonard Whiting as Romeo Montague, and Olivia Hussey as Juliet Capulet.
This film adaptation, unlike most of the others which were produced in later years, depicts the families, lifestyle, practices, and acts as portrayed in the play, and does not adopt a ‘modern’ version of events as many of the subsequent films want to do (Rothwell 326). The director makes every effort to depict an era similar to that intended by Shakespeare.
In most cases, the written text of a play has variations from any movie adaptation. The written texts of any play contain stage directions that serve as a guide for the reader. Although stage directions in the text of a play tend to give the reader a clearer and better understanding of the setting, they can also be interruptive for the reader.
As the plot of the play develops and the reader gets more involved in the reading of the play, the constant need to read the stage directions has a disruptive effect on the reader’s interaction with the play. Film adaptations of plays, as is the case of this particular film adaptation by Franco Zeffirelli, eliminate the part of stage directions, and the viewer is able to enjoy an uninterrupted revelation of the plot of the play.
In this film version of Romeo and Juliet by Franco Zeffirelli, the director has altered, removed, or re-created several scenes. In the play, when Paris faces up Romeo outside the tomb, he executes Paris. The film version does not however portray this part and the entire scene in Act 5 of the play is conspicuously missing in the film.
Since Romeo is the one that kills Paris in an effort to get to his ‘dead’ wife Juliet, the murder of Paris casts him in bad light, and may deny him the sympathy of the viewer. The film thus omits this act of murder so that Romeo may experience the full sympathy of the viewer of the film.
The series of actions preceding Juliet’s swallowing of the sleeping potion has also been altered in the film. In the play, Juliet delivers a long monologue prior to taking the sleeping potion, communicating her fears, her hopes, and her love for Romeo to the audience. However, in the film, Juliet simply swallows the sleeping potion without much ado, simply asking for strength in love before taking the portion.
The film version reduces Juliet’s monologue because of several purposes. Since she proceeds to take the potion anyway, the need for a long speech beforehand may have seemed unnecessary in the eyes of the director. Therefore, there is an element of directive license in this instance. Secondly, in the film, the single sentence by Juliet comes across as very powerful and memorable; the phrase by Juliet asking for strength from love is memorable and is more poignant, and the viewer’s emotional connection with the character/actor is enhanced.
A similar directorial edit occurs in the scenes of the play concerning Romeo’s acquisition of the poison that he takes and finally dies after believing Juliet to be dead. In the text of the play, Romeo purchases the deadly poison from an apothecary, and proceeds to insert it in his pockets. In the film, the scene where Romeo acquires the poison is entirely missing. Therefore, when Romeo is distraught by his lover Juliet’s side, and believes her to be dead, he appears to unleash the poison from his pockets and drinking it with ease.
The element of surprise and a need to create suspense informs the director’s deletion of the scene of Romeo acquiring the poison. In the play, when Romeo buys the poison, the reader can predict, to a certain extent, his next cause of action since he believes that Juliet is dead. Since he has already bought the poison, his devastation at seeing his ‘dead’ wife can easily lead him to take the poison and commit suicide.
In the film, the audience does not see Romeo buy the toxicant; therefore, the audience remains in suspense, not knowing what Romeo would do next. The viewer is unsure of Romeo’s next course of action after his wrong perception of Juliet’s death. The deletion of the scene that shows Romeo purchasing the poison thus enhances the suspense in the film version of the play to the very end.
Additionally, in the text of the play, Romeo’s friend Mercutio dies away from Romeo’s presence, but in the film he dies in the presence of Romeo. Mercutio here plays a role of a very loyal friend, because he dies while defending the honor of his friend, Romeo.
Romeo cannot accept the challenge of Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, because unknown to Tybalt, Romeo has just married Juliet. Romeo thus has his reservations on dueling with his wife’s cousin. Mercutio, ever a loyal friend, steps in on behalf of his friend, but he unfortunately dies in the ensuing battle.
In the play, another friend, Benvolio, leads Mercutio out of the stage, thus he dies out of Romeo’s sight. In the film however, he dies in the presence of Romeo and the scene is quite powerful as Romeo mourns the death. The reason for altering this scene in the film to make Mercutio die in the presence of Romeo is thus to powerfully project the sense of sacrifice of Mercutio, and to convey Romeo’s grief more powerfully.
Various characters in the play are dead or are said to be dead, but are alive in similar circumstances in the film. In the play, Romeo’s mother dies from the shock of her son’s excommunication from the city, but in the film, she does not die and even attends the funeral of her son and Juliet.
Rosaline, an earlier love interest of Romeo, comes up in the film even though she does not appear anywhere in the play. Giving Rosaline a face settles the curiosity of the viewer, since she spurns the interest of Romeo, and thus her character and looks are important for the viewer.
In conclusion, the decision to adopt a play into film always carries the burden of the level of creative license the director should employ. The film should also allow the reader to make his or her own conclusions (Halio 323).
The film should ultimately tell a similar story to the play, but should also incorporate elements that will make the entire efforts worthwhile and enriching. Franco Zeffirelli’s film provides a different angle to one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Romeo and Juliet, thus enriching the viewer’s sense of understanding of the play, even for those who may have previously read/watched the play.
Halio, Jay. “Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet: The Camera versus the Text.” Literature Film Quarterly 5.4 (1977): 322-326.
Rothwell, Kenneth. “Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet: Words into Picture and Music.” Literature Film Quarterly 5.4 (1977): 326-331.
The Literature Network. Romeo and Juliet, 2011. Web. 17 July 2011.