Let’s face it: The Great Gatsby was the one book that we all actually read in high school from beginning to end — even the slackers and math and science nerds were not immune to its spell. Over the last century, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel about inaccessible ideals and the American Dream has grown in importance, esteem and fascination.
In his 2004 collection of critical interpretations of Gatsby, Harold Bloom writes, “The book has become part of what must be called that American Mythology, just as Fitzgerald himself now possesses mythological status.”
With the story held in so many hearts, many have been either eagerly awaiting or utterly dreading the release of Baz Luhrmann’s 3-D adaptation, which grossed an astounding $51 million its opening weekend. Luhrmann is responsible for “Romeo + Juliet” (1996) and “Moulin Rouge!” (2001): loud, glitzy films infused with contemporary pop, rock and hip-hop music.
From 2008 onward, Luhrmann and his team compiled extensive research in order to stay faithful to the plot, the minute details and perhaps Fitzgerald’s original intentions, while revamping it to feel hip and modern. But the culmination of their efforts is, for the most part, a shallow, cartoonish, super-charged roller coaster ride targeted toward easily-allured 12-to-15-year olds.
First, Luhrmann made the curious decision to begin the story with Nick Carraway (our first-person narrator played by Tobey Maguire) writing in a patient’s journal after ending up in a mental hospital due to “morbid alcoholism, fits of anger, insomnia.” According to Mike Hogan’s (Executive Arts and Entertainment Editor of Huffington Post) recent interview with Luhrmann, the frame was inspired by an early version of Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, in which the narrator, Cecilia Brady, tells her story from a sanitarium. I found the frame totally unnecessary; the story works much better arising organically, preserving some of its mystery and intrigue. It stands perfectly well on its own without the reader wondering exactly why or from where the narrator is telling the story.
I opted out of the 3-Dimensional headache, sticking with old-fashioned 2-D vision, but was nonetheless distracted by the zooming back and forth from East Egg to West Egg and the words moving on and off the screen throughout the film. The fast-paced, flashy effects meant for 3-D viewing were geared toward an audience with the attention span of a five-year-old. I suppose the visualized words — some direct quotes and some paraphrasing — were meant to bring Fitzgerald’s writing to life, but they instead rendered the delicate, sparkling prose manipulated and overexposed. They should have been left on the page as originally intended.
On top of that, too many important moments are drowned out by the booming soundtrack produced by Jay-Z. Why Luhrmann could not resist the urge to mash together rap and dubstep with a setting otherwise meticulously accurate to the 1920s is beyond me. What Fitzgerald describes as “yellow cocktail music,” Luhrmann interprets as pounding synthesizers and obnoxious rap. I could not help but laugh out loud when the remix of Flux Pavillion’s “I Can’t Stop,” charged through the subtle, uncomfortable party scene when Nick “gets drunk for the second time in [his life]” to bear the tension surrounding Tom Buchanan and his mistress, Myrtle Wilson, at their secret apartment in the city. And later, when they are driving home from the city, a car of people partying passes them on the Queensboro bridge blasting Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” — “H to the izzo, V to the izz-A/That’s the anthem getcha damn hands up.” The image is too bizarre and laughable to be taken seriously. Other songs, featuring Lana Del Rey, Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, Jack White, will.i.am, The xx and other popular artists, are fine to listen to on their own; in fact, they are catchy and interesting, thanks to Jay-Z’s production skills. They just have no place in Gatsby’s fragile, fantastic world.
All of that said, a few parts of the film do deserve praise. First, there is Leonardo DiCaprio’s endearing and heartbreaking portrayal of Gatsby. DiCaprio captures what Fitzgerald describes in the novel when Nick meets Gatsby: “He smiled understandingly — much more than understandingly.” As the film goes on, with exquisite physical acting, DiCaprio reveals Gatsby’s inner torment and the fragility behind his calculated outer appearance and charm. His tight, strained facial expressions shows him so full of hope and longing for the past that he is about to burst. DiCaprio shows Gatsby’s touching insecurity and neuroses when Gatsby eagerly prepares Nick’s cottage for tea with Daisy. It is endearing and funny: He redoes the entire lawn, brings in hundreds of flowers and flees at first into the “pouring rain” upon Daisy’s arrival. This scene, and the confrontation scene between Tom and Gatsby in the hotel room where they throw Daisy around between them, is handled more carefully than others.
Indeed, what was most compelling in the movie was the sympathy evoked for Gatsby due to DiCaprio’s performance along with Tobey Maguire’s portrayal of Nick, whose first-person narration shapes the audience’s perception of Gatsby. The relationship between Nick and Gatsby is central in the novel. Before Gatsby meets his untimely end, Nick recalls his own last words to his friend: “‘They’re a rotten crowd, you’re worth the whole damn bunch’ … I was always glad I said that, it was the only compliment I ever paid him.” I also appreciate Luhrmann’s final touch at the end: He has Nick scribble “The Great” in front of the title of his finished manuscript, “Gatsby,” further moving the audience toward a sad, strange feeling of sympathy for the tragic character.
Adapting a novel or story to film successfully does not necessarily require slavishly copying every word and detail. Remakes are worthwhile when they illuminate, develop or explore some crucial aspect of the original work. They should complement the original but be able to exist as a legitimate separate entity. Despite Luhrmann’s obvious deliberation and effort to remain faithful to the details of the novel while keeping it fresh and relevant for young audiences, nothing is accomplished for the story. But I don’t blame him; the novel may just be un-filmable. Even the very first film adaptation in 1926, now completely lost, was a failure according to Zelda Fitzgerald, who wrote in a letter to her husband, “It’s rotten and awful and terrible and we left.” Future directors of Gatsby remakes should keep her words in mind.
A version of this article appeared on page 13 of May 23rd’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.