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I'm watching two adaptations of Romeo and Juliet that take two different approaches to the play: Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film Romeo + Juliet and Zeffirelli's 1968 film Romeo and Juliet. There are some obvious differences between the two: one is set in 14th century Italy, and the other is set in the modern day. But there are some subtler differences between the two adaptations. In particular, I'm thinking of the very different approaches the two films take towards the fight scene between Mercutio and Tybalt, and Tybalt's death. I found clips of both scenes on Youtube: here's the 1996 version of the scene, and here's the 1968 version.

In the 1968 version, the fight is treated as some sort of extended joke. Mercutio and Tybalt do all sorts of comedic routines with their swords, all the characters are laughing (including Mercutio, Tybalt, and the extras), and it appears to be an accident that Tybalt kills Mercutio, judging by Tybalt's shocked expression. Meanwhile, in the 1996 version, the characters appear to be very angry. They're clearly trying to kill each other, and the ominous music adds to this feeling.

What justifies the differences in approaches here? Which portrayal goes better with what we know about the characters and the themes of the play?

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I suspect Zeffirelli was commenting on the transition between boyhood and adulthood in the context of consequences, and how easily a simple mistake can have severe implications. (Compare to teens drunk driving--it's all fun and games until someone dies.)

Zeffirelli's scene is played as teenage boy, full of bluster, having fun in the traditional male pastime busting on their rivals. The fatal blow is sudden and unexpected. Reality and adulthood comes crashing down, just like it will for Romeo and Juliet.

Despite the extravagant staging of the Luhrmann, the reality of the teens he presents is much more serious. John Leguizamo's portrayal of Tybalt, as I recall, is much more straightforward, focusing on his rage and viciousness.

It's possible Luhrmann was commenting on gang culture of the time, but more likely that his choice for the scene is in service of a very straightforward adaptation focused on the raw passion of youth.

  • In terms of why the difference, no significant director wants to merely repeat the work of predecessors, and the Zefferelli's is highly celebrated. The desire to go a different direction for his film would have certainly been a factor in Luhrmann's choices, to distinguish his work.

Part of what makes dramatic literature so resilient is the range of interpretation that can be applied by actors, directors and dramaturges across every generation and production. Thus, no one interpretation is ever definitive or absolute.

Both scenes work within the context of the films they are a part of.

  • Good answer, but doesn't really address this part of the question: "Which portrayal goes better with what we know about the characters and the themes of the play?" I'm pretty sure a good argument can be made based on the text of the play that Zeffirell's version was more derivative from the original in this aspect. – Rand al'Thor Nov 8 '17 at 23:27
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    @Randal'Thor That aspect is not really relevant imo--totally subjective and a matter of taste. Many people I know prefer the Zeffirelli, others the Luhrmann. The point of great dramatic writing is that can be continually re-interpreted by each generation, and across each production. That's the part of the question that is useful and valuable. – DukeZhou Nov 9 '17 at 18:23
  • @Hamlet (Like my Waste Land "Dog" answer?) Brevity has it's benefits in that more people will read it, and the assessment I provide is quite simple. Added a few details though. – DukeZhou Nov 9 '17 at 18:24

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