The Great Gatsby
Directed by Baz Lurhmann
Screenplay: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce
Based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Leonardo DiCaprio – Jay Gatsby
Tobey Maguire – Nick Carraway
Carey Mulligan – Daisy Buchanan
Joel Edgerton – Tom Buchanan
Elizabeth Debicki – Jordan Baker
Jason Clarke-George Wilson
Isla Fisher- Myrtle Wilson
Amitabh Bachchan – Meyer Wolfsheim
The Great Gatsby is one of my ten desert island novels, probably the shortest of the collection, but it is an example of a story perfectly told at its length. Any film adaptation of Fitzgerald is ironic in the light of Fitzgerald’s own less than stellar later career as a Hollywood screenwriter, which is reflected in The Last Tycoon and The Pat Hobby Stories. I was disappointed to see Scott Fitzgerald listed third, AFTER the adaptors on the IMDB, but as he died in 1940, The Great Gatsby has fallen out of copyright, which is why there are nice new editions of Fitzgerald’s work in the bookstores. And why you can find the text free online in several versions.
It’s a staggering thirty-nine years since the Robert Redford- Mia Farrow version of the story, so definitely the time is ripe for a new one. I notice that supermarkets have stacks of the Redford on DVD at £3 for the unsuspecting or plain dumb who see the publicity for the new one and think “Oh, that’s out quickly!’ This is usually done with new Disney cartoons, which is why the recent Tangled was not called the non-copyright title Rapunzel.
The first question was 3D or not 3D? I’d read about the sumptuous sets, thought it would be richly realistic 1920s settings, and thought there would be little point in 3D, but decided to opt for it anyway. 3D greatly accentuated the feeling of theatricality rather than cinematic settings. The settings are all hyper-real; both the Gatsby house on West Egg and the Buchanan house on East Egg are wildly over the top, and you know they’re SFX with a capital S and F and X. The wasteland between their Long Island retreats and New York City are truly wastelands … mainly empty, grimy, coal-covered, half-built, filthy, crumbling, decaying.
For twenty minutes or so I had a problem with the extreme 3D people and hyper-real background, accentuated by rap song on the soundtrack for 1920s New York … but then I got into it. Perhaps not coincidentally around the time Leonard DiCaprio first appeared as Gatsby. I’m desperate to see it again and soon, because my mild negativity at the start was so solidly swept away later that I want to watch that beginning with an open mind.
The book was narrated by Carraway, and here the story is seen as flashbacks from years later when Carraway is in a sanitarium, drying out from the alcoholism he succumbed to during the story, and those flashbacks sometimes have a hallucinatory quality. An example is when Gatsby has asked Nick to invite Daisy to his cottage for tea so they can meet again. Nick comes home to find Gatsby’s servants trouping through the woods, then filling his small cottage with flowers … the scene is like Alice in Wonderland or Lothlorien in The Lord of The Rings in colour, density, unreality. Then once inside the cottage, DiCaprio’s acting as he meets Daisy again after five years is exquisite.
Gatsby waits for Daisy in Nick Carroway’s cottage
Another example of the hallucinatory quality are the scenes with the cars racing across the landscape, sometimes seen from directly above. Then there’s the drunken organist playing the biggest pipe organ ever seen, surely a visual nod to Sunset Boulevard. The cutting accentuates this, sometimes snapping from event to event, skipping moments between. The death of Myrtle is a nightmare sequence.
The music, because it is anachronistic, brings instant criticism. But any modern soundtrack laid over a story is anachronistic. There aren’t violinists hiding in the trees in love scenes, so why classical or faux-classical theme music is not anachronistic, but other music is, must be irrational. But I had to get over the rap too. And there’s really very little of it.
Jay Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan, Tom Buchanan
I know the book very well indeed. The fascinating thing is that while you have this splendid hyper-real, but not often realistic background, then the characters in the front are played just as I always imagined them. Tobey Maguire is exactly the Nick Carraway narrator (or as Tom Buchanan describes him, “watcher”) of my imagination. Way back when, I rashly declared that The Great Gatsby was a classic tragedy of Shakesperean proportions and quality in a seminar and was sneered at by all. The theatricality of Baz Lurhmann’s film, coupled with the powerful charisma of DiCaprio’s rendition of Jay Gatsby fully justify my youthful description. That’s how you feel when the film ends.
