[Brief warning: If you haven’t read the book and don’t want it to be spoiled, please don’t read this. Similarly if you haven’t seen the film, I guess. But seriously, read the book first. It’s better.]
There’s a moment early on in Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, as we’re told how Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) goes to Yale, ends up on Wall Street, and subsequently living in West Egg. ‘I always wanted to be a writer’, he informs us (or rather, his psychiatrist) in voice-over, as he comes across a large pile of books and picks up the first on top. ‘ULYSSES’ is the title of that book, as Nick wistfully and briefly considers it, then regretfully puts it back on top of the pile. This is a significant moment, folks: Artistic Temperament doesn’t matter here, as we quickly cut to a open book about markets and finance, telling us that right now for Nick, Money Matters and he’s going to sell his soul to the devil because hey, Wall Street right? This, my friends, is SYMBOLISM, and A PORTENT.
This perhaps sums up Luhrmann’s approach to adapting the film. Instead of adding in delicate touches and subtle details, he uses too broad a stroke. Judging by his previous work (Strictly Ballroom; Romeo + Juliet; Moulin Rouge!; Australia), Luhrmann tells great love stories between star-crossed or mismatched lovers, love stories that more then often end in great tragedy (‘Come what may, I will love you until my dying day’, sing along everybody!). The affair between Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Daisy (Carey Mulligan) is the anchor around which the novel fixes itself — and it becomes even more so of an focus in this adaptation, with lingering gazes, fingers grazing the other, and stolen passionate kisses, while Lana Del Rey wanly asks in the background, ‘Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful…?’ This, to some degree, works, leading to some very nice private moments between DiCaprio and Mulligan. But to focus so solely on making their love for one another the centrepiece of this film sacrifices the seedy, unfavourable aspects which underpin their relationship, and also sacrifices other aspects of Fitzgerald’s story which matter too. Sure, Gatsby isn’t who he claims to be, and he’s a fraud, but he does it all for Daisy so that’s alright, isn’t it? We also know that Daisy isn’t entirely perfect either, but the script never fleshes her out, and we never really find out what is wrong barring a few phone calls, the odd glass in her hand, her quivering voice, and THE ABSENCE OF THE KID (where is she, asks Kate Beaton? Here’s her answer). Positioning their relationship in the same framework as Christian and Satine or Romeo and Juliet doesn’t work, and ensures that we simply don’t care about them. In general, it’s a story told in too bold outlines, neglecting the subtleties and intricacies that make the novel so special to read.
The less than romantic aspects of the novel — the thin line of darkness, melancholy, and sadness — are neglected in Luhrmann’s film. Maguire’s Carraway gets carried away with it all, but he’s too bug-eyed, wide eyed, and cherub-like, nor does he possess the necessary complicity and world-wearyness that Nick needs. Nick in the novel is also reminiscent of the Bastard in King John in his idealism, loyalty, and lack of a clear moral compass (think of the commodity speech: ‘And why rail I on this Commodity? | But for because he hath not wooed me yet’), but instead, Maguire simply depicts him as an irritating, dislikeable Gatsbyite who writes the ‘novel’ to Deal With His Problems on the suggestion of his psychiatrist (I’m not sure if this framing device works, though there is a slight nice touch at the end concerning its title). Seeing as Nick is our guide into Gatsby’s world, and the audience’s point of view, this is a shame. Poor Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker is resigned to the sidelines as her relationship with Nick barely gets a look-in, and is consigned to simply being Gatsby and Daisy’s Token Gal Pal. Thankfully, Joel Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan is a man you love to hate, but is unfortunately given a Benedict-Cumberbatch-in-Atonement moustache, because without it Luhrmann assumes that you wouldn’t be able to tell whether you can trust him or not.
Luhrmann’s greatest mistake, however, is cutting one of the most important, and most poignant, scenes from the novel. This is the scene where Nick meets Gatsby’s father, a man of humble origins, at his son’s funeral — a funeral which is notable for the fact that no-one from his infamous parties turns up to it. The film tries to grapple the novel’s concern with emphasising the gulf between Gatsby as a veneer and Gatsby as he really is, but Luhrmann’s decision to overlook a broad demonstration of this is confusing. Cutting his father, a living reminder of Gatsby’s past, perhaps robs the potential of reinforcing this gulf, and also creating a sense of pathos. It’s empty and melancholy, and for me, the saddest scene in the novel — and it is sadly missed from this film. (Non-sequitur: I have no idea if this is intentional or not, but did DiCaprio’s unconvincing appropriation of ‘old sport’ grate on anyone else either? Anyone?)
I don’t think I need to wax lyrical too much about the music; enough has been said about its usage. I do agree with those who think it’s distracting — these songs are good on their own, but they also take us out of Gatsby’s world. There seems to be an attempt to replicate a similar aesthetic to Moulin Rouge! in its patchwork appropriation of past and present, but in all fairness, as I’ve continued to emphasise, Fitzgerald’s novel is a completely different beast to a musical set in 1900s Paris which wears its debts to early cinema, cabaret, and Marc Bolan on its sleeve. I wonder whether Luhrmann is running out of ideas, or fails to realise that different sources of material may not respond well to the same techniques.
By focusing so much on making Gatsby look good rather than making us feel for the characters or illustrating its shallow underbelly, this ensures for a missed opportunity of a film. (That said, I’ve yet to see the Robert Redford version.) Poor DiCaprio and Mulligan try their best, but the end product is the equivalent of being hit in the face several times with a sledgehammer. We’re bored as a result. If you want a contemporary demonstration of the destruction of the American Dream, I suggest you go and listen to The National. Or perhaps go back and read the novel again.