This week’s Classic Remarks prompt was a difficult one to write. The theme was adaptations of classic books, and of course I spent most of this week cycling through my favourite films, desperately trying to figure out which one I love the most. Of course one of the first things that leapt to mind was Jane Austen, but since I’ve spent a lot of time banging on about Austen adaptations already, I thought I’d branch out and discuss something different (I know, I’m also surprised I managed to supress my natural love of obsessing over Austen). Naturally, my mind leapt to a director who’s had a controversial relationship with the few classic novels he’s adapted.
I’ve had my ups and downs with Baz Luhrmann’s adaptations of books, particularly the classics. I’m still not entirely sold on the Great Gatsby movie – not because I dislike the anachronism (I don’t) but because I can’t help feeling like he dumbed down the source material for a new generation.
But I don’t want to talk about Gatsby today. Instead, I want to focus on Luhrmann’s other controversial adaptation of a classic: Romeo + Juliet (1996). The thing that most people remember about this adaptation is the music, the fact that their guns are called ‘Swords’, and of course Leonardo DiCaprio’s adorable little face. Luhrmann transports the story of Romeo and Juliet from Renaissance Italy to twentieth-century America, to a Californian city called ‘Verona Beach’, which is dominated by a feud between the Capulet and Montague families. In doing so, he throws in an exploration of contemporary urban violence, psychedelic drugs, religion, the media, and of course really, really ridiculous costume parties.
I loved this adaptation when I first saw it as a teenager – it struck me as terribly romantic, making Shakespeare in some way accessible to a kid in the twenty-first century. Then I began to hate it (although I’m damned if I remember why). Perhaps I thought that it was just another example of ‘sexing-up’ Shakespeare for a new generation. Or maybe I just thought it was cheesy. Then I re-watched it and finally realised that maybe Luhrmann was trying to do something very clever with the source material. And the more I re-watch this movie the more I’m impressed by how much there is to read and explore in this film.
Why does Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet work? In part, I think it has to do with the fact that he adapts a play. We’re somehow more used to seeing plays, particularly Shakespeare plays, in contemporary settings. The stage has always been a little more open to the blending of different time periods, perhaps because stage directions tend to be more vague than the descriptions of setting and time period often found in novels. And Shakespeare’s reputation as the greatest English poet means that we’re all too willing to imagine his work as evergreen, eternally relevant and adaptable.
Luhrmann’s movie also works because he isn’t afraid to put his signature style on it. In contrast to the beautiful but comparatively constrained and tame Zeffirelli adaptation of the play in 1968, Luhrmann goes all out in his sets, costumes, and directing. The theme of the entire movie seems to be excess – not just excess of emotion, exemplified by the young protagonists who fall head-over-heels for each other at first sight – but excess in terms of money, violence, and symbolism.
One of the most excessive aspects of the film is the pervasive religious imagery that dominates it: the images of the Virgin Mary, the crosses that decorate anything and everything, including the movie’s title (Romeo + Juliet), and the massive statue of Christ the Redeemer that dominates the scenery. And yet all this religious imagery is in contrast to the lawlessness of Verona Beach, where money and violence rule; the result is that the overwhelming presence of religious imagery actually cancels itself out, and you’re left feeling that the imagery is essentially meaningless. If you’re religious you could read a moral message here; if you’re not, you could see it as a comment on the hollowness of religion and the hypocrisy that it exemplifies. Either way, it gives a viewer lots to ponder.
Personally, I’m inclined to see Luhrmann’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet as a postmodern film that questions the notion that our lives have some sort of inherent meaning. And the fact that Luhrmann frames the entire play as a news story on a television screen suggests that we’ve begun to take tragedy itself for granted, given that so often we experience it in a removed way. In the postmodern world, we’re constantly being bombarded by ideas and images, and the overwhelming experience of viewing Luhrmann’s film captures this confusing and exhausting experience.
Luhrmann’s movie isn’t to everyone’s taste. But I think what makes it a great adaptation is that it experiments with its source. Luhrmann isn’t afraid of Shakespeare; he isn’t afraid to experiment with the original, to be playful with his source material, to tease apart those elements of Romeo and Juliet that are relevant for modern audiences and those that aren’t. I think that’s what makes this adaptation so great (although the presence of DiCaprio and Claire Danes probably doesn’t hurt, either). Classic works tend to come with a lot of baggage, and people are perhaps harsher about how they’re adapted than more contemporary novels. This cultural baggage, which suggests that classic works must be treated with a reverence that borders on the religious, makes adapting classic works a veritable minefield. Luhrmann’s movie proves that if you have the right attitude, you can push past all this and get to the heart of what adaptation is really all about: making something new, relatable, and thought-provoking.