Baz Luhrmann’s latest movie opened last week with a fanfare. The press and audiences alike have been in a frenzy for months stirred into near panic by trailers and posters galore which depicted a gaudy and highly stylized version of the 1920s for Luhrmann’s latest take on history and/ or classic literature, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The novel, and Luhrmann’s film, tells the tale of the mysterious Jay Gatsby, a filthy rich embodiment of the roaring 20s, a dreamer, who holds splendiferous parties all to get the attention of an apparently unattainable woman. The novel is famous for being unfilmable, several other attempts failing to capture the tragedy and the hideous nature of America before the Great Depression. So did Luhrmann achieve the impossible, or was this another failed, if ambitious, adaptation?
If we remind ourselves that movie adaptations are products of the personal imagination of somebody else, we would not be so disposed to look for and spot all of the details and things that the director decided to change, not to include or omit in his personal interpretation. The Great Gatsby, is a very complex, almost mysterious novel: it creates mixed feelings among its readers and it is open to various interpretations. Some people think of it as one of the great masterpieces of American literature, whilst others dismiss it as one of the many overrated novels.
As Leonardo DiCaprio, (who plays the eponymous Gatsby in this latest adaptation) said, Fitzgerald’s novel is “woven in to the fabric of America” as it is the portrait of the splendor, excess and illusions of wealth of the ‘roaring 20s’ or the so-called ‘Jazz Age’. As the novel is enriched by a great prose, the same effect has been attempted in the movie. Many, if not all of the scenes were recorded almost as a part of a perfect choreography, where everything was in harmony to portray the illusion of perfection, order and wealth. In the movie, like in the book, the audience is propelled into a colorful, chaotic and frivolous New York, where the main entertainments were parties, music, alcohol, and where all that mattered was not really who you were and how you got there, but what you possessed.
As he previously did with ‘Romeo + Juliet’ (featuring the same DiCaprio), the Luhrmann carries a classic of literature to the 21st century, with all its consequences. Here he was able to retain that sense of opulence and excess typical of the Roaring Twenties. With the costumes, places and atmospheres, Lurhmann was able to recreate a dreamlike world which was stylized and therefore not entirely faithful to the one described by Fitzgerald. However, the dialogues were almost faithfully reproduced.
A major fault of this movie was its use of 3D. It seems to be forced onto the movie and adds little to the story. There is also too much of a contemporary feel, particularly in the party scenes which made the film feel like Luhrmann was creating his ideal Jazz Age party; an outsider looking in as all the cool kids played. Ironically, Luhrmann is acting like his protagonist as a result. Certainly Fitzgerald and his contemporaries did not have Jay-Z, Beyonce, Florence and the Machine and Lana Del Rey playing at their parties. With this hip-hop/pop soundtrack, perhaps Lurhmann wanted to create a link between those times and ours: whether he fully succeeded or not is still subject to to consideration.
The changes Luhrman decided to make were sometimes refreshing and entertaining but others affected the concepts that lie at the heart of the novel. For example, the movie seems to fail in portraying the solitary death of Gatsby, who in the novel is left alone in his deathbed with the exception of the faithful Carraway. This can be said to symbolize the corrosive power of the American dream, of lost illusions and represents the materialistic side of the society of that time and of Gatsby’s acquaintances, always eager to go to his parties but too busy to attend his funeral and commemorate his person.
The cast was overall really good: Carey Mulligan perfectly depicted the vain, scared and sometimes naïve Daisy, with powerful scenes in which her eyes were able to express the mixed feelings of her character. Ultimately, however, she seems too lightweight to fully reproduce the complexities at the heart of Daisy, even though this is probably due to the fact that such complexity was real only in Gatsby’s eyes and not in reality. Tobey Maguire is able to perform well in his difficult role us Nick Carraway although sometimes his interpretation seems to be too detached and at time disconnected. Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby excelled once again and was able to perfectly embody and portray the charisma of his character, obsessed with the past and the idealistic portrayal of a woman who is not who he wants her to be. He confirms himself to be a great actor, fully deserving of an Academy Award which he is yet to achieve. Joel Edgerton was great at interpreting the superficial, self-centered, racist love cheat Tom Buchanan, remaining always focused and immersed in his role.
There were certainly many risks in making a new movie adaptation for this classic, probably because it is so beloved that this movie will inevitably fail to please everybody. Luhrmann obviously changed some parts and decided to omit others. Some news seemed unnecessary, like the therapy sessions of Nick Carraway or some inaccuracies of the costumes. Other omissions seemed really important instead, like the absence of Gatsby’s father, a tragic figure who Carraway meets at the end of the novel. Despite not receiving recognition in Cannes, where the movie was anticipated with excitement but met with an awkward silence, Luhrmann’s interpretation is undoubtedly worth watching and deserves the attention it is currently receiving. This is mainly because it succeeds in propelling the spectator into a world where Gatsby is desperately trying to recall the past and recreate himself in it and where the other characters are captured by the sparkle of a modern world and ignoring the darkness lurking behind it.
In conclusion, if we try to consider this movie as a faithful adaptation of the book it will certainly fail, but if (as suggested by the LA Times) we look at it from the perspective that it is an interpretation which connects the Jazz Age to ours then we will perhaps realize that this movie does not ruin the book at all, but rather updates it. It is not trying to say something about the past, but rather it i a zeitgeist of 2013 something about the past, but rather trying to capture zeitgeist s a zeitgeist of 2013. It is important to remember that at the time of its release, The Great Gatsby itself was unsuccessful and panned by the critics, maybe because those critics were too close to the world that Fitzgerald inhabited in the novel to look critically upon it. This film captures the spirit of today and is thus quite tragic. We have not learnt the mistakes of the past; money remains King even though experience has taught us that it will not bring you happiness. Other critics are perhaps too attached to the book to open themselves up to a different and contemporary interpretation. Luhrmann might fail to please all, but he will certainly not fail to please those who even if remaining attached to the immortal beauty of a literary classic, will nevertheless enjoy the pleasure of a refreshing and different interