The first version was the 1968 version with Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey. The 1996 version has Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. One difference is that they drive around in cars and have "gangs" in the newer movie rather than walking around town in the old one. A second is that they use guns in the new movie and swords in the old one. Mercutio is actually played by an African American in the new movie. Only Caucasians were used in the original. In fact, a fourth difference is that Mercutio played out his silly characteristics by dressing in drag as compared to silly bantering in the older version. A final difference is in the end when Romeo takes the poison. In the newer movie he actually sees Juliet wake up out of her trance--then Juliet shoots herself. In the older movie, she never wakes in time to realize what has happened--that she JUST missed him. The newer version gives it a little more drama at the end that way, and I used to get a few tears from girls in my class when we watched it. I never got tears watching the older one. But I do like Whiting and Hussey so much better as actors.
The 1968 film is directed by Franco Zeffirelli, based on his theatre production of some years earlier. The Baz Luhrmann film, released in 1996, has a totally different agenda.
Here are five differences:
- Lurhmann is interested in action more than language. He cuts most of the play, and creates his effects by using the camera (zip-pans, jump-cuts, exciting musical underscoring) in ways which pump up the adrenalin of the viewer. Zeffirelli focusses rather on the language and characters of the play, and his use of the camera (as you might expect from a 1960s film) is solidly traditional.
- Lurhmann relocates the story to a present-day setting, on the imagined "Verona beach". Zeffirelli leaves the play in a fourteenth-century Verona, where (in the 1960s, at least) it was assumed Shakespeare had set it. Traditional, versus modern.
- Zeffirelli's vision of the play is slow-paced and langourous. The violence is never threatening, but almost balletic. Lurhmann gives the play a furiously violent momentum.
- Zeffirelli, rather than focussing on the passion of his lovers, opts for a restrained classicism. Zeffirelli's lovers rarely raise their voice: Lurhmann's are constantly crying and screaming.
- Lurhmann cuts most of the text of Shakespeare's play, instead trying to rehash it to appeal to a younger audience. Zeffirelli leaves far more of the text, producing a rather dull, but very faithful - almost theatrical - rendering of the play.