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Compare and contrast the opening scenes of Zeffirelli and Lurhman’s film versions of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”

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In this essay I am going to compare the start of two variations on the classic Shakespeare play “Romeo and Juliet”. Both of the films are based on the original and contain the same words and actions as they did in Shakespeare times but they have been changed so that they are appropriate to the times they are shown in. Film 1 which was “Romeo and Juliet” directed by Franco Zeffirelli is set in Medieval Verona, Italy. The second film directed by Baz Lurhman is set in the 20th century and is a typical modern day film with lots of action and loud music.

It is set in Los Angles, USA. Both of the films are based on the same play & stick closely to the original storyline. The main thrust of the story is that two families, the Capulet and the Montague families, are at war with each other because of some old family feud between them. Even with the changes that have been made over time, both films still have all the ingredients of a good romantic story and it remains as a romantic tragedy whichever age it is shown in. Both films start with the exact same prologue, however, the two films present them in totally different ways.

The point of having a prologue is just to sum up the story and to give you an outline of what is going on throughout the film. In Zeffirelli’s version a famous Shakespearian actor, called Sir Laurence Oliver, presents the prologue. This contrasts starkly with Lurhaman’s version where the filmgoer sees the prologue read as a news article. The film runs the TV clip against a black background. Film 1 directed by Franco Zeffirelli is set in Medieval Verona. This setting is given a really romantic mood as the director uses a trick with a camera filter.

The filter gives the impression of the town being covered in a pink mist and haze. It is noticeable how peaceful & calm the town looks and slows the whole pace of the film. Verona itself is a truly beautiful & romantic place with its medieval architecture and this positions it as a typical love film. Film 2, directed by Lurhman’s, is as I said at the beginning, set in present day Los Angles. Los Angeles is a vibrant, lively city, and is very futuristic. The whole film is much louder and brasher than Zeffirelli’s version and it is more violent from the start.

The main difference is that in the first film a romantic setting is lay down from the start of the film, whereas in film 2, it is half way through the film before a romantic setting is introduced into the film. The opening scene of Franco Zefferelli’s film is an aerial view of the city of Verona. The camera gradually pans across the whole of the city under a pink mist, and then it focuses on the sun. The static image suddenly changes and in contrast there is a busy noisy market place with people dashing around everywhere and buying food.

The soft mellow architecture of the buildings and the dress of people give a visual impact of a Renaissance painting. Then the camera once again moves and this time it zooms in to the feet of two people. As the viewer’s eyes gradually work their way upwards from the feet the first introduction is of the servants from the Capulet family, this then separates the prologue from the start of the play. Compare this to the start of Film 2, there is the same aerial view but that is where the similarity ends. Instead of medieval Verona you have modern day Los Angeles & this time viewed from a travelling helicopter.

The busy city streets and sights of present day Los Angles replace the market place in Verona. The modern cars and technology show this film really has been adapted to fit modern life. Then the viewer is introduced to the two main families as we are taken to buildings with the different family names on them. The images give the impression that the families are both powerful and rich. Using the same approach as Zefirelli, Lurhman uses the camera to introduce you to characters starting at the feet. This time the foot is putting out a match, and then as the picture unfolds we see one of the Capulet family.

Both films have the same approach & same characters but each film is cleverly done to fit into its own age and time. The story is as meaningful in the present day as it was when it was set in its original day and it holds an appeal for people to watch just as much nowadays as it first did in Shakespeare’s time. In the first film the prologue is delivered in the form of a voice over with no face to be seen. Sir Laurence Olivier, who was a highly respected Shakespearian actor of both film and theatre, has a great richness in his voice.

This voice is a very dramatic start ; gives an almost god like perspective to the way in which the film is presented. Olivier is very famous for his Shakespearian acting and I believe he would have been a favourite to have in this picture to attract people to watch it. His voice emphasises that this is a romantic story, it is very low, calm ; with great depth. In the background the music enforces this message and mirrors his voice, slow, calm ; romantic. This is an effective prologue as there isn’t anything going on in the background to distract you from what the actor is saying, you simply concentrate on his words & pick up on the mood.

The second film shows the prologue on the TV as a news article. The TV is on a dark black background and this draws your attention to the article on the news, it finally focuses on a black newsreader. The use of a black female newsreader and her serious tone of voice also helps to add realism to the film. As you watch the prologue on the TV, the camera zooms into the TV. All of a sudden you are transported to the city of Los Angles and the story and all of the action begin. This is just as an effective introduction as the first film as the background forces you to pay attention to the TV.

Again the viewer will listen to what is being said before being whirled into the full-blown action piece. The prologue in the second film, would I believe, appeal to a wider audience today than the first one. We are so used to watching TV that we automatically tune in to the screen whether we realise it or not. It is so familiar that you listen without thinking. More importantly it is such an everyday thing that it lends a sense of realism to the film. Film music is an art in its own right. Music adds to the mood of a film and in many instances if the music is really appropriate it can say just as much as an actor saying his or her lines.

Because of the main differences in the two versions of the films, one in an historic setting the other in a modern day one, the music would have to be very different. The modern music that is in Lurhman’s version would be totally out of place in the first film. Lurhman’s film though can also use classical, orchestral type music as well just as Zeffirelli does. Zeffirelli chooses to start his film with easy melodic calm music played on instruments in keeping with its period. This gives a romantic, nostalgic atmosphere. There is then a contrast to Lurhmans’s film.

It is a lot more powerful and is a lot louder than Lurhman’s version and includes a full orchestra. The music reflects the mood of the film, it makes you watch and listen, and the pictures concentrate on newspaper articles describing the families. You know from the music that these families are not quiet run of the mill, stay in the background type people. In keeping with the camera moving into the city centre so the music changes. Los Angeles is very modern, very high tech and very busy. The music becomes very modern, very technically complex and very busy.

It is representative of the family’s personalities in the way that they aren’t quiet and get on with work; they are very loud and brash. Returning to the first film, the equivalent to this music in film 1 is still played in a period style but it is starting to speed up in keeping with the town getting busier and busier, this seems to lure us into a full sense of security. Again this hints that the film will not be a gentle romantic picture but there is some life and action in it. A clever trick in the first film was to stop the music altogether during the fight scene.

This is effective as all you hear is the sound of everyone fighting and screaming, very like reality, not toned down for the pictures. A very different approach is used in the second film. Perhaps because it needs to slow down slightly or risk becoming too brutal, the Lehman version has western music in it as a theme. The scenes in the petrol station and when the families square up to each other have this same theme. It is reminiscent of cowboy films and the Mexican standoffs always accompanied by music.

Whilst this is effective, I think there isn’t as much realism in this fight scene as there was in Zeffirelli’s as the fighting seems to be unnatural and quite contrived. The music makes it sound too like a western film and takes away some of the authenticity. In conclusion, there are parts of both film that I liked & parts I did not. If I had to sit & watch one again, my personal preference out of both of them would be film 2. Forgetting the western style music, which was modern in its day, I preferred the fight scenes in the second one far more than the first.

I liked the gun battles and the characters attitudes displayed in Lerhman’s version more than the swords ; romance of the first version. On the whole I think that both films do work very well. Very often plays do not always adapt successfully for cinema unless they are changed a lot. In both of these versions the directors have kept to the original storyline and I think that Shakespeare would have approved. If I were to guess which of the versions would last the longest then I guess that this would be Zeffirelli’s version.

The second film has aspects that have dated already, such as the type of gun used, and this tends to age films quite quickly. The true classics have the ability to make you forget the age of the film. Once you start to add modern day music that again ages quickly you start to make a film that is good for now but maybe not a classic. Verona is the perfect setting, the costumes are old & so cannot age any more and the swords are ageless unless you know a lot about them, so in my opinion film one will be the classic.

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