Comparing the book and film `Romeo and Juliet`
Comparing the book and film
Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet is arguably the greatest and most enduring play written during the career of William and Shakespeare - Comparing the book and film `Romeo and Juliet` introduction. Along with Hamlet, it became one of the popular plays during his lifetime and his still adapted today into various forms of media and has spawned several films as well. Arguably, one of the best adaptations of the play ever made is the one which was made in 1968. A film directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starred relatively unknown actors known as Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey. Though, this film was successful in bringing the play to the big screen and mainstream, winning two academy awards for Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design along with nominations for Best Director and Best Actor (Shakespeare, Brusati, D’Amico, & Zeffirelli, 1968). It does not encapsulate the full experience the play itself provides, nor does it fully rend the theatrical power of the play itself. This topic will attempt to show that the play Romeo and Juliet can only adequately represented in its written form as a play and that capturing the play using the film medium does not do justice to it.
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Before we delve into why the play cannot be adapted to the film medium it is first important to understand what the play actually is about and what its existence signifies. Romeo and Juliet is a tragic romance whose plot is one that has been told many times before. It follows the story of Both wealthy families have been feuding for years and when the two title characters Romeo and Juliet find each other their forbidden love bring about a chain of events that are beyond their understanding or control. In the end their deaths act as a tragedy to bring the two warring families together (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 1992). What is incredible about this play is that it is one of the prominent examples of Shakespeare’s dramatic skill. Not only is he able to switch between comedy and tragedy throughout in order to build up the tension and establish the dramatic structure. But also manages to let the minor characters expand their roles over time and also uses several sub plots to move the story forwards. It also shows how many of the characters in the play evolve such as Romeo who becomes more and more skillful at using sonnets.
Although Romeo and Juliet has been adapted many times for the stage, films, musicals and opera. When doing so however many directors have changed several scenes and modified the dialogue, even to the point of removing certain sections completely. Two examples of this are David Garrick’s 18th century version which changed several of the scenes, removing them as well due to concerns of indecency. This was also done in Georg Benda’s opera which not only removed the action scenes which were central to the emotional drama of the play, but also added a happy ending. Although it is true today that many adaptation are done using the original version which was envisioned by Shakespeare in 1595. It is also true that no adaptation can do justice to the reader’s interpretation of the written page.
If we consider the 1968 film version of the play it also contains several changes and omissions from key scenes. The first change in the film is at the Capulet’s feast in the beginning of the play where Rosaline is seen to be among several suitors for her hand while Romeo is shunned by her. In the play however Rosaline is never present in this scene, however Romeo merely attends at the mere mention that she will. Having her absence in this scene makes Romeo’s words about his feelings for her all the more poetic, while in the film the presence of Rosaline somewhat lessens the impact of his feelings which in turn lessens the impact of the rest of the play when he finally meets Juliet. The second change is when Tybalt sees Romeo at the feast in the play and is ready to kill him. He says “to strike him dead I’ll hold it not a sin” but is stopped by Lord Capulet. While in the film he merely becomes aware of his presence and complains to Lord Capulet. While it can be understood that the film medium did not lend itself to excessive portrayals of violence at the time, the fact that the intense hatred of the Capulet’s for the Montague’s in this scene was omitted from the film cannot be justified. Similarly, in the play Tybalt deliberately stabs Mercutio who at this time is a well liked comedic character. However, it is the scene afterwards which truly encapsulates the hatred between the families when Tybalt returns to take Romeo’s life as well. However, in the film perhaps to garner sympathy for the character of Tybalt he only accidently kills Mercutio. Since this fact is only known to a few of his men, Romeo comes after him for revenge. After the fight between the two in the play the heads of both families enter the scene along with the Prince showing the dramatic importance of it, while in the film the scene changes to one of Juliet grieving with a nurse and again changes to that of the palace steps far away from the scene of the fight. Another example is when Juliet is first to be wedded to count Paris on a Thursday but after seeing how ready and willing Juliet is, Lord Capulet moves the day of the wedding to Wednesday increasing the dramatic tension. While in the film the wedding day does not change. The next glaring omission is from Act IV Scene 3 which is completely omitted from the film save for one line “Love give me strength.” One scene which is completely changed in the film is one of Friar John who is unable to get a letter to Romeo and has to return it to Friar Lawrence. In the film the scene is completely changed Balthasar is the one who tells Romeo of Juliet’s death and on his way passes the messenger who carries the letter for him. Latter after he receives the news they ride back to Verona and pass by the messenger again who is oblivious to them. Before they ride to Verona however, in the play Romeo buys a vial of poison from an apothecary. In the film however, they replace this scene with one where the two friends ride day and night to reach the Capulet tomb. Once they reach there, Romeo reveals he has a flask of poison but never where he got it from. At the entrance to the tomb in the play Romeo fights Paris in Act V Scene 3, eventually killing him. However, in the film this scene is omitted completely. It cannot be stressed how important this scene is in establishing Romeos psychological state afterwards. It is only through the inclusion of this scene that we realize how much in shock Romeo has become over all of the recent events. Another startling omission is near the end where the friar is arrested and brought to the tomb and reveals the secret marriage of both the lovers to the families. While in the film the friar comes to the tomb by himself and flees from the scene in terror. It is never explained how the families knew about their marriage at the end of the film. It should be noted that in the context of the death of the lovers and the revelation of the secret marriage it is easy to understand of the shock of seeing their children dead brought the two families to make peace with each other. However, the impact of these facts in the film are underplayed and not convincing enough for the viewer to believe that such a decision could be made by the families. The final changes from the play to the film include the closing scene being changed from the Capulet’s tomb to the steps of the Verona’s church where the funeral takes place and the final lines being uttered not by the prince but by the narrator of the prologue.
While it is true that much of the film is faithful to the play and that the representation of the films setting and costumes are remarkable in detailing the era. The films glaring omissions of several scenes along with certain unfathomable changes and omissions change the context of the film completely. When we examine the play, it speaks of fate as an unchangeable force that is taking the lovers towards their respective destinies without their foreknowledge or consent. In the film however the changing of several key scenes actually makes Romeo and Juliet architects of their own destinies instead of the pawn of fate that the play originally intended. Additionally the appearance of characters such as Rosaline and the glaring omission of essential dialogue serve to actually hinder the play by implementing unnecessary elements. Additionally, it must be said that changing some of the key dialogues throughout the play not only removes key tension elements that contribute to the shock of the final scene but also serves to dissuade the viewer from truly understanding the emotional subtext of the play.
It is true that there are many problems with reading and imagining a complex and enduring performance such as Romeo and Juliet. As illustrative and valiant an effort the film is it is merely a vision of the play as the director sees it and is not the true vision of the play that the author intended. Only personal reading and interpretation of this play can help an individual understand the ideas and emotions that the author William Shakespeare was trying to express. Thus, it must be said that the play should remain where it is meant to be, on the written page.
Shakespeare, W. (1992). Romeo and Juliet. New York: Washington Square Press.
Brabourne, J., Havelock-Allan, A. (Producers), Shakespeare, W., Brusati, F., D’Amico, M., Zeffirelli, F. (Writers), & Zeffirelli, F. (Director). (1968). Romeo and Juliet [Motion Picture]. United States: Paramount Pictures.