Poetry as Film Dialogue

Does lyricism in film pull us into the story, or alienate us from the events?

The cast of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo and Juliet | Photo Credit : Pinterest

Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo and Juliet starts off like a shotgun. Sweeping helicopter shots of tall buildings, fast cars and gunshots would have us believe we are watching a modern action film. Then the actors speak. To the younger viewer, perhaps watching the film recreationally as opposed to studying it, the juxtaposition is jarring. Luhrmann’s is a faithful Shakespeare adaptation when it comes to dialogue, as opposed to more modernised films such as 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s The Man.

The rich poeticism of Shakespeare’s language can only truly be appreciated later on in life. Studied in school it seems dull, incomprehensible and outdated. Yet, when applied to film, the language takes on a new life, and we come as close as we may get to how Shakespeare intended his lines to be delivered and received.

Poetry as film dialogue is generally discouraged in film schools. It’s not going to sell as a script and it can seem self-indulgent of the director or writer. It has to have a place, however. What’s the real difference between a film script and a novel, a novel and poem? Blurry lines are getting further blurred the more we progress in art and as artists. Thanks to trends in criticism and the works of a few revolutionary artists, anything is passable as art today. This is a blessing and a curse. A film student may make ten minutes of poetic drollery, but who is to say this is the wrong way to use poetry in film, as compared to say, Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel’s schizophrenic poetic masterpiece Un Chien Andalou?

The language of Romeo and Juliet in a heavily stylised modern environment introduces viewers to the possibilities of the English language. In a similar way, Roman Polanski’s 1971 adaptation of Macbeth stays true to the poetic prose of the original without shying away from extreme violence and brooding, terrifying landscapes. This is where poetry as dialogue works. Somehow blending Early Modern English with contemporary film, these directors create an experience just as enthralling and immersive as any other, a more challenging yet ultimately rewarding method of filmmaking.

Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971) | Photo Credit: MoMa

Of course, poetry in film does not consist only of Shakespearean dialogues. Peter Weir’s 1989 Dead Poets Society features lengthy scenes of recitations of classic poetry. William Blake is quoted in the seminal sci-fi film Blade Runner, Dylan Thomas in Dangerous Minds, T.S Eliot in Apocalypse Now. Even The Amazing Spider-Man quotes Renaissance poet Michelangelo Buonarroti.

These insights into the wealth of language and the possibilities of English offer us an alternative to contemporary film-making. Basing films off language rather than image exposes a bridge between literature and film not yet fully explored. Moving forward from Luhrmann and Polanski’s Shakespeare adaptations we should be considering the use of purely poetic language as a genuine form of dialogue within modern film, not as art-school pretension or merely experimental filmmaking. In a world where art no longer knows boundaries, its disciplines can be blended.

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