Subtlety and themes beyond the basic plot are the major casualties of Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby adaptation. But despite the barbs of many reviewers, the film is on its way to being a hit, has arguably surpassed previous Gatsby films and may even be the version future attempts will try and emulate. It is a very good film and an almost-great Gatsby.
Creating a film of a much-loved classic is an invitation for heavy criticism and Baz Luhrmann’s latest version has already attracted a lot of it. To call the novel ‘well-loved’ is an understatement; fans take personal ownership of the characters and make an easy target of any adaptation in ways that even the adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina have not suffered. At least we did not have to endure Keira Knightley in Gatsby. As an indication of just how much this novel has been pored over and analysed, my copy comes with a 49-page introduction by a Cambridge Fellow that I can never be bothered to read entirely.
So endeared is the novel that it invites almost religious fervour that makes one wonder how objective people are in their appraisal of the latest film.
I too shared some doubts as to whether this film would succeed and I think for the most part it has. So much so that I predict – to the horror and consternation no doubt of the novel’s populous fans – that this film will supplement the novel in many a high-school English class. Further, I feel certain any future Gatsby film will borrow from the vision of this version just as any Batman borrows from Tim Burton’s vision.
The portrayal of the key characters as an ensemble is an improvement on previous Gatsby’s
The best element of the novel is its characters. It is the characters which have made the novel an enduring favourite and also why those heavily-devoted fans are so sceptical of any adaptations and are so quick to condemn any defect in the portrayal of the characters they love. Previous Gatsby films have been criticised for getting the portrayal of only one character right at a time.
The aspect of the characters that makes them so evocative is how finely balanced they are. In the film this was best exemplified by Joel Edgerton’s portrayal of Tom Buchanan. His Tom is unlikeable, he is disagreeable, but he is not a villain in the sense of being a puppet-master manipulating the other characters, nor is he perpetrating some dastardly scheme (at least, not until the end of course). If anything it is the ‘hero’ Gatsby who is the schemer, the one who thinks that if he can play the music, he can make them dance. Tom is disgusting but not necessarily evil – that would be too simplistic and that is the difference between character and cliché.
I first read the novel many years ago and even then I pictured Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. But I equally imagined he would not pull it off. I was sure he could bring the passion of Gatsby, that he could effectively evoke Gatsby as the dreamer of impossible dreams and that he could play the über-wealthy host of ostentatious parties. But the Gatsby of the novel also has an awkwardness and a social-ineptness in private, which was where I felt DiCaprio would fail. In perhaps an indication of how far DiCaprio’s acting has come in the years since I first read the novel, he does indeed pull off the awkward, unsure Gatsby.
It is Daisy, played by Carey Mulligan that I think is missing an element. We see Daisy as the dream girl, as the unhappy wife and, as the story reaches its crucial moments, as the uncertain, indecisive unraveller of dreams. But the Daisy of the novel can also be cold and self-interested; revealing a distinction between the Daisy that Gatsby has spent years dreaming of and the real woman. Whether she leaves Tom, or takes responsibility for the accident, will have more to do with her interest in self-preservation than her belief in following dreams. This side of Daisy we do not see.
Whenever a novel is adapted to film some important part of the plot has to be left out. To me, that was Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki) whose story was cut short, which also takes away from Nick’s (Tobey Maguire) story. The point of Jordan and Nick’s subplot was to show how much Nick was under Gatsby’s spell that he neglects the other parts of his life. The film does a lot to show the effect Gatsby has on Nick’s life, but perhaps in a much simpler way than the novel.
The Nick Carraway character in this film fails in another aspect – he is far from the imitation-Fitzgerald, poor yet refined, artfully rendering the tragic tale he is witness to, while trying to remain unaffected by it. Rather he is a wide-eyed innocent soon to be corrupted by the world he is being drawn into. I don’t necessarily blame Tobey Maguire for this, as I believe he played the character as it was written for this film.
The greatest casualty in the translation from the classic novel to Luhrmann’s film is subtlety
Luhrmann doesn’t do subtlety. Luhrmann does spectacle and flamboyance. He has been derided by a critic in The New Yorker as a ‘music video director’. If this seems harsh it may be because it has a kernel of truth in it – it goes to the heart of what Luhrmann does well (exceptionally well) and perhaps what his limitations are too. I will admit I was encouraged when I heard Luhrmann was directing Gatsby. I felt his team, more than any other outfit, could provide the sensual extravaganza the adaptation deserves in imagery, costuming, setting, music and scenery. And I was not disappointed. The visuals of this film are perhaps its greatest achievement.
But, as I say, subtlety was the victim. It is manifest in several ways. Most obviously; the symbolism was overdone – far too overt and repetitive. I am speaking here mostly of the blinking green light at the end of Tom and Daisy’s dock and the all-seeing-eyes that look out over the working class hell that spans the gap between Tom’s old money mansion and Gatsby’s new money castle. Both were over utilised.
The novel is somewhat vague, or at least indirect, and I missed that in the film. One of the images from the novel that I keep returning to is the mass of used oranges and lemons, from so many cocktails, left after one of Gatsby’s parties. The novel does much to build up our (Nick’s) intrigue of Gatsby. Instead, the film is too hasty. We are barely comfortable in our seats when we are already being taken within one of Gatsby’s famous parties.
The music was mostly good, but I heard Jay-Z’s voice once too often. The Beyoncé hit Crazy in Love was cleverly re-imagined in a style that suited the scene and period but playing an obvious hit at that moment was a distraction. It detracted from what was the film’s best scene – the first time Daisy and Gatsby meet since they parted.
I felt Nick Carraway’s narration was a little hit and miss. At times narration is necessary and, if used well, can provide much-loved passages from the novel, but too often it spelled out the obvious when the scene should have been left to speak for itself.
The lack of subtlety also erodes the themes of the novel in the film. I had wondered, before seeing the film, if the book Tom was reading – The Rise of the Coloured Empires – was to be mentioned. In the twenty-first century, such an aside is too easily interpreted as a sign of bigotry on the part of Tom and adds to the disgust we feel towards him. It is too easily forgotten that such books and ideas were common and acceptable at the time and the purpose of its inclusion in the novel is to speak to the concerns of old money in a changing world and the threats they perceived they were facing. To include it in this version, I think, speaks again for the lack of subtlety.
We see a little of this clash of class in the film; old money is certainly portrayed as being careless, selfish and unfeeling; the optimism of the new white-collar working class is present as is the relative poverty of blue-collar working class; but the superficiality of new money is perhaps not exposed to a similar extent. The American Dream aspects of the novel are not really explored in the film.
Despite the lack of subtlety, some unexplored themes and a few missing elements of character, I think this was a well made adaptation. Luhrmann sticks to being faithful to the romantic drama of the story. It was as entertaining as it was visually stunning and well cast as it was well performed. Luhrmann’s achievement will endure and be enjoyed far longer than its detractors hope.