It has been some years since I read Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 masterpiece The Great Gatsby, but I was determined to watch Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation before it bowed out of the cinemas – not least of all to give Luhrmann, whose stewardship of the film I was unsure of to begin with, the fairest possible hearing (or screening!).
In the end, the movie reminded me more of what it missed from the book rather than presented: splendour supplants subtlety and garishness gets the better of delicacy. That isn’t to suggest that the book isn’t covered in splendour, but to remark that its splendour doesn’t come at the cost of nuance.
Gatsby is a novel about romantic fatalism, the corrupting force of money and materialism, and – not unconnected to this – the American Dream. It is a warning of the dangers of both idealism and excess: a decadent yet cautionary tale.
In this context, it is almost impressive that Luhrmann can – quite fairly – be accused of visual excess. There are too many parties, too many guests, too many colours, too many special effects, too many fast moving images and darting shots. Focusing on the grandiose, it misses something of the more simple beauty of the novel and is probably a product of a nostalgia that Fitzgerald certainly did not feel.
That being said, adaptation is never easy. One has to concede as much, frankly, before going on to criticise the dialogue – a lot of which is taken verbatim from the novel. At this point it might seem Luhrmann can do no right: deviate from the novel, and he is criticised for his extravagance; stick faithfully to the novel, and he is criticised for his rigidity.
But I think the problem is twofold: firstly, the selectivity of the dialogue is dubious. It has been selected less to reflect the novel and more to reflect Luhrmann’s directorial style. It seems that the most hysterical or hyperbolic lines are those that made the cut. Secondly, even with this in place, the attempt to marry it to a very daring depiction falls just a little bit short.
There is undeniably an appeal for a more avant-garde audience, however, and certain of the avant-garde elements work very well. The soundtrack is one such element, fusing the Jazz Age in which the novel is set with a modern (and certainly spectacular) vibe, including tracks from Jay-Z, Fergie and Florence and the Machine, as well as covers of Amy Winehouse and Beyonce records.
The film also engages interestingly with the question of identity, primarily Jay Gatsby’s (Leonardo DiCaprio), who exhibits a perfect blend of debonairness and insecurity. Before being introduced on screen, Gatsby is referenced in all sorts of (mainly mythical) ways by uninvited guests at one of his lavish parties, building an inviting allure around his character.
The tense confrontation between Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and Gatsby, the film’s pièce de résistance, is also expertly done, but sadly also suggestive of what could have been throughout. Strangely, Buchanan is played brilliantly but portrayed much too sympathetically. Very little is made of his coarse racism, for example, and his transformation at the end is hasty and implausible.
The film’s ending, unquestionably sad, aims for but misses the poignancy of the novel’s. The funeral is not depicted in its entirety and the swathe of reporters does not allow the viewer to truly appreciate the solitude Gatsby is subjected to by the end.
Nonetheless, Nick Caraway (Tobey Maguire), whose apparently unstable mind the film is framed through, allows the film to close with pensiveness a bit closer to the novel’s than the rest of the film, as he recalls the only compliment he ever paid to Gatsby: "They're a rotten crowd. You're worth the whole damn bunch put together." And that is what the audience should be left to reflect on as a man who threw parties for thousands lies alone in his coffin.