Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Boats Against the Current: Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby

I've seen Baz Luhrmann's version of The Great Gatsby five times now. I'm not even ashamed to admit it. If I were to somehow become Alien out of Spring Breakers, it wouldn't be Scarface I'd have on repeat, it would be The Great Gatsby. Anything remotely Gatsby I snap up - whether it be reblogging my 100th gif of Jordan Baker or changing my cover photo on Facebook or finding something pretty to adorn my bedroom walls with.

Despite all this, I don't actually like The Great Gatsby as a film all that much. Let's put all of this into context: last term I did this huge research project about modern adaptations of classic films. Now, I won't bore you with the gory details since that thing ended up being like, 40 pages long, but The Great Gatsby was my main focus. This was because I had never seen so many people around my age go absolutely nuts for this one movie. Admittedly, this was mainly because of the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio is descended from angels and we're all materialistic magpies that will swoop in on anything that glitters (so you can imagine the field day we had with this). Let's just say, I wasn't the only one reblogging, cover photo-ing or adorning everything Gatsby.

However, I was the only one who had actually read The Great Gatsby, the great American novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I was the only one who originally hated Tom Buchanan, knew the tragedy of Gatsby and frowned upon Daisy's decisions. And now I had a whole lot of people joining the party because it never killed nobody. Okay, so I'm not a thick-rimmed glasses wearing hipster. But Baz Luhrmann's version - no matter how much I love the guy and will defend his work until the bitter end - is not a good representation of the book. It is just a good representation of how to get the youngin's in to watch something that doesn't have (many) explosions or robots and the like, and even perhaps read the book.

The conclusion I came to in my really long research report was that The Great Gatsby is not a book that can be translated to the screen. F. Scott Fitzgerald was an absolute master with his words. So much so that it is almost like he is speaking in his own language. There's one particular quote that I found by Anne Margaret Daniel of Huffington Post that said "Fitzgerald's language has already done all the cinematic work for the actors, directors, set designers and producers. The Great Gatsby is an interior book, little concerned with externals. Fitzgerald conjures what he wants to say by way of description with only a few delicate strokes of words...We use our imaginations to fill out the pictures for ourselves, where a camera cannot". Which would leave you in a pretty sticky spot if you were thinking of giving Fitz the cinematic treatment. Even moreso if you're adapting a book often lauded for its subtle writing...and your name is Baz Luhrmann, the king of excess.

Yes, I have sat there watching The Great Gatsby rolling my eyes at Luhrmann's feeble attempts at tackling the great motifs of the eye of T.J. Eckleburg and the green light. There's only so many scenes of Leonardo DiCaprio reaching out to the distant, likely CGI green light at the end of Daisy's dock that one can take. I love how Michaelis pops up in the background for no obvious reason, but he's quite the big part of the book. I have made some vociferous, angry statements about the end and how mangled it is compared to the book (what is worse that it was originally similar to the book, including the final scene with Jordan Baker - why would you cut a scene with the flawless Elizabeth Debicki in it?!). But if there's one thing that this film is very good at being, it is extremely faithful to the novel. 85% of the plot remains intact, save for the ending. 75% of the very limited dialogue from the novel remains intact. Yet, it feels like a very loose adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel. And again, that's because we have Baz Luhrmann, the king of excess, throwing glitter literally everywhere, putting a huge gold organ in Gatsby's house and, well, introducing New York to a song that's most expressive line is "coke on her black skin made a stripe like a zebra".

Don't get me wrong, reading about Luhrmann's decisions was actually quite interesting - his heart was certainly in the right place - but let's not keep this film and the novel in the same universe. What Luhrmann has realised is how much times have changed since the jazz age, and how making a film with the same sensibilities as the novel wouldn't have got him the audience, nor boosted F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel back into Top 10 glory. Perhaps a subtle film by Sofia Coppola with jazz music would have been in a closer range to the novel, but Luhrmann's film is truly something different. Where else would you get a 3D 1920s set film with people riding in cars to some hip hop tunes? You can either take a glass half full or glass half empty approach: I think The Great Gatsby is about as fresh as you can get in a blockbuster. Not perfect, but let's just say it is a damn fine rose in amongst some rusty franchise thorns.

Being an adaptation of my favourite book aside, The Great Gatsby is one of my favourite films of the year. I could do without the ridiculous slow-mo shots (particularly that one of Wolfshiem) and the overkill of CGI, but it is so darn entertaining. It is the kind of thing that Baz Luhrmann is perfect at. He may not have the essence of the novel, but he has the essence of (what I imagine are) the 1920s. Plus, the performances are pretty good. Tobey Maguire isn't a half bad third wheeler, Carey Mulligan has the sing-song voice and hollowness of Daisy, Joel Edgerton is about as one-dimensional as you can get but still a hateful Tom, Isla Fisher had the right idea with Myrtle but she wasn't given enough time, and Jason Clarke was perhaps a little too melodramatic as Wilson (that scene where he is rubbing that glass over his face is kinda weird).

She's so peeeeeeeerfect
But the film belongs to Leonardo DiCaprio and Elizabeth Debicki. The latter is definitely my (and hopefully the rest of the world's) next Jessica Chastain. Jordan was always my favourite character, and Elizabeth plays her perfectly. Her voice, the way she carries herself, the way she looks...she's magnificent, and the fact that she was practically an unknown? I love heeeeer. And it goes without saying that Leonardo DiCaprio is the perfect Gatsby. Sure, the script makes Gatsby out to be a little more naive and narrow-minded than the complex hero of the novel, but he's just so damn heart breaking. Not to mention that completely ridiculous introduction. It is so over the top and perfect that every time I see it I start laughing and crying hysterically at the same time. 

Then again, that's just my teenaged heart acting up. Every day is Leo-Mania for me.

So yeah, I both love and revile at The Great Gatsby. But I am glad that the film has had such an influence that it is our ball theme for this year (which has been my dream for, like, ever). And I am glad that the soundtrack has provided me with plenty of hip tunes to walk briskly to school with. It's shallow, glittering entertainment, but hey, it is beautiful. One day I'll own a house like Gatsby's.

Until then, I'll be reaching out to the green light I can see across our farm by the sanitation ponds.

I really wish I was joking about that last part.

(credits to here and here for the gifsets)


  1. Interesting post. I personally was very happy with the film when I first saw it *because* so much of the book made it in. Of course it was v. excessive, but I didn't mind that. The thing is, the film has almost slipped out of my mind. I *was* angry at the reduction of Jordan's role too, for the same reasons you mentioned. She's my favourite character in the book after Nick (and I thought Tobey Maguire did a pretty adequate job as Nick). Leo of course was spot on and I was v. impressed by Edgerton too. I still maintain that Mulligan was wrongly cast. Someone like Kirsten Dunst would have been so much better.
    I think since Gatsby is such a monumental classic, it is impossible to make an adaptation that everyone will like. I would v. much like Sofia Coppola version but for now, I'm happy with Luhrmann's.

    And welcome back (old sport)!

  2. It is a flawed film. Yet, I enjoyed it as I had a fun time watching it as I loved Leo's performance and Elizabeth Debicki was a total standout and she's fucking tall. I'm short and oh man, I'd feel awkward if I went out with her.

  3. The Great Gatsby is my favorite book as well, though I only read it for the first time earlier this year. The film couldn't possibly live up to the novel, but I'll take Luhrmann's version over the Redford-Farrow one any day. While I enjoyed it in theaters, I really need to rewatch it.

  4. It was flawed, but it was still as fun as Baz Luhrmann movie could be. The only problem is that when it tried to dial itself down and get dramatic, it just did not mix well. Good, and interesting thoughts.

  5. Hi, I too have read The Great Gatsby many times and felt that compared to all the other adaptations of the movie, this one had to be the best. It takes you to another world not just because Baz Luhrmann happens to be my favorite director but because it's so detailed and simply beautiful. I hate how you think the movie was a joke and I think that if you knew any better you'd know that Baz was going to put everything in the movie like Jordan and Nick's relationship but the movie had to be two hours and some of the scenes would draw focus away from the main point. Watch these...


    Hopefully you'll learn to appretiate one of the Greatest Gatsby Movies of All Time!


You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.


Related Posts with Thumbnails