Say what you will about Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby extravaganza, but I thought the modern music take in the movie, especially the music by modern rappers, was bangin’ (on that in a minute).
(Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the movie, do not read).
There was a lot of hype about this movie, generated no doubt by the Hollywood machine and the producers of the film, and Vanity Fair is right in that no movie adaptation from great novels has really succeeded in superseding the novel in greatness (click on link to go to article). Despite that, the write-up of Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby certainly whetted my appetite, probably because I’m a sucker for a well-researched film. Then the critics dug in. Here are a couple of links to some reviews of how the movie fell short of expectations.
The tenor in general from the critics is that the movie is big on splash and technowhizz cinematography (“Those headache-inducing zoom shots…so says one review), but short on content and interpretation, “the film is finger food and nothing more” (The Telegraph), “tramples on Fitzgerald’s exquisite prose” (The Guardian, Phillip French), (“pedantic and unreflective”, The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw), “The simplicity of Luhrmann’s conceptions filters into their portrayals” (The New Yorker). I’m not sure what the critics were expecting, and in any case, I’m no film critic, but having reread the book once again, watched the 1974 version and then the Luhrmann interpretation, what I found eminently satisfying was the filmic interpretation of a classic. I don’t want an exact regurgitation of the book, I can do that by reading it for myself, and in any case, there is no such thing as an exact reproduction of a classic. Baz Luhrmann was pretty faithful to Fitzgerald’s book, overall, but so was the 1974 version directed by Jack Clayton. As Peter Bradshaw so aptly put it, before he goes on to trash Luhrmann’s interpretation, “With literary adaptations, part of the fascination lies in how the director has read the source material, perhaps with some new interpretation.”
In Luhrmann’s version, the interpretation is all in the emphasis put on certain parts of the story. For me, he highlighted the difference between no-money and have-money, versus the slightly different take I got from Fitzgerald’s original version, which was really more between “old-money” and “new-money”. That strain was unavoidable in Luhrmann’s Gatsby, but it’s interesting to me that Gatsby chooses to align himself more closely to no-money than have-money, even though he’s obviously made it. In a way, this is more in line with the fact that our society today doesn’t really distinguish between old money and new money so much as it highlights the haves versus have-nots. Many a social pundit has actually commented that those gaps between poor and rich in our society today are actually growing bigger, rather than shrinking. Another interesting difference from the Clayton version is that all the servants in Luhrmann’s Gatsby were black, so that the French butler really stood out. In Clayton’s version, there was only one black person cast in the film. Slice in the music of Jay Z, Kanye, Beyonce, will.i.am., and there’s a pretty rich irony here. In fact, the same race that had waited on the Buchanans hand and foot (as shown in the movie) also produces the movies, the music, and the branding that accompanies so much of contemporary culture. If you’d been looking for a more emphatic “interpretation”, there it is. Could have been unintended, but no less tongue-in-cheek. The American Dream was there for the taking, in ways that the Tom Buchanans (on their way to becoming obsolete and past) couldn’t have dreamed of.
Luhrmann also chooses to highlight Carraway’s instability, the fact that Carraway needed to seek psychological help after Gatsby’s death. This is pure make-believe, of course. There is also no suggestion in Fitzgerald’s book that Carraway actually sat down in the aftermath of all the events and wrote down any part of the narrative we see in front of us, although it is his voice and it is in first-person. These two narrative devices serve to enhance Carraway’s role as more than that of unreliable second person observer. In fact, in this movie, I believe Tobey Maguire’s character was highlighted too much to the detriment of Dicaprio’s and Mulligan’s performances. The love story faded a little, Carraway’s loss of innocence brought forward, not helped by Maguire’s rather puppy-eyed gaze at the wild-swinging parties and orgies, and thus Luhrmann managed to make this movie more about Carraway than it is about Gatsby. Notice also that Luhrmann omitted much of the parts of the book about the funeral, especially when Gatsby’s father turned up. In his version, Gatsby’s father made no appearance at all. The love story between Gatsby and Daisy here also took on the feel of a fable, a myth — there was no heat, very little narrative drive, and the scenes between Daisy and Gatsby were often undercut by the superimposed face of Tobey Maguire’s eyes, rather like Dr. Eckleburg’s, gazing and judging everything. It had the one silver lining that when Maguire delivered the line, “You’re better than all of them”, I was moved, because he had rendered his final judgment on the whole thing.
The 1974 Redford-Mia Farrow-Sam Waterston version featured a more sanguine Carraway to my mind. Sam Waterston is, true to form, a more deadpan actor than Maguire, but I felt this was actually truer to Fitzgerald’s Carraway than Luhrmann’s was. Fitzgerald’s Carraway might have been a poor Carraway, but he was Daisy’s cousin and thus no stranger to the manners of those born to the manor. I did not in any way get the sense that he was a wide-eyed ingenue, if anything, the way he talked about turning thirty revealed a more jaded, more spiritually-weary mind than someone of that age should be.
The one truth that hasn’t changed in both movie portrayals, in alignment with the book, is that the preservation of class and status is more important to the upper classes than human life or romantic ideals. That is after all the elephant in Fitzgerald’s book. The green light in Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, to me, symbolised a more impersonal dream, albeit purer, because it captured the essence of an ability to reinvent yourself, despite your background. Clayton’s Gatsby even featured this line from Gatsby when he referred to Daisy’s marriage to Tom as personal, but Clayton did not extrapolate beyond that. Luhrmann avoided it entirely. In Luhrmann’s version, the dream takes on a more manic-obsessive cast, as Gatsby’s obsession with correcting his past with Daisy takes centerstage. It didn’t appear pure, if anything the glint in Dicaprio’s eye as he delivered those lines, showed a more complex, prismatic, and bedraggled mindset. Everything else about Luhrmann’s Gatsby seemed so fake, so put-on, down to the accent of ‘old-sport’ that in that one glimpse when Gatsby says, “Of course you can change the past”, the true Gatsby that emerged appeared to me somewhat of a madman. What did the green light symbolise then in Luhrmann’s Gatsby? Followed up with the final truncated lines from Gatsby, about being borne ceaselessly into the past, mirrored by Carraway’s own mental breakdown, at the very least, the message seems to be that the past, if you hang on to it, will do you in. Was that really what Fitzgerald wanted us to get from The Great Gatsby?
What about the charges of superficiality and shallowness? A New Yorker article actually examined whether Fitzgerald’s novel isn’t guilty of the same charges? Was each of Gatsby or Daisy, Myrtle or Wilson, and even the photographic artist, any less of a caricature there? (link here:
http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/05/the-serious-superficiality-of-the-great-gatsby.html ) Perhaps. I question the premise that just because more, a lot more, energy was invested in appearances, the wild parties, the orgies at Myrtle’s, etc. that it was all therefore superficial, all facade and no substance. Clayton’s Daisy definitely showed she was shallow, silly, and unable to handle any deeper singular truth if it contained self-examination, sadness or responsibility towards others (including her own child), but Mia Farrow’s performance (although OTT) hinted very much that Daisy knew that. This was not present in Mulligan’s Daisy, more’s the pity, and she therefore didn’t come across as quite so hateful, and Fitzgerald’s Daisy was even less conspicuous I find. Fitzgerald was more concerned with the male characters in the book, in my opinion, and there was distinctive camaraderie between Carraway and Gatsby, which Clayton portrayed, and Robert Redford and Sam Waterston executed (albeit in a restrained way, but I appreciated it nonetheless in that it had a gentleman’s way about it — you didn’t spend unnecessary words describing or talking about something negative, but the truth is nonetheless obvious and shared). This camaraderie was missing between Maguire and Dicaprio, even though there were more lines of dialogue between the two of them than there were in the 1974 movie. As between Tom and Gatsby, that antagonism was variedly portrayed, and the difference is more of degree than kind. In other words, in all three, Tom was an ogre. If the judgment of what makes a man is derived from ‘morality’ rather than money or stature, Tom, by any measure, was “beastly”, as in more beast than man. Fitzgerald’s judgment of that kind of stereotypical Old-Money brawn couldn’t be blunter.
Gatsby has become a phenomenon. Interestingly, it is no less a phenomenon today than it was when it came out. Or shortly thereafter when readers began to appreciate it more for its rendering of the particular stacking of New York society, and the hope and dreams that Fitzgerald believed in. For me, Gatsby continues to hold endless appeal, and every reading of it yields something different (as to that “exquisite prose” referred to by a critic, on the third or fourth reading, I would wager that a reader might locate some “purple prose” behind all that exquisiteness, :0), but it continues to hold endless appeal because, despite what you might say about its luridness and prop-like unreal ending, it’s still a heck of a story — and the story behind the story, all the white spaces where Fitzgerald lets the magic of what-makes-a-story-timeless-and-real happen that gets me every time. Whatever you want to say about Luhrmann’s version, the movie was enjoyable because it stuck to this simple dramatic truth.