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Both cinematic versions of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet have similar themes but explain the story in very different ways. West Side Story, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, shows the love story but shows the struggles of immigrants coming to America. The feud between the Sharks and the Jets stems from racially motivated reasons. Romeo + Juliet, directed by Baz Luhrmann, shows the more traditional story that Shakespeare created. Yet, it has been altered to fit modern standards but still the same Shakespeare language. The three directors focused on the main story but added their own unique twist to create a newer perspective on the old tragedy.
Baz Luhrmann’s version of Romeo + Juliet shows the traditional story but modernizes it to make sense to different audiences. He explores and uses different symbols and camera angles to show the love between Romeo and Juliet. When the two characters first saw each other at the party, the camera angles are very fast, showing the audience that nothing other than the two mattered. When Romeo first sees Juliet, the camera shots are very slow and rarely leave their faces. They then meet again near a fish tank full of water which symbolizes stillness and calm thoughts. When the balcony scene occurs, it was the director’s choice to have it occur in a pool because the two are always meeting around central elements which embody what is happening around them.
How it works
They first met by water, vowed their love in a pool, and both died near a fire. In the pool, the two characters vow their love while still in their costumes from the party. Romeo is wearing a knight’s costume, while Juliet is wearing an angel’s costume. This represents how they see each other. Juliet sees Romeo as her knight coming to rescue her from the marriage she has been promised into. Romeo sees Juliet as what he’s been looking for this whole time, an angel. Romeo states that he could be not “a Montague nor a Romeo.” He would be whatever Juliet wanted him to be. During this moment, everything is moving very slowly, and the director wants the audience to really take in the moment. Because after this scene, everything moves very fast, including up to the scene when they die near the fire.
West Side Story focuses on the love of the two characters but also on class inequality and the struggles of immigrants. Maria represents the more rational character or the one who thinks things through before acting upon them. Tony does not think about the consequences before execution, as shown when he kills Bernardo. The Jets are always harassed and insulted because of their ethnicity. They sing about being charged twice on credit cards and only having a good life in America if you are white. When they make their vow of love on the fire escape of Maria’s apartment, Tony first explains how he is not a Shark to show Maria that they have no reason to be apart. But Maria tells him that she is not one of them and that her father will not approve of Tony because he is not Puerto Rican.
They then both sing about how they only see each other in their eyes. This song plays into the ‘focus’ theme because the two lovers can only see each other and not the problems and chaos that is happening around them. They do not see their families or reasons why they can’t be together. When Tony and Maria first meet, they are seen looking at each other from across their respective sides of the gym. When they see one another for the first time, the music is very fast, and there is dancing happening around them. When they begin to approach each other, the music and background immediately slow down and focus only on Tony and Maria; everybody else blurs out of the picture. The backdrop becomes a dark screen with stars as if to foreshadow the balcony scene after the dance. Whenever the two are around each other, everything slows down and, in a sense, comes into ‘focus.’ As there are many moments where scenes blur out, the theme of coming into focus is seen throughout the rest of the movie.
Both West Side Story and Romeo + Juliet are parallel stories. Even though they do not end the same, they both possess the same themes and tell the same story. The two stories have differences that make the tale unique, but the core of the story is about two people who love each other but can’t be together. Both of the cinematic versions have specific director choices that make them unique. West Side Story has a different feud and more modern issues like racism and class inequality. Romeo + Juliet has the traditional language that Shakespeare wrote but in a more modern time. Nonetheless, both stories collide and show human error and how irrational thinking can lead to demise.
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