Whenever a book is adapted to film, the reviewer is left with a dilemma. Do you review the movie as a movie unto itself, or do you review the movie as an adaptation of the book? While it only seems fair to judge the movie on its own merits, it’s often impossible to leave behind personal knowledge of the book. That dilemma only grows more complicated when the book is one of the Great American Novels.
I’ll confess here and now that I find it quite impossible to review the movie on its own merits. The Great Gatsby was one of the school-assigned novels that led me to pursue an English degree in college, not because I loved the novel so much, but because my teacher’s help in breaking the code of the symbolism and the structure added the thrill of the hunt to my inherent love of reading. (Thanks for that, Miss Pack.) In fact, like some Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings fans who must have the book fresh in their minds before seeing the next installment, I was just geeky enough about it to re-read the book before watching the movie. So I cannot avoid the comparison review.
Combining the grandiose style of Australian director Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet) with the audience’s relationship to Fitzgerald’s novel can only lead to controversy. His use of modern music and visuals with a period piece is bound to infuriate purists. Yet in some ways Luhrmann is a great fit.
Fitzgerald’s novel is drenched in imagery and symbolism. It describes a particular experience of the Jazz Age—that of the young and rich in New York. Luhrmann is all about visuals (and I should mention I saw the 2D version); he often takes a moment and visually exaggerates it. So he is right on board with Fitzgerald’s depiction of careless people who “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back in to their money or vast carelessness,” giving us wild rides in bright, shiny automobiles, glittering parties, and displays of massive wealth.
Luhrmann brings to life the audacity and the sheer recklessness of the lifestyle, portraying a strong sense of the seedy side that is a little harder for contemporary audiences to get hold of in the book. Modern hip-hop is an anachronistic choice for a Roaring Twenties setting, but it adds a sensual power to the scenes that is in keeping with the nature of the book.
Luhrmann also brings physicality to the story that is not immediately obvious to readers; while plenty of people in the book are having extramarital affairs, in the film it is much more in your face. This makes the moral bankruptcy of the relationships so obvious, but it also leaves viewers feeling a bit sullied themselves. In other words, the viewer experiences it all right along with young Nick Carraway.
The actors do a fine job in their roles, which is saying something. In the book, the main reason given for Daisy’s attractiveness is a certain aspect of her voice. Carey Mulligan does what she can with that, embodying the sultry wispiness of Daisy’s character. Similarly, Gatsby’s main attribute is a way of smiling with understanding and reassurance. Leonardo Di Caprio pulls this off, for the most part. The unfortunate part of casting Di Caprio is not his inability to capture the character, which he does well, but a viewer’s long history with him. As Gatsby’s obsession becomes clearer, I couldn’t help but think of Di Caprio’s version of Howard Hughes in The Aviator. And when another actor portrays a younger Gatsby sailing the seas, I wondered why they didn’t just insert clips from Titanic. Tobey Maguire’s Nick is wide-eyed and non-judgmental, as he should be, though I’m not fond of the framing device added to give reason for Nick’s narration of the story. Jordan Baker is a disappointment in the movie, as her character is given little reason for being there.
Overall, The Great Gatsby is a loud, gaudy version of a loud, gaudy story that, in print, is told in a quiet way. Baz Luhrmann’s direction, as expected, gives it an over-the-top feel at times, and he can be repetitious in his eagerness to make sure we pick up on a particular symbol or image. However, Fitzgerald also sometimes makes his point plain, coming just short of hitting us over the head to make sure we understand what he’s saying.
While the movie takes some liberties, as all adaptations must do, it stays true to the soul of the story. Which is to say, it aptly demonstrates Tom and Daisy’s lack of a soul, and it shows the same lack in the larger community of rich and aimless young New Yorkers. Some might look at the cultural shift toward “emerging adulthood” and say that this is a very modern tale indeed. (Warner Bros.)