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.
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