What is strange, is that amidst all the glitter and glamour and huge casts and way over-the-top settings, the film is so remarkably faithful to the book. The book is such a small, restrained masterpiece (you can almost read it cover-to-cover in the time it takes to watch the film) that it’s hard to imagine how Lurhmann managed to get these two aspects to work on top of each other. I found myself muttering Scott-Fitzgerald’s lines before the cast actually said them, as in the moment when the overwhelmed Daisy in the Gatsby mansion can only comment, ‘I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts …’ :
“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such–such beautiful shirts before.”
Throughout, the words are Scott-Fitzgerald’s. The last paragraphs of the book are Fitzgerald at his very best, and are engraved in my mind. Not only do they deliver them accurately, they also let the text float in 3D in front of the action.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Some reviews hated the text on screen … which appears at points throughout. I think it respect for Fitzgerald’s words rather than a hammer blow reminding us that Nick Carroway is typing this. Also, 3D brings the words floating in space in front of the film.
I don’t usually bother to list so many of the cast in a review. I do here because they’re all so close to Fitzgerald’s portraits of them. And in front of the wild settings, some of the wildest bits are from the original book: Wolfsheim’s tie pin made from a human molar, for example is Fitzgerald, though in the novel, it was his cuff buttons:
He paused. “I see you’re looking at my cuff buttons.”
I hadn’t been looking at them, but I did now. They were composed of
oddly familiar pieces of ivory.
“Finest specimens of human molars,” he informed me.
Wolfsheim, Nick Carroway, Jay Gatsby
They do skip some things … particularly Nick Carroway meeting Gatsby’s father at the funeral, but in cinematic terms, maybe it wouldn’t have worked. The big innovation, which gave them the nerve to relegate Fitzgerald to third place in the writing credits, was framing the narrator (already a framing device) as an alcoholic in a sanatorium … but I can see them saying, ‘That’s what happened to Scott Fitzgerald.’ Well, yes, later, but not in 1925 when it was published. There is a mistake in always identifying the novelist with a story’s watchful narrator. In The Great Gatsby all the major characters have aspects of Fitzgerald: Carroway, the observant writer; Gatsby the rich but vulgar arrival from the Mid-West who sees the girl he loves is not exclusive to him; Tom & Daisy the callous and filthy-rich couple (Scott & Zelda).
It’s got some really stinking reviews. This is par for the course when a great novel is filmed. If it clashes with your mind pictures it will be awful. The New Yorker opined Luhrmann’s vulgarity is designed to win over the young audience, and it suggests that he’s less a filmmaker than a music-video director with endless resources and a stunning absence of taste. The Guardian (two stars) called it bombastic, excessive, at once pedantic and yet unreflective. Then later glib.
It is bombastic and excessive, but when they say it’s pedantic it’s because it does follow the book so carefully in its front story, while throwing up a bombastic and excessive background that needs to be so BIG and blaring to recreate the extremity that the Jazz Age seemed in 1925. I could see myself going with those negative opinions for most of the first twenty minutes, then I breathed deeply and started to watch without prejudice, and it won its way into me. The point is that Gatsby’s wealth is vulgar. Tom and Daisy are callous and indifferent, The scene in a New York apartment with Nick, Tom and Myrtle IS a seedy, drunken orgy. Vulgarity is fitting. The parallels between the excesses of the jazz age, much of the incredible wealth based on Wolfsheim and Gatsby’s dodgy bond dealing, and the banking crisis nowadays are writ large. Watch the eyes and expressions of all those bit parts watching the central characters. It’s a clear five star film for me.
I hope this review will help viewers to expect the enhanced reality, and be aware that the 3D accentuates it. The stills really don’t show you this, except in the poster. They’ve focused on the characters and kept those backgrounds and big, big scenes for the cinema. They’re right. Even though I spent the first ten minutes wishing I was watching it in the next cinema in 2D, I’d recommend the 3D version.