Nick Carraway, of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, describes Baz Luhrmann’s attempt at adaptation the best: “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” Baz Luhrmann is primarily remembered for revitalizing old stories (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!), or simply butchering classics, depending on how you see it. This year, Luhrmann tries his hand at directing one of America’s most timeless novels, writing the script with frequent collaborator Craig Pearce. The film was released a couple weeks ago to mixed reviews, ranging between satisfactory and downright appalling. Just as the famous quote from the book suggests, Luhrmann makes an awkwardly double-sided film which is as visually engrossing as it is thematically flawed.
Oddly enough, I am amazed at the amount of negative feedback from critics regarding The Great Gatsby; though some journalists explain how the movie departs from the themes of the novel, most simply complain about Luhrmann’s preference for style over substance. I already consider myself snobby when it comes to entertainment, but it takes a real pretentious egotist to condemn the use of stylisation in a subject as shallow and baseless as art. So let’s knock all the biased critics down a few pegs and read deeper into the feats of The Great Gatsby and the qualities it holds as a film.
The Great Gatsby is celebrated for many things: one of them being its vibrant descriptions of colour. Between bright yellow cars and an ominous green beacon, The Great Gatsby is celebrated for its vivacity and hailed as the exemplar of poetic narrative. As an adaption of the novel, Luhrmann deserves praise for imbuing the same colorful energy into the film and further departing from the drab palette employed in Clayton’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby in 1974. Distinguished films, such as Cameron’s Avatar and Tarsem’s The Fall, have received awards strictly for the style-over-substance cinematography. As a form of entertainment, Luhrmann should not be attacked for turning The Great Gatsby into a CG-fireworks show.
Alas, the film is unable to answer the qualms presented by the literature pundits: Luhrmann just doesn’t get the point of the book. Published in 1925, Fitzgerald’s novel argued against the inherent cruelty of conspicuous consumption and the social class system: chasing the American dream (personified by Jay Gatsby) is doomed to fail due to the carelessness of the rich, the desperation of the poor, and the passivity of the bourgeois. Though the book was greeted with poor reception, it gradually became popular among scholars after the Second World War, earning itself a place among famous literature and becoming a staple to high school curriculum.
Continue reading on the next page…
In the film, Joel Edgerton delivers a fantastic performance as the cold, adulterous Tom Buchanan, but the other main characters struggle to provide their respective actors with something thematic to say. Elizabeth Debicki has the looks of a gorgeous cynic, but writers Luhrmann and Pierce reduce Jordan Baker to a carrier of exposition. Carey Mulligan is emotional enough to act like a shallow fool, but plays the character with insecurity rather than the superficiality that the book affirms. Tobey Maguire brings the naivety of a Midwesterner, but the screenwriting morphs his character from a passive observer to an admiring child. Finally, Leonardo DiCaprio might have “one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it,” but DiCaprio’s natural ambience is irrelevant if it isn’t juxtaposed against the fatigue that Gatsby experiences in the novel. Without a doubt, the film has some messy writing. The Great Gatsby tries to compensate by using flashy visuals and a booming Jay-Z soundtrack, but the critics still call foul.
Yet, I still find it difficult to hold Baz Luhrmann responsible for his mistakes because The Great Gatsby alludes to an audience that doesn’t care. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a tragedy as a cautionary tale to the common American, just to be ignored by the bourgeois audience that he was targeting. But why? Surely, the middle class should be the most concerned with how the rich spend their money. Why else would we dedicate so much time to the “We are the 99%” movement? Why else would we insist that normal people matter? Yet The Great Gatsby, as a novel, was greeted with a quiet lethargy upon release, receiving respect by scholars and pundits only when the war was over and when Fitzgerald had passed away.
At its best, Nick Carraway is a poor representation of the bourgeois. At its worst, the character is the sole reason why The Great Gatsby is often overlooked and misunderstood. The poor may act out of desperation and the rich may act out of boredom, but the middle-class act out of comfort. Nick, on the other hand, repeatedly acts out of curiosity. Nick does not represent the average, middle-class American because he is far too absorbed in Gatsby to possess any form of self-interest. Furthermore, Nick states that he is restraining his bias towards Gatsby, but it is clear that he holds Gatsby in an unblemished light. Rather than allowing the bourgeois to connect to our narrator, Fitzgerald desperately tries to make his readers empathize with Gatsby. This limits the audience to a group of scholars, educators, and teachers: thinkers with both subjective views and objective insight. Or simply put, people that are able to think “within and without.”
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” To say the least, nostalgia is a curse. The film struggles to emphasize Gatsby’s futile struggle in reliving his romance with Daisy, but literature pundits fail to overcome their nostalgia for the book as they watch the film adaptation. Luhrmann avoids making Nick relatable, trying to use Gatsby as a vehicle for the audience instead. Though it severely misses the point of the novel, the movie ultimately has a tangible audience: upper middle-class adolescents who grew up watching DiCaprio (Catch Me If You Can, Inception) and Maguire (Spider-Man). If you’re really bent on watching a loyal adaption of The Great Gatsby, you’re just as delusional as Gatsby.Previous