Review: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, as re-imagined by Baz Luhrmann

Baz Luhrmann’s version of the iconic American novel gets“approved” from this English teacher.

If there were a film adaptation rubric, I’d give it a “Highly Proficient,” and 3.5 out of 4 stars, because it will connect with today’s young American. But for its style, some people (probably most of those over 50) are going to hate it..

As a teacher of high school juniors, I have taught Gatsby five or six times. I love the way its soft-spoken narration insinuates itself (with impressive vocabulary like “meretricious” and “orgastic”) into the teenage brain. The book appeals almost a century after its making, erasing generational differences with the ageless, tragic story of a man’s pursuit of a woman to crazy extremes.

That phrase, “crazy extremes”  summarizes what Luhrmann has done with this movie:  in his visuals and script (which he based on Fitzgerald’s other short stories and letters), he puts extreme emphasis on key parts of Fitzgerald’s book. Any literature teacher wanting students to notice symbolism and irony should be happy with this version.  

While I’ve only just seen the film (and NOT in 3D), and more pertinent points will occur to me later, I can state now that I approve of these extremes:

  • the way he foregrounds the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. As the driving symbol, it is a smart (if a bit over-emphasized) choice. No doubt the way the light glows through the fog on Long Island Sound would have been enhanced with 3D glasses.  
  • the way that he leaves certain interesting, but un-necessary parts of the book out of the movie. For instance, there were zero scenes showing Nick and Jordan’s relationship beyond what was necessary for info transfer (her telling of the infamous letter that disintegrates in the bath was especially well done). Nick’s love story with Jordan, such as it is, does not deserve a place on the same stage with Gatsby’s. The viewer quickly sees Jordan’s duplicity and vacuousness, and it contrasts smartly with Gatsby’s relative honesty and substance. Her wonderful line, “I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy” is wisely preserved. Another good elision:  the awkward business of Mr. Gatz coming to the funeral, or Nick’s meeting with Tom in the epilogue. The uniqueness of Nick and Jay’s friendship, and The Buchanon’s retreat into their “vast carelessness” after destroying the Wilsons and Gatsby are, the way Luhrmann stages them, already complete  
  • the way his style (impressionistic music, quick cuts, sumptuous vistas) updates the story for the Youtube generation. For instance, the party scenes were not (except for one unfortunate moment in which one of the men appears to be twerking his dance partner) anachronistic, despite Jay-Z’s beats undergirding them. And Luhrmann’s swooping camera zooming over East Egg, West Egg, Manhattan (with the Valley of Ashes in between) shows instantly the confusing (to midwestern teens) geography of the story. What an English teacher’s treasure!
  • the visuals generally deserve more comment. Luhrmann’s costumes, lighting, and detail in his scenes are operatic–they remind one of the exaggerated, surreal appearance of opera singers and sets. The effect of all these amazing visuals in Luhrmann’s hands is efficient info transfer. For instance, before he says a word, Tom Buchanon’s scarcely-controlled violence, his swaggering menace, is conveyed to the audience. Luhrmann has him practicing polo by taking a swings toward his mansion. Also, the way the director brings out Nick’s modern sense of being both observed and observer, participant and outsider, is masterful. In the party at Myrtle’s apartment sequence, we see what the book calls “the inexhaustible variety of life” on display in a CGI apartment building’s windows: definitely a “wow” visual moment.
  • the way Tom and Gatsby’s male competition is brought to the fore. Their roaring, competing cars are shown racing Fast and Furious-ly into Manhattan. Then, in the Plaza Hotel room scene, where some threatened violence goes beyond what’s in the book (Gatsby is described as looking as if he “killed a man”) we see how that line becomes, in its intensity, the climax of the movie. After DiCaprio conveys the moment with passionate intensity, we know things will not work out for Jay, that the audacious dream is doomed.   
  • the way one slight alteration–Nick’s addressing Gatsby on several occasions as “Jay”–can signify so much about Nick–his own sense of “otherness,” Gatsby’s attractiveness to him, and the odd but real friendship these two mid-westerners forge in their few months on the East Coast.

Anticipating those who don’t appreciate the extreme way Luhrmann reshapes the book, I acknowledge that his expressionistic version is not everyone’s cup of tea.  If you like your literary adaptations like Masterpiece Theater/BBC versions (accurate in details, comprehensive in coverage), you’re not going to enjoy this one.  Fans of Downton Abbey and Jack Clayton’s detailed period recreation of The Great Gatsby (1974 film) are not going to dig it. Naturalistic it isn’t.  

But viewed from an anthropological perspective, the movie makes sense. It communicates old, important ideas (of the limits of dreams, of class injustice, etc.) to a new audience. Anecdotal evidence? I happened to see several of my juniors at the cinema Friday night, and they were universally enthusiastic.

No surprise, is it? Each generation has its own lens and aesthetic sensibility. (“Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts” -Paul Simon) Remember how Roman Polanski saw Macbeth as a psychodelic 60s happening? Or how Phillip Casson’s saw the same piece as a stark museum piece in the oh-so-modern 1979? It’s only natural that a peer group will re-envisage a myth. It’s a matter of rhetoric:  altering the content to fit the specific needs/desires of an audience.

So no, I’m not ashamed to recommend this film to my students and colleagues–but don’t go looking for high-literary fidelity, and be ready for some extremes.

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