‘William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet’: Postmodern Artifice

© 2013

“…what I wanted to do was to look at the way in which Shakespeare might make a movie of one of his plays if he was a director. How would he make it?” (Luhrmann)

The auteur theory and potential for a director producing his singular vision, according to Milovanovic, guided the concerns of postmodernist film, with it going so far as to “undermine” the investigations of the transparency of the image. Luhrmann frequently seeks to record, in a non-linear and unconventional format, the tragedy’s language and stagecraft in order to construct his own film, particularly through use of interpolation. This use of interpolation may be divided into four primary categories: (a) the visual articulation of spoken dialogical imagery; (b) extra textual invention; (c) alterations dependent on the reconceived modern setting; and, (d) most importantly, flashfowards. These four different, yet overlapping, uses and styles of interpolation serve to enhance, emphasize, and further illuminate the content of Shakespeare’s text; the frequently-referenced finale sequence draws even more from the text than is usually possible not only because of the filmic medium, but Luhrmann’s ability to manipulate the original text and mold it to this new medium.

An examination of Baz Luhrmann’s highly postmodernist 1996 approach to Shakespearean tragedy can begin neither with Luhrmann, Shakespeare, nor even post-modernism: first, there is the exact definition and nature of filmic adaptation, especially as it applies in a stage-to-screen context. Is a successful adaptation merely the process, as scriptwriter Craig Pearson stated, of “decoding or unlocking language for the audience,” or, to be argued here, a visualization of the source text’s thematic content. This visualization may take whatever form the director may choose, reaffirming the postmodernist slant towards auteur theory, however, in order to be successful, this approach much, in no way, threaten the integrity of the source material.

Stage and screen, while similar in their existence as physical performance arts, are not to be approached correspondingly—even less so when the source text of the stage is that of poetry. In his Republic, Plato examined the very nature of poetry, art, and drama, dividing it out into two primary aspects: diegesis (narration) and mimesis (imitation): diegesis is what storytellers and poets express: they tell stories aloud to their audience; mimesis, by nature, is therefore considered a branch of diegesis. Here, the original text is paramount, as Romeo and Juliet is a play about poetry and art—in the postmodernist filmic context, it’s a film about artifice and exhibitionism. Here, it is vital to move past the theory, and examines all different aspects of the filmmaking process and film semiotics in order to not only illuminate Luhrmann’s choices in transitioning from literary to film narratology, but to analyze how his transformative efforts have resulted in, as this paper has suggested, a successful adaptation.

The now infamous doubled-prologue sequence which opens the film best presents the very “cunning” of Luhrmann’s cinematic scene—its numerous virtues and isolated infelicities that are directly related to his directorial style and auteur status. Twice Luhrmann has the text of the prologue spoken to the audience, firstly via a mise en scene television set, and secondly via voiceover narration which accompanies a barrage of frenetic edits which, in true Shakespearean fashion, reveal the narrative’s ending: Rome and Juliet must die, thus ending their “parents’ strife” (Prologue, 8). Whereas Shakespeare accomplished this with words, Luhrmann relies upon imagery, actually utilizing, and frequently revisiting, visuals from the film’s conclusion. Why? Firstly, to properly adapt Shakespeare—taking his intent and molding it into cinematic language—and, secondly, to remain true to the core of the play: art, oftentimes poetry, and, by extension, artifice.

Not only is this awareness of the world of the narrative’s falsity an element of the original Shakespearean text, but it forms part of the groundwork of postmodernist film. In his examination of the filmic movement, Tim Woods claimed that postmodernist cinema both “explored and exposed the formal concerns of the medium by placing them at the forefront of consciousness.” Instead of hiding its very nature as art, postmodern cinema instead highlights, and, indeed, celebrates its own ephemeral existence via deconstruction and fragmentation of linear time, just as Shakespeare reminds his audience that Romeo and Juliet is nothing more than “the two hours’ traffic of [a] stage” (Prologue, 12). By paying close attention to the film’s textual sensitivity—particularly its preservation of Shakespeare’s verse—while simultaneously also concentrating upon the “cunning” (or “art”) of its “scene” (or representational devices), the interpolation of the text through extra visuals within the film’s framework validate Luhrmann’s acute cinematic and adaptive intelligence, as well as his auteur style as a postmodern director.

Postmodernist film, again according to Woods, has three primary characteristics that help to separate it from other film forms:

“…(a) The pastiche of many genres and styles; (b) a self-reflexivity of technique that highlights the construction and relation of the image to other images in media and not to any kind of external reality; and (c) an undoing and collapse of the distinction between high and low art styles and techniques and texts.”

Thus, postmodern films, on a technical level, often combine together many disparate ways of film-making together into the same movie—in the case of this film, for the purposes of both illuminating the text and visually emphasizing the narrative’s thematic content as well as the characters’ motivations. Returning, again, to the opening sequence and extending it through the prologue to “Throw your mistempered weapons to the ground” (Act I, 7), Luhrmann exhibits multiple genres and shooting styles in his introduction of the Montague Boys and the Capulet Boys, particularly Tybalt. The introduction of the “Montague Boys” caters very much to the glitzy, wild, image-bombarded MTV generation: the boys drive in a gas-guzzling convertible down a strip-like road, listening to beat-driven music, screaming out the Shakespearean text like hellions in Miami. Tybalt’s introduction, however, pays direct homage to the “spaghetti westerns” of Sergio Leone, down to his all-black attire and steel-heeled boots that clink metallically as he walks, grinding smoked cigarillos into the pavement. Here also, the edit-count and frame-rate of the picture slow down as well, adding to Tybalt’s visual presentation as a Western gunslinger: stylish and dangerous.

Luhrmann’s homage to the Western genre is one of many instances within his adaptation where he sought to “illuminate the text” (Luhrmann), especially in relation to characters, in both visuals and varying genre styles. While this does, admittedly, lead to a lack of visual cohesion from character to character, it more than adequately interpolates each character to a meta-level onscreen. Tybalt’s entrance also introduces another aspect of postmodernism with the presence of intertextuality that incorporates or references other media and texts, in this case a sign reading “Add more fuel to your fire”, taken from Shakespeare’s Henry VI (Act V, Scene IV). By extrapolating extraneous dialogue from other Shakespearean works, Luhrmann is, again, highlighting the constructed nature of the image onscreen as well as the narrative: the suspension of disbelief is not merely an inherent social contract, but a visual, even physical manifestation.

Updating, or transferring Shakespeare is not an uncommon practice. The bard, after all, was:

“…a player. We know about the Elizabethan stage and that he was playing for 3000 drunken punters, from the street sweeper to the Queen of England – and his competition was bear-baiting and prostitution. So he was a relentless entertainer and a user of incredible devices and theatrical tricks to ultimately create something of meaning and convey a story” (Luhrmann).

Shakespeare wrote characters and stories that were devised to be both accessible and malleable—Tybalt is a gunslinger; Mercutio is an angry drag-queen; and Romeo is a James Dean-meets-Byron antihero. All within a single film and all of which supported by the art of the original text. Therefore, when Janet Maslin described Luhrmann’s adaptation as “a classic play thrown in the path of a subway train,” her words potentially lose their scathing effect. The mark of a successful adaptation is the maintenance of the integrity of the source material; in the case of Luhrmann, he chose to keep the thematic intact visually as opposed to a more traditional textual approach. His style exemplifies postmodernism at some of its finest and, most certainly, at some of its most daring. Thus, when the bard is thrown in the path of a cinematic subway train like postmodernism, he is not failed, but shaped for the medium and given the chance to be explored in visuals as a method of interpolating the original material.



Luhrmann, Baz. “Commentary Track.” qtd. in Romeo + Juliet. 1996. Dir. Baz Luhrmann. Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, John Leguizamo. 20th Century Fox.

—. “Interview with Baz Luhrmann.” Signet. 19 December 1996. Available at: http://www.signis.net/malone/tiki-index.php?page=Baz+Luhrmann&bl

Maslin, Janet. “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet Review.” NY Times. Available at: http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/136681/William-Shakespeare-s-Romeo-Juliet/overview

Pearson, Craig. “Commentary Track.” qtd. in Romeo + Juliet. 1996. Dir. Baz Luhrmann. Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, John Leguizamo. 20th Century Fox.

Plato. The Republic. qtd. in Hatchuel, Sarah.  “From theater showing to cinema telling.” Shakespeare, from Stage to Screen. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print. (p. 33-65)

Romeo + Juliet. 1996. Dir. Baz Luhrmann. Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, John Leguizamo. 20th Century Fox.

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1992.

Milovanovic, Dragan. “Dueling Paradigms: Modernist v. Postmodern Thought”. Postmodern Criminology. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

Woods, Tim. Beginning Postmodernism, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999.

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