It is extremely difficult to adapt any Shakespeare text to screen. Theater performances, for one, differ wildly from screen-acting both for inflection and line delivery. The overlap can sometimes disrupt immersion, especially when an adaptation doesn’t go the way as planned.
A text like Romeo and Juliet is just as difficult to film as Hamlet. Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing misfired by trying to update the classic text for a modern setting. There is hope for this branch of filmmaking, though. Both Oliver Parker’s Othello and Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968) made a break-through in adapting the plays to the big screen. In Zeffirelli’s film, Leonard Whiting (Romeo) and Olivia Hussey (Juliet), who were 17 and 15, respectively, have an excellent grasp on the language of Shakespeare. Even at the young ages, and little screen acting prior to filming, the pair have a natural chemistry that is enhanced by Zeffirelli’s direction and the tight cinematography from Pasqualino De Santis.
The two balcony scenes, which hold tight close-ups and a few shots of the lovers clutching each other’s hands, give you a sense of the immense love the two have between them. It’s very apparent in the masquerade dance, which Zeffirelli allocates a significant amount of time to, that the two characters immediately click; spinning around in an exquisite dance, which also happens to be somewhat historically accurate. Point-of-view shots are used sparingly, but in the fight between Tybalt and Mercutio the camera technique, and practical effects, are focused. There’s an inherent childish relationship between the two characters and this continues during the first portion of the fight.
Like all iconic fights, there’s a change in tempo and it quickly becomes volatile for both characters as the music stops entirely. With the increasing tension, the camera positions itself in the perspective of Tybalt as Mercutio is down on his knees. He waves the tip of the sword over Mercutio’s chest and while Mercutio isn’t scared, the viewer should be very concerned, especially if they are familiar with the original play. Scenes like this almost reward Shakespeare fans more than the average movie-goer.
POV shots aren’t the only technique utilized in the film, though. The frames vary in consistency and style. For instance, a smash zoom transitions the viewer into the second meeting between the characters and Friar Laurence. On the first balcony scene, when Romeo is leaving, he and Juliet make contact by hand as he descends the wall. The frame cuts from a tight close-up of their hands to a wide shot that includes the vast, breathtaking greenery where the film was shot on-location.
The film doesn’t just focus on the untasteful outcome of love and war between the two families, but also the playfulness of the script which can be absent from many adaptations; this is embodied perfectly by Pat Heywood’s nurse character. There are levels of comedy in each Shakespeare play, catering towards the different classes (high, middle, lower) and The Nurse is the most relatable character for the average movie-goer and where the center of comedy thrives.