“The Great Gatsby”
Warner Bros. Pictures
2 hours, 22 minutes
About half-way through the Friday night showing of this week’s literary adaptation-extraordinare, an earnest red-haired boy snuck out of his seat and duck-walked across the aisle to tap my wife, his high-school English teacher, on the shoulder. He had a clarifying question to ask about “Gatsby,” just like he might on any typical weekday afternoon, and yet, instead of being in class, here he was, out with his friends, watching a splashy summer movie on its opening weekend.
Looking around at the audience, populated with teachers and counselors, but with mostly teenagers, I realized that director Baz Luhrmann has managed to achieve with his medium, what the best educators do everyday with theirs — opening up a challenging line of thought, in this case a classic work of literature, and making it accessible to a new generation. And the best part is, Luhrmann does it without dumbing down the material, without pumping up the sex or violence, and without settling for a Cliff’s Notes version.
He does it with his unique style, but more than that, with an obvious love for the material. “The Great Gatsby” is truly a great adaptation.
If you’ve never read “The Great Gatsby,” I can honestly say you’re missing out. And as beautifully realized as this latest film version is, it’s still no substitute for diving into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short but powerful novel. I can say this with certainty because I have read the novel, literally just finishing it the evening before heading to the theater. To be totally honest about my tastes, it’s not a book that I probably would have sought out — it contains no spaceships, no dragons, no royal intrigue, and not one time traveler.
And yet, the melancholy tale of Jay Gatsby’s desperate pursuit of his one true love, the beautiful, clueless, and oh, so married Daisy, is one of the best I’ve ever read. The story goes like this. Nick Carraway, a recent college grad, moves to Long Island in the early 1920s, hoping to make it in the Big Apple as a bond trader. He rents a modest cottage, tucked amid the florid mansions of the newly rich, in an area of the island called West Egg, right across the bay from the old money estates of East Egg, where lives his cousin Daisy and her exceedingly wealthy husband Tom Buchanan.
Nick, our narrator, is not really a member of any particular class, but gets caught up in the lifestyles of the rich and famous when he befriends Gatsby, who happens to live right next door in a sprawling castle, a home crawling with glitzy partygoers every weekend from dusk ‘til dawn. Gatsby, it is revealed, is in love with Daisy, who he met years before, and who he is convinced will drop everything to marry him, if he can only get her into his orbit.
“Gatsby’s” been adapted for the screen several times before, but never with any particular success, the most famous attempt a tepid Robert Redford/Mia Farrow affair that never really gets off the ground. It could be that the novel is difficult to adapt because it contains so much subtext — that much of the action of the characters is somewhat muted and proper.
Luhrmann gets around that by bringing the subtext to the forefront through the use of color, dynamic cinematography, including one of the better applications of 3D I’ve seen, and most importantly, music. Bringing Hip Hop impresario Jay-Z in to build the soundtrack may seem like an odd choice for a story about the 1920s, but the energetic numbers help set the mood, clarify the story, and provide the plot with a fast pace that never slogs. And, as a good friend of mine points out, it also doesn’t hurt when you’re trying to market this movie to the 15-25 crowd.
As good as the music are the performances. Leonardo DiCaprio turns on the charm and yet manages to let Gatsby’s barely concealed panic bubble just below the surface. Toby Maguire, as Nick, is the perfect everyman, and Joel Edgerton, as Tom, brims with bullish obliviousness. Tom, however, is not dim, and Edgerton never plays him as weak.
Carey Mulligan is beautiful and tragic as Daisy, balancing a playful spirit with a deep sadness. Also superb, in somewhat smaller roles, are Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke as Mytle and George Wilson, lower class residents of the city who, without any status or pedigree, are free to let their emotions drive their actions, with devastating results.
As a director, Luhrmann does a brilliant job creating a stylized, frenetic environment, without losing the integrity of any particular scene.
Possibly my favorite sequence sees a nervous Gatsby, fretting in Nick’s tiny cottage, waiting for Daisy to come to tea. The scene in the book is tense and funny, briefly melancholy, and then hopelessly romantic, all captured within a few pages.
On film, the scene is 100 percent Baz, with bright, gorgeous colors, anachronistic music, and an almost baroque attention to detail, and yet the feel I had at the end of it was precisely the feel I had when I read the book.
I loved Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” but as with most adaptations, even excellent ones, there are certainly problems.
For one, the last part of the story, though very similar in narrative, is severely truncated from the version on the page. I understand that the filmmakers didn’t want to get slogged down in extraneous detail in the last ten minutes of the movie, but it’s in these last moments that Gatsby’s true character is revealed, and this cutting does him a bit of a disservice.
Also, though Fitzgerald’s novel was about the intractability and inherent destructiveness of the super-rich, Luhrmann’s film seems to be more about hope and optimism, even when accompanied by self-delusion. This is a valid theme, of course, but I miss the sharp criticism of the novel, where the author essentially tells us that good, common people will meet with nothing but tragedy if they attempt to climb to the level of the phenomenally oblivious wealthy elite.
To give Luhrmann his due, Fitzgerald’s succinct and telling description of Tom and Daisy as “careless” does make it into the film, though without some of the power it has on the page.
My biggest complaint, however, has to do with a grating and unnecessary framing device, wholly invented by Luhrmann and Co., which finds Nick, at the beginning of the story, in a sanitarium, telling his tale to a kindly doctor who encourages him to write it all down. You can see where that’s going.
I was offended by this even as I understood what the writers were going for. The story needs Fitzgerald’s elegant prose, his perfectly balanced dialogue, and having a narrator at a typewriter was a perfect way to achieve that.
But the idea that Nick has suffered some sort of breakdown as a result of the events that unfolded is to completely miss the point of his character. Nick, in the book, is a perfectly neutral force — neither rich nor poor, he is able to maneuver the tragic intersection between the upper and lower classes without being too much affected by it personally.
Minor issues aside, however, this new “Gatsby” can finally give English teachers, and the rest of us, reason to celebrate. Grade: A-
“The Great Gatsby” is rated PG-13 for sexual situations, brief nudity, and violence.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.