One of the very first articles I ever wrote for this site was an opinion piece titled “In Defense of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby Trailer.” In it, I argued that the widespread purist outcry over the film’s first preview was unwarranted, not just because it is unfair to judge a film by its trailer, but because the specific interpretation the footage hinted at seemed like an interesting one that stemmed organically from the novel.
Having now seen the film, I fully stand by every word I wrote in that article. Warner Bros’ advertisements have been selling an energetic, colorful, visually excessive and musically extravagant take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, and that is absolutely a compelling way to approach this material. Featuring a mix of modern hip-hop, ballads, and period-specific jazz and classical pieces set atop a lush, exaggerated visual palette – presented in richly detailed 3D, no less – Baz Luhrmann has found an intriguing entry point into this dense and challenging material, one that attempts to illustrate the complex themes and emotions of Fitzgerald’s prose through modern media lenses.
The only problem? This interpretation happens to be just one of several warring for supremacy in this thoroughly scattershot, identity-challenged mess of a movie.
When all is said and done, the advertisements have been lying to us, as I predicted they might be a year ago, but not in the way one might expect. What we see on the surface may often be a hyperactive blend of modern cinematic sensibilities with period extravagance, but underneath, Luhrmann’s Gatsby is Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, a mostly word-for-word, straight-faced, completely slavish recitation of the book. And as I have said over, and over, and over again in the time I have been reviewing movies, accuracy to a book – no matter what that book is or the reputation it carries – is never what makes a cinematic adaptation click. Never. And when dealing with a work as masterful, iconic, and well known as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, this holds especially true.
The Great Gatsby is a novel. It was envisioned as a novel, written as a novel, and stands the test of time as a beautifully, precisely chosen collection of words printed on paper. It is not a movie. A movie is an assembly of images, typically set to sound, experienced in a limited, pre-determined set of time. The only core similarity they have with books is that both tell stories, but the nature of storytelling between the two mediums could not be more different. Authors usually write alone, using language to illustrate, where directors traditionally create through communal effort, showing, rather than telling, the audience what they are supposed to see. One medium is not capable of more than the other, in my opinion. But The Great Gatsby is considered one of the “great American novels” for a reason, and that is because it exploits the unique qualities of literature to their fullest extent. One cannot expect to simply cut-and-paste Fitzgerald’s prose into a screenplay, film some pretty images to go along with it, and expect to produce the same effect, because there is not a direct 1:1 correlation between how one tells stories or translates meaning across these two mediums.
Yet this is, for the most part, what Luhrmann attempts to do, and like Jay Gatsby himself, the end result he grasps for is entirely illusory. The only major alteration he and co-writer Craig Pearce make is to create a new framing device for protagonist Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) – he has committed himself to a sanitarium after the events of the story, and is undergoing intensive therapy – but instead of serving as a meaningful change or fresh perspective, it just gives them an excuse to let Maguire recite passages from the book over the majority of the action, which follows the progression of the novel so closely that, in the early-going at least, the film actually pauses in between the original chapter breaks to reflect on what has happened so far.
I get it. Fitzgerald’s prose is lovely. More than that – it is transcendent. Here is one of my favorite sentences: “The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher.” Over and over, Fitzgerald presents us with sentences so powerfully constructed that they summon downright ethereal images in the mind’s eye. But if I want to experience the prose, I can just go and read the book. It is not difficult. On the contrary – I have the damn thing loaded on my iPhone, ready to access at a moment’s notice. In no way do I ever need them recited to me in the midst of a film, especially if no larger purpose is being served.
This is the problem. Maguire narrates famous passages almost non-stop, especially during the first act, but visually, Luhrmann has created fairly astonishing cinematic summations of what Fitzgerald wrote. I took the sentence above from the memorable passage at the start of Chapter III where Nick walks us through the general atmosphere of a Gatsby party. And what I find so impressive about the party scenes in Luhrmann’s film is that they capture every ounce of the imagery, splendor, and excess Fitzgerald describes. Those scenes are absolutely bursting with life, rife with detail and color and personality, set to truly engaging musical choices and coming right at us in impossibly lifelike 3D. And since Maguire is forced to narrate the very words that inspired it all over the imagery, it becomes extremely difficult to appreciate what a splendid production this is.
The key to adapting a great book for film, after all, lies in finding visual and aural ways to approximate what the author wrote, actively interpreting the material to offer viewers a fresh perspective. Though much of Luhrmann’s film attempts to do this, the adherence to the word of the book always prevents it from coming as far as it should. The narration, constant and overbearing, may be the worst offender, but it is by no means the only. Much of the film’s dialogue is ripped straight from the novel, and not only were those turns of phrase never constructed with cinema in mind, but their very presence makes the original, non-Fitzgerald writing stick out like a sore thumb. The spoken word element of the script sounds like a Frankenstein monster, assembled from multiple sources without ever once sounding natural or cohesive.
It absolutely cripples the performances, for while Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, and the rest of this ensemble are all extremely accomplished thespians theoretically perfect for their parts, they uniformly struggle to maintain cinematic performance rhythms when speaking dialogue that has the verbose cadences of literature. Directorially, Luhrmann seems completely oblivious to the issue, for he edits the film as rapidly and impatiently as he did Moulin Rouge; he clearly wants to honor these words, if not outright deify them – Nick’s narration often appears on screen as floating text – but he is unwilling to calm his own style enough to let them breathe.
The crazy, infuriating rub of all this is that for once, I do not necessarily want Luhrmann to calm his own style. I despise Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet as much as anyone on this planet, but in the stretches of Gatsby where characters are not talking, and the experience is driven wholly by Luhrmann’s stylistic instincts, I see something truly intriguing. I see a cinematic path into this material that has eluded filmmakers for nearly 100 years. The party scenes are the easiest example, because with Jay-Z and George Gershwin playing next to each other atop endless expanses of colorful extravagance, I feel the same sense of cultural imbalance and societal insecurity I interpret in Fitzgerald’s book.
An even clearer instance of this approach working wonders comes in the second act, when Gatsby finally gets to spend an afternoon with Daisy. He is so incredibly drunk on this notion of love, so obsessed with this beautiful creature he finally has back within his grasp, and Luhrmann illustrates this through a truly arresting and intoxicating visual montage. But the emotions of the moment are not allowed to run away free of intellectual analysis, for underneath them, a Lana Del Ray ballad chants the line “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful,” mixed in such a way that this lyric is the main aural element we process. Thus, the love is not taken for granted – it is questioned, and we are forced to remember that Gatsby is so intent on living in the past, or being tricked by the allure of the moment, that he is blind to the future. We gather this not because Nick tells us so, but because Luhrmann is able to communicate it through his own particular idiom: A visually resplendent montage set to pop music.
That’s interesting. That is a fresh way to present the material and provoke the viewer without simply regurgitating what Fitzgerald wrote. I cannot say whether or not a film fully devoted to this style would be a great success – Luhrmann’s depiction of love is ultimately just as adolescent and over-simplified as it was in Romeo + Juliet, and completely undermines the final thematic beats of the story – but it would at least be a real interpretation. As it stands, The Great Gatsby has no unified concept of what it wants to be, experimenting with slavish accuracy, outright Fitzgerald homage, stylistic playfulness, and sweeping teenage romance before ultimately becoming a 100% straightforward and utterly dull retelling of the book in the third act. By the end, even all the original and licensed music has disappeared, leaving us with only Craig Armstrong’s wretched score, a lot of ham-fisted acting, and an obnoxious sense of righteous self-importance.
I have been so fed up for so long with the pervading idea in the larger movie-going community that films have to follow the letter of the book to be worthy of praise – that giving the viewer the exact experience they have sitting at home on their bookshelf, but naturally diluted by the switch in mediums, is somehow a worthwhile exercise. It isn’t, and if nothing else, The Great Gatsby is the only example I will ever need to definitively prove my point. Luhrmann’s film contains within it both the possibilities I find exciting and the lazy tedium I dread when approaching cinematic adaptations of books, often contrasted side by side within the very same scene. This is not a bad film by any means, but its greatest worth may ultimately be as a case study in the pitfalls of tackling classic literature without a clear and singular plan of attack.
Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby flirts with inspiration, but ultimately just goes to prove my longstanding point that slavish accuracy to source material never makes for wholly compelling cinema.