As a novel deemed incapable of translating onto screen, preconceived notions were buzzing about the film prior to release, especially with director Baz Luhrmann’s sensational modern eye attached to the holiest of holy American classics. With glitz and glamor, Hip-Hop and a glossy 3D finish, Luhrmann’s adaptation paints a boisterous statement—it’s no surprise critics are dissatisfied and dismissive of the highly stylized 21st century vision of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
But with such a hyper musical score, 3D adaptation and over-stylized CGI, this is questionable content worth giving a chance, because while I’ve read the book and seen the Robert Redford adaptation, I was a little iffy as well. Instead of watching this expecting a page to screen adaptation, consider it a page to screen interpretation coated with 21st century context that only Baz can create. If the greatest complaint is Luhrmann’s style over substance, isn’t that exactly who Jay Gatsby was?
Revered as the great American novel as a cautionary tale of excess, greed and the American dream, the backbone of Gatsby transcends through generations. It’s heavily saturated with the complexities and inequality of race, class and social structure. With Luhrmann’s Gatsby being the fifth adaptation presented on screen, the content’s relevance still peaks today.
Let’s get one thing straight about Luhrmann’s film—this “Hollywood catnip story” wasn’t flippantly thrown together. With prior films no stranger to excessive criticism (Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet), Luhrmann expects to take responsibility for his unconventional storytelling. When it comes to the deep-rooted facts of Gatsby, Luhrmann did his homework. From the framework of the 1920s shallow extravagance to Fitzgerald’s bouts with alcoholism to personal letters between Fitzgerald and wife Zelda…Luhrmann’s twists to adapting the novel make sense…a lot of sense.
Nick Carroway (Tobey Maguire) is our narrator as he is in the novel, but Luhrmann’s framing device of narration in the film introduces Carroway in a sanitarium, retelling his past with Gatsby on paper as he constructs his manuscript of The Great Gatsby floundering in a post-Jazz Age reality. “The setting wouldn’t have been unfamiliar to Fitzgerlad, given Zelda’s agonizing struggles with mental illness,” Luhrmann told The Huffington Post. “Fitzgerald and Zelda were not strangers to sanitariums. Fitzgerald was not a stranger to being destroyed and decimated by alcoholism.”
“Mulligan’s Daisy is a touch more sympathetic than the careless heiress of Fitzgerald’s novel, and once again the explanation can be found in the filmmaking team’s extensive research. Because the novel is so short—and so light on dialogue—Luhrmann, Pearce and the actors drew liberally from Fitzgerald’s other works, as well as his unpublished drafts and letters, to flesh out the story. To play the elusive Gatsby, Leonardo DiCaprio steeped himself in an early draft of the novel titled Trimalchio. When it was time to play a scene, he would read the script, then the passage in Gatsby and then the passage from Trimalchio. And Carey Mulligan looked beyond the Daisy of the novel poring over letters by Zelda as well as Fitzgerald’s first love, Genevra King.” via The Huffington Post
Another controversial move bringing Gatsby on screen was Luhrmann’s decision to use 3D.
“Luhrmann shot some tests, liked what he saw and opted to forge ahead. [Luhrmann] went, ‘I know there’s gonna be noise, eyeball-rolling, a whole lot of easy cheap shots. Go for it, my friends.’ But the bottom line is, Fitzgerald wouldn’t have looked away from that new step, embracing that modern technique.”
I didn’t have reservations about the film being shot in 3D as much as I was a little confused seeing Jay Z’s name attached to the project. With music ranging from Lana Del Rey to Jack White to the XX, the score isn’t as distracting or overtly in your face as I anticipated (read: Moulin Rouge). If the point of this remake is to create a modern twist to the story we all know, I applaud Luhrmann for his musical choices, because Jay Z’s involvement proved me very wrong.
“’The Hip-Hop soundtrack stemmed from Luhrmann’s understanding of Fitzgerald as an unflinching modernist. He took African American street music, jazz, and he put it front and center in the novel,’ Luhrmann said. ‘He did that because he wanted the book to feel immediate and dangerous.’ But the jazz of the 1920s has long since matured into something classical and quaint, so Luhrmann turned to a newer form: Hip Hop.”
Aside from the controversy of constructing the film, the strongest component of Gatsby are the actors who brought these flawed characters to life. Leo Dicaprio’s embodiment of the elusive mystery millionaire is one of his best performances. His eager and desperate portrayal of the character who tries to buy his own happiness brings an emotional resonance as a more tragic and insecure man than the relentless hunk that Robert Redford created. Dicaprio made me truly sympathetic for his heartbreaking desire to merge his past into his present and his unyielding hope that rested in the green light across the bay.
While I mull back and forth with the argument about whether or not Daisy was miscast (the way Clare Danes was miscast as Juliet), I appreciate Mulligan’s approach, but find her to be the weakest portrayal of all the characters. Openly shallow, flimsy and drowning in greed, Luhrmann’s Daisy possessed very little of these toxic traits, or she at least didn’t exude them the way the character should have like Mia Farrow did. Farrow’s Daisy uttered a single sentence that solidified her unforgivable, superficial nature—When Gatsby asked why she didn’t wait for him, she tearfully responded, “Because rich girls don’t marry poor boys.”
Although Mulligan may not have been my first choice as Daisy, I am completely satisfied with Luhrmann’s choice of Tom Buchanan—Joel Edgerton. Edgerton’s performance was not only convincing, but nearly stole every scene apart from Dicaprio. From his slimy snarls and smarmy, pretentious demeanor, he nailed the scumbag character from start to finish. Another scene-stealer was the lanky and beautiful Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) who was unfortunately underutilized and underdeveloped.
But whether or not I personally loved the film is irrelevant on the larger scale, but another fan of the adaptation sparked my interest. Eleanor “Bobbie” Lanahan (writer, filmmaker and granddaughter of Fitzgerald) loved it too. At the premiere, Lanahan approached Luhrmann to congratulate him on his film.
“I do feel Scott would have been proud,” Lanahan said. “It’s got tragedy and comedy and character. The movie took little away from the book, but added to it. For me, it is the first time I truly felt sympathy for Gatsby on film. I think you proved that first person narrative can, in fact, be translated to film.” –via Forbes.
Lanahan also told The Huffington Post that she liked the film considerably more than she expected to. “From the trailers, I thought it was going to be a movie on steroids,” she said. “Everything was going to be pumped-up, the emotions were going to be exaggerated, they were going to be about as in-depth as Bruce Willis. But I was very happily surprised that the characters were moving. They were touching. I cared about Daisy, actually, and I cared about Gatsby and all of them.”
Whether or not you agree with me or Luhrmann or Lanahan, it’s undeniable that Luhrmann lived and breathed Gatsby in order to mold this adaptation with a sort of historical relevancy. The parties were grand, the music was controversial and the characters were morally corrupt…sounds a lot like Gatsby to me.
Also check out my previous post Anticipating the Great Gatsby.