F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, has been a favorite of mine since the moment I picked it up my sophomore year of high school. Initially, I was drawn in by the story – an ill-fated romance founded on undying hope – and swept up by vivid images of flapper dresses, roaring parties, and a dashing protagonist who “always look[ed] so cool.” But as the class began to analyze Fitzgerald’s writing, I found myself in awe of the sheer amount of social commentary packed between the pages. This book was more than a romance – it cautioned against the dark side of the American dream, scoffed at rampant consumerism, juxtaposed man and machine, and reflected on the irreversibility of time in a society barreling forward at top speed.
When news emerged of a cinematic remake directed by Baz Luhrmann, let me tell you, I was very excited. And I wasn’t the only one. In the Spring of 2013, I saw large numbers of Gatsby-themed parties, an emergence of The Great Gatsby tote bags and t-shirts, and the haunting presence of iconic blue eyes staring at me from novel covers everywhere I went. Even classmates who had previously claimed to despise the novel seemed eager to attend the movie (though I strongly suspect this has something to do with the casting of Leonardo DeCaprio). Hearing all this, you might be surprised to learn that I actually never got down to seeing the film until quite recently. When the first film reviews started coming back, criticizing Luhrmann for his bastardization of the quintessential American novel and citing unnecessary, over-the-top theatrics, I decided against watching to avoid further disappointment. So it was with a critical eye that I finally sat down last week to watch Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.
There’s no way around it - cinematic adaptations are difficult. The director is faced with the Sisyphean task of pleasing a large and loyal fan base, where every individual who fancies himself an aficionado of the book has his own perception of what the ‘perfect’ adaptation should consist of. In such cases, it is advisable for the director to avoid a chapter-by-chapter, book-to-screen adaption at all costs, for such a procedure has the tendency to result in a ‘please all – please none’ scenario. In my opinion, the director’s time is best spent paying homage to the spirit of the novel, while retaining his own authority as an auteur. Whether or not you approve of the specifics of Baz Luhrmann’s execution, the effort spent capturing Fitzgerald’s bacchanal indulgences is undeniable.
An Australian director and screenwriter, Baz Luhrmann has a flair for the theatric (anyone who’s ever seen Moulin Rouge knows he’s a fan of glitz and glamor), but what Luhrmann truly excels at is taking what the audience has seen a million times and giving it back to them in a way that is extraordinary. As is the case with many ‘go big or go home’ directors, opinions on his work tend to be divided. In fact, reading through reviews of The Great Gatsby I found descriptions of Luhrmann ranging from “genius” to “philistine.” In looking at the, shall we say, less than auspicious reviews, it is impossible not to notice the similarities of their complaints. Critics repeatedly cite the over-the-top nature of the film as the over-indulgence of the director, but over-indulgence is what The Great Gatsby is all about. Wild music, constant movement, spatial and temporal discontinuity – all of it speaks to the New York City madhouse Fitzgerald describes in his books.
It’s true – Luhrmann takes a number of liberties in the film adaptation that Fitzgerald might never have considered (though I don’t think he would have disapproved of). Take, for instance, the soundtrack – a fusion of jazz and pop culture. The decision to incorporate contemporary music was not, as some say, a flagrant disregard of historical accuracy, but rather, an enhancement – a respectful nod to the music of the era, updated with a modern perspective. The jazz of the 1920’s was new and exciting; the exotic ‘street music’ was considered immoral among older generations and seen as a potential threat to traditional values. Jazz was the ‘cutting-edge’ music of the youth and Luhrmann’s decision to use pop culture musicians pays homage to the sensationalism of jazz. This is just one example of a director capturing the spirit and the feel of the novel rather than making a scene-by-scene translation. Luhrmann uses the tools provided by the medium of cinema to translate words on a page into a hyper-real world that envelops the viewer. The use of 3D and CGI embraces contemporary cinematic techniques, and the fast paced editing helps enforce the overwhelming forward motion that the narrator, Nick, claims to be swept up by. The vivid imagery and the bright colors ooze extravagance, making for an overwhelming experience. The entire thing is shot beautifully and, what’s more, it’s fun to watch. So if “overbearing” this is the worst people can say, then I believe Luhrmann hasn’t failed in the slightest. What he has accomplished is a piece that purposely embraces the contemporary to an almost ludicrous degree as an extension of Fitzgerald’s own social commentary.
It would seem to me that those who dislike Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, disapprove not because the film was poorly done (in fact, I would place it in the category of cinematically spectacular) but simply because they are not personally drawn to Luhrmann’s vision. While I perfectly understand why some might find the barrage of quick cuts, the overly saturated colors, and the frantic music overwhelming, these are critical characteristics of both the book and the director in question. Ultimately, I believe that in Luhrmann does two things: He stays true to the heart of the book and he remains true to himself as a director, and to that I raise my glass and say, “Thank you, Old Sport.”