When I took my course on Shakespeare and Film this past spring I was told that the short papers we did on each film would have to be tied in to the text of the play and some important aspect of the modern adaptation we would have to watch. It took me ages to come up with the paper topics I had for 10 Things I Hate about You, as I quite literally finished writing that analysis on Kat Stratford ten minutes before the class deadline to send the professor the paper through the class website, and O took forever because in O's case, I found myself extremely unsettled by the film and the teens in it. With Baz Lurhmann's Romeo + Juliet however, there were things there that I thought gave the film major kudos despite all the craziness the movie seemed to contain.
About the play: I love Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Not because of the romance but because of the lesson at the end of the play about patience and understanding. I know, lots of people think the epic romance of the star-crossed lovers is the main point but seriously, I thought Romeo and Juliet were stupid, immature kids BUT you can't deny the fact that they sure did know how to make a strong exit.
About Lurhmann's adaptation: First, I still think it's a bit weird when I hear that someone has never seen this movie. There were maybe 2 or 3 students in the class this past spring that claimed the opportunity to watch this movie back when it came out in 1996 just never came up for them. Which just makes me quirk my eyebrow and frown because I actually remember all the girls in my class going crazy over this movie when it was in theaters. Sure, with all of us barely about to turn 12, which is nicer than saying we were a bunch of tiny 11-year-olds just out of 5th grade, we had only vague ideas on how to follow the language of the movie but still, the girls were swooning over it. And this girl obsession with the supposed romance of the play is probably why some people eventually avoided the movie.
But damn if that movie didn't make some good points. It managed to depict teenage love in a way that audiences could understand. Who here remembers the first time Romeo and Juliet saw each other through the aquarium? It’s a scene I can easily bring up in my memory; the different fish swimming around, Romeo bumping his nose into the glass and Juliet laughing. Teens do stupid things when they’re in love. That’s the point of the play, isn’t it? And that’s not the last time Lurhmann used water in the film, as the choice of using water showed up stylistically several times over the course of the whole movie.
The essence of the element of water allows for change to take place in the lives of these young lovers. The whole sequence of events with the understood balcony exchange takes place both within the waters of the backyard pool and beneath them. The pacing is slow, echoing the movement of the water that the lovers swim through as they confess their heartfelt love for one another. The water allows for true emotion to grow, for significant change to take place. As the dialogue of the scene winds down, Lurhmann finally has the distance of the balcony between the two lovers appear as it would be recognized in the play. Juliet says her final goodbyes to Romeo from her bedroom balcony and then gives him a token of her affection and the balcony scene between them ends.
Lurhmann’s stylistic choices here provide the pace needed to understand the growing love between the film’s protagonists. The added essence of water provides the idea of transition and gives a pace that allows for an understanding of the time passing between the young pair compared to the fast pace of the world around them. Being young and in love, time passes differently for Romeo and Juliet, and Lurhmann’s water effects and settings seem to suggest that Romeo and Juliet’s love is transcendent to their surrounding circumstances. It is separate, encompassing only each other just as the sanctuary of the elevator seemed to suggest back when Lurhmann made that the setting of the couple’s first kiss. Their love is elemental to their beings, as true to them as water is in nature. As a result, the true essence of these scenes remains intact from Shakespeare’s play to Lurhmann’s creative vision of the film.
Maybe their love made no sense and it moved too fast to be real. Still, watching the movement of the water and seeing the slower pace to their scenes, I could almost understand how this pair of star-crossed lovers was swept away by the current of their love. Lurhmann did a great thing by adding this to the film.
To continue, Lurhmann made story changes to the play, as well. The one change I’m crazy about transforms what takes place in the iconic tomb scene, Act 5 scene iii of the play. I’ve always felt that it was unfair to have Juliet die with the knowledge that their plan to get her out of Verona and back with her husband Romeo failed. She dies with that on her soul and Romeo doesn’t know anything about it. Romeo thinks he’s being desperate and in love. He’s choosing to follow his wife into death because he can’t bear the thought of living without her. It’s absurd but many believe this to be romantic, the idea that someone can love another SO much that they would choose death. So he dies and it cements Romeo as a supposed romantic ideal (as ladies would want to make sure that they get the desperately-in-love sentiment, just not the actual death scene in their relationship).
But then Juliet wakes up, realizes that everything has gone wrong, she KNOWS that someone along the line made the mistake that placed them together like that in that tomb and she uses a dagger to kill herself. She has to die with the knowledge that if the plan had gone as it should, they would have lived happily ever after. She is devastated, not only by her loss but by the unfairness of her situation, a situation that she helped to create by faking her own death. So she dies knowing they messed up and he dies thinking things happened on their natural course and they are both stupid but only SHE knows that.
So NOT fair.
But Lurhmann changes that. Raise your hand if when Romeo is giving his famous deathbed soliloquy and Juliet is slowly coming awake, you actually had a little bit of that “Oh my god, is she going to wake up in time and stop him?” feeling, even though you KNOW it could never happen because you’ve read the play? She’s all moving in slow motion, like she’s swimming to the surface of the water she was under, and it’s following the languid pace that Lurhmann has created for the lovers in this film and the whole time you want to scream at her to hurry the hell up before it’s too late. And on the other hand you want to tell him wait, just a few more minutes, don’t be an idiot, look down NOW, damnit, because her eyes are open and then there, she strokes his cheek, he gasps in shock and everything goes to hell. This is the change I’m talking about, the one where Juliet wakes up and Romeo sees that she’s alive and bwah ha ha, now they BOTH know how badly they screwed up. It’s brilliant.
Romeo had a combination of “Oh, shit” and “Damn, I fucked up” all over his face as the poison was taking effect on him and I loved every moment of it. Finally, things are equal between them. With youth, patience is fleeting. Had they both taken the time to truly think about their situation, they could have gotten their happily ever after. Instead, they both made brash decisions and they paid for that with their lives. In Lurhmann’s film, Romeo understands this truth before his death just as Juliet was forced to understand it when she found her husband’s corpse in the play. It’s perfect. If nothing else, I watch this movie every now and then just for the fact that in the end, this famous romantic couple understands that they both had a hand in creating their fate. It’s not about the romance, it’s about the knowledge that comes with growth and maturity, and now they both go to their deaths with that on their souls.
So yeah, Romeo + Juliet is about love but now they both know the TRAGEDY of their circumstances and I end up one happy little camper because I hated that scene in the play and in Lurhmann’s film, Romeo gets to realize the true extent of his stupidity just like his lady love.
I love happy endings, don’t you?