Baz Luhrmann unmistakably converts William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet (1597) into a film of the same name (though with plus sign instead of the word “and”) to a modern setting. With the Montagues and Capulets portrayed as urbanized entities as both are simultaneously business enterprises and street gangs, Luhrmann elaborates on his first film Strictly Ballroom (1992) with William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), as both are reinvigorations of the 1961 film (also based on Romeo and Juliet) West Side Story.
What’s in a name? The title of Luhrmann’s film is obvious yet significant. He inserts “Shakespeare” into the title because while the story is reimagined significantly through modernization, the characters speak 95% of the original lines, all in Old English. This automatically creates a juxtaposition between the setting and the speak: while the Montagues and the Capulets are gangsters wielding guns, they sound like 14th century Englishmen. This is exemplified right from the beginning, as the Montague’s opening lines are: “A dog of the house of Capulet moves me.” In Luhrmann’s version, however, this Montague is riding in the back of a speeding convertible, screaming at the camera. He even has a tattoo to denote where his loyalty lies.
Luhrmann’s small change to the title also has a great bout of significance. The swap of “and” for “+” is a part of a motif Luhrmann uses constantly throughout the film. Catholic imagery, visible in scenes featuring characters of both houses, manifests itself mostly in the form a cross. The plus sign in the title is meant to be one as well, and the viewer sees the cross all throughout the film, whether it be hanging from a character’s neck on a chain, mounted on the walls of a home, or in my personal favorite case, neon crosses lining the pews of a cathedral.
There are many more of Luhrmann’s subtle yet sensible changes to the story to make the modern theme work. For example, “swords” are guns. A news anchor gives the opening monologue as a way to deliver the lines neutrally. Changes made character-wise include The prince being he chief of police, called Captain Prince; Paris becomes Dave Paris, the Governor’s son; Friar Lawrence becomes Father Lawrence; and Gregory and Sampson swap sides with Abraham (shortened to “Abra”) and Petruchio- Gregory and Sampson become Montagues, while Abra and Petruchio are Capulets, as one could make the argument that the latter two names sound more Latin, as Luhrmann has designated the Capulet family in contrast to the Anglo-American Montagues.
What’s more than the changes the modern setting calls for is all of the nods that Luhrmann gives to other Shakespearean works. The prime example is in that Verona becomes “Verona Beach,” likened to and most likely filmed at Venice Beach, a nod to The Merchant of Venice (1600). Characters Gloria and Fulgencio Capulet dress up at characters from Antony and Cleopatra (1623). Mercutio’s performance song at the costume party, Candi Staton’s “Young Hearts Run Free” has a line that he lipsyncs, “To yourself be true,” Luhrmann’s musical choice a reference to a line from Hamlet (1603), “To thine own self be true.” By the beach where Romeo, his cousins, and Mercutio spend time has what looks to be a theatre structure purposefully set up there, a callback to the Globe Theatre where Shakespeare put on his plays as well as recognition of the culturally popular “Shakespeare in the Park” of theater companies around the world. In his essay, “Behind The Red Curtain of Verona Beach: Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet,” scholar Toby Malone agrees, writing,
Luhrmann’s combined aesthetic is established within a distinctive, created world, uniquely crafted and microscopically detailed, in which every piece of text and dialogue is an intertextual reference from almost the entire breadth of Shakespearian canon (399).
Malone also discusses the meshing of Shakespearian narrative with urban capitalism, writing,
Verona Beach is a collection of pop-culture images which invoke religion, consumerism and iconography, headed by the presence of Shakespeare, in a society which ‘not only most stridently advertises itself as a product of global capitalism but also knowingly flaunts how that culture consumes ‘Shakespeare” (400)
Consumerism is visible in the modern Verona Beach society in that it is the cause for entire feud in the first place. The Capulets and Montagues are each other’s competition business-wise, and that is why Romeo and Juliet can’t be together. All throughout Verona Beach is consumerism seen, in advertisements and media (who comment on the feud), the advent of technology further complicating the Shakespearean narrative.
The director’s efforts to “Luhrmannize” Shakespeare are not wasted; he has made it apart of the “Red Curtain Cinema” that he has designed. Malone outlines Luhrmann’s structure of the Red Curtain Trilogy as follows, adhering to the following conventions: “1. Setting in a heightened creative world; 2. use of a recognizable story shape; and 3. audience awareness that what they are watching is not meant to be real” (398). While Malone heads more into auteur territory, I believe that what he says is true. Strictly Ballroom (1992), William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), and Moulin Rouge! (2001) all bear a similar feel and are conceived by the structure Malone outlines. Luhrmann made Romeo and Juliet his own by making it in his style, but his title suggests that he was not alone, as Shakespeare’s words made it a collaborative effort.
Malone, Toby. “Behind The Red Curtain of Verona Beach: Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.” Shakespeare Survey 65.“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Issue. (2012): 398-412. Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 April 2016.