Considered as one of the greatest love stories of all time, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a timeless literary classic and remains perhaps the most appreciated piece of literature in all of history. The enduring tale of love between two “star cross’d lovers” has been told, acted, and read countless times since its original debut. Throughout generations, varied interpretations of the perpetual love story have also been released, including the 1968 film directed by Franco Zeffirelli featuring Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, as well as Baz Luhrmann’s 1997 modernized version, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Though both are based on the original playwright, several parts of both motion pictures exemplify subtle and major distinguishing differences from each other, and the innovative play.
In the original play, Romeo’s unrequited love Rosaline remains unseen throughout the play, and is instead only mentioned by other characters. However, she is anticipated to be a guest at the Masquerade ball which gives Romeo an incentive to attend as well. Contrarily, in the 1968 film Rosaline is shown to viewers at Capulet’s banquet. The film additionally portrays that Romeo is only one of the many suitors who Rosaline disdains, though seeming to enjoy the mass of attention being thrust upon her. During the same scene in the play, Tybalt is enraged when learning Romeo’s true identity, declaring “to strike him dead I’ll hold it not a sin” (1.5.58) before being interrupted by Lord Capulet. In Zeffirelli’s version of the film, Tybalt instead discusses his protest to Romeo’s attendance with Lord Capulet. The play features Juliet delivering a drawn-out soliloquy contemplating the risks of drinking the sleeping potion (4.3.14-59). After frantically worrying about suffocating, being poisoned, smelling awful odors, committing suicide by bashing her head in “with some great kinsman’s bone”, and seeing what she believes to be Tybalt’s ghost, Juliet finally drinks the vial. In the film, Juliet merely states “Love give me strength” before swallowing the potion.
After learning the news of Juliet’s “death”, a heartbroken Romeo buys a vial of lethal poison from an apothecary in Mantua, planning to later kill himself with it. In the motion picture, this scene was eradicated completely and substituted with Balthasar and Romeo heading back to Capulet’s tomb together. The 1968 film never discloses where or who Romeo obtained the poison from. When arriving at the entry of the tomb, Romeo is suddenly stopped and questioned by Paris, who egocentrically attempts to arrest the banished Romeo. Upon doing so, Romeo kills Paris in a fit of anger. This scene was also removed from Zeffirelli’s film.
Following the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, Friar Lawrence was apprehended by the Prince and subsequently revealed the truth of the secret wedding, the potion, and all other plans for the destined lovers. His story was validated by a letter written to Lord Montague from his son, Romeo. In the movie however, Friar Lawrence was never heard from again after he fled from the tomb. Because of this, the exposure of Romeo and Juliet’s marriage was not explained in the film, though both families seemed to be aware of the situation by the time the double funeral took place. After the Capulets and Montagues agree to resolve their differences, the final line of Shakespeare’s original version of the play was spoken by the Price: “…For never was a story of more woe/ than this of Juliet and her Romeo” (5.3.325-326). Though this same line was also the concluding line in the film, it was performed by the concealed narrator whom also delivered the introduction: “Two households, both alike in dignity/ in fair Verona, where we lay our scene”.
Years after Romeo & Juliet was first released as a film, another on-screen, modernized adaptation was released in hopes of appealing to a more youthful audience. Though this portrayal of the classic love story was much different in terms of novelty, the characters still spoke in Shakespeare’s original dialogue. There are several obvious differences between this version of the story and the others. For example, instead of having swords, the characters used 9 mm pistols to fight. The Montagues and Capulets represented business empires fighting, in place of the original play’s family feud. Elegant castles of Verona were traded for modern city skyscrapers, while the setting of the story switched from small-town Italy to big-city Verona beach. In the beginning of the original play, the Capulet’s provoke the Montagues by biting their thumb at their enemies. In this movie however, the roles are reversed and the Montague’s are responsible for initiating for first quarrel. Also, the role of Abra, who was known as Abram in the play, reversed his character to become a Capulet instead of a Montague. The Masquerade Ball is one of the most memorable scenes in the entire play, for it is where Romeo and Juliet first meet. In the play, the Montague boys learn of the party by meeting an illiterate servant who asks the Montagues to read him the invite list he was given to pass out. Still in love with Rosaline, Romeo and his friends take advantage of the opportunity and invite themselves to the party. In the movie however, the Montagues hear about the party on television while they play pool.
Another major difference in the 1997 motion picture is the recurrence of water. In this version, Romeo and Juliet initially meet through a fish tank at the Masquerade ball. The illustrious “balcony scene” from the original play is replaced with the “pool” scene. Furthermore, when Romeo kills Tybalt in the play, the setting is high noon. In the movie however, Tybalt is killed at night during a rainstorm. His dead, limp body proceeds to fall into a fountain, continuing the water theme. A subtle change in the movie is the modification of one of Juliet’s lines from when she is informed that Tybalt was killed: “Oh God, was it Romeo’s hand that shed Tybalt’s blood?” (3.2.72). In the modern film version, this was changed to be said as a prayer in place of an exclamation. Another difference is that in the 1968 film, Mercutio and the Prince appear as Caucasians while in the 1997 film, they are both African American, giving the movie more diversity in the characters. The Prince is also referred to as the chief of police in this depiction of the story. As does the 1968 film, the modernized Romeo + Juliet does not include the scene in which Romeo kills Paris at the Capulet tomb, leaving Paris to assumedly survive in both of these films.
Perhaps the most major change in Luhrmann’s version of the film is that Juliet awakes from her deep sleep immediately after Romeo drinks the poison, allowing them to have brief final seconds together, leaving Romeo to ultimately die in Juliet’s arms. In the play and original film, Juliet wakes up after Romeo is already dead. She is then regretfully told by Friar Lawrence that her husband had died, and adamantly insists on staying alone with his body. After delivering a long monologue, entailing her unsuccessful attempt to kiss the remainder of the poison of Romeo’s lips (5.3.173-184), Juliet stabs herself with Romeo’s dagger and dies by his side. In the movie, the monologue is obliterated and instead, Juliet silently commits suicide with Romeo’s gun. One final distinction is the findings of Romeo and Juliet’s bodies. In Shakespeare’s version, the church watchmen find their bodies while the 1997 movie depicts police officers discovering them. Again, the “Prince” delivers the final lines of the movie just as he did in the previous film and play. However in an updated twist, the film ended the same way it began: the lines were spoken through the news report on a television screen.
Though various versions of William Shakespeare’s original playwright exist, they all have the same central message and theme of love versus society. The everlasting story of love between Romeo and Juliet will always be cherished, and possibly act as an example to future generations that social class and family rifts should not be deemed as proper reasons to separate two lovers. After all, there was “never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”