The Great Gatsby: What to Expect

Members of the Great Gatsby cast, image courtesy Warner Brothers
Category: Reading

Last week brought the cinema release of one of the most equally anticipated and dreaded literary adaptations of recent times: Baz Luhrmann’s singular take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby. Initially scheduled for a Christmas 2012 release, the film was pushed to summer and ended up filling the prestigious opening night slot at the Cannes Film Festival, with its glitzy stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan splashed on the front pages of the world’s papers the next day. The film has had mixed reactions from critics, and fans of the book may be unsure whether to accept the invite to this version of Gatsby’s party. Here are my thoughts on what Fitzgerald’s iconic story looks like through Luhrmann’s lens;.

There’s only one Baz Luhrmann

The main thing to be aware of going in is that this is Luhrmann’s version of Gatsby, and the hysterical, genre-mashing style that he established in Romeo and Juliet, and amped up even further in Moulin Rouge! is present and correct here. I love those movies, and was prepared for his Gatsby to be similar, but I still found the first 30 minutes of this film to be an almost overwhelming assault on my senses. I think I felt a little nauseous at points (not because of the 3D though, which is mostly unnoticeable and quite pointless), and I wondered if the onslaught was working to render any possible substance void. 1920s New York has that stylised CG look similar to Peter Jackson’s King Kong, and there is certainly a literalism to the film that emphasises surface over depth. This builds to the first appearance of Gatsby himself, as narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) meets him for the first time amidst the orgiastic extravagance of one of Gatsby’s massive parties. Leonardo DiCaprio is spot-on casting as Jay Gatsby though, and this first moment we see him is brilliantly done: he gets Gatsby’s whole manner just right, and the film feels a lot more steady, and substantial, once he is in it. 

What you’ll notice first is… 

The decision to use a framing device that places Nick Carraway in some kind of institution (rehab? a mental hospital?) and has him writing the story as a means of therapy suggested by his doctor. This is a rare example of Luhrmann and his co-writer Craig Pearce adding something to the story, in what is otherwise a fairly faithful retelling, and mostly begs the question: why? It gives them an explicit reason to use voiceover, but that could have been achieved by having him write the story anywhere – why imagine him in this state?

Spare me the subtleties

A lot of Carraway’s narration is lifted directly from the book, but most of his thoughts about himself are omitted. In the film, Carraway is much less of a character, more a straightforward audience stand-in; his relationship with Jordan Baker, for example, is not emphasised or really treated as anything more than a friendship. This is emblematic of the approach of the film as a whole: it focuses on the broader elements of the novel with some success - Gatsby’s delusional love of Daisy, Carraway’s idealistic view of Gatsby (and incidentally, the way this mirrors how the movies allow us to idealize people) and Tom Buchanan’s ability to offer reality, no matter how unromantic; these are all brought out effectively.

But not so much the subtleties of other characters, or the deeper resonance of Jay Gatsby’s backstory - central to the novel is the American ideal of reinvention, the ability to make whatever you want of yourself, and Fitzgerald questions this with the character of Gatsby. Luhrmann doesn’t seem to get this, and certainly doesn’t handle the reveals of Gatsby’s true history very well, or with much punch.

Moments of Greatness

The film is at its best when Luhrmann gives the actors’ performances room to breathe. The sequence leading from a dinner scene when Daisy is supposed to tell Tom that ‘she never loved him’ through to the city hotel room where things hit a breaking point is full of resonant character moments. Alongside DiCaprio, newcomer Elizabeth Debicki gives the film’s stand-out performance as Jordan, a star-making role if there ever was one. Like DiCaprio, she plays it just right to cut through, or sit comfortably in, the surrounding sense-assault of Luhrmann’s stylised world. You won’t be able to take your eyes off her.

I haven’t got space here to comment on the music, which is another key aspect of Luhrmann’s approach, but I’ll add some thoughts on that in the comments below.

Overall, I thought it was pretty good, and found much to like and enjoy, while still being very aware of its shortcomings. It is arguably the best Gatsby adaptation yet, but that’s a little beside the point; there is, in a sense, no adapting Gatsby – it is a book so beautifully written and constructed that it has already given the last word on itself. Any film adaptation of Gatsby is best treated as commentary, so I would strongly advise reading before watching. 

Have you seen The Great Gatsby?  What did you think of it? And how did it compared to your reading of the novel?

If you're a Gatsby nut, why not check out our Great Gatsby podcast from last year, when we discussed classic books and how there are some that you re-read again and again. Tune in here!

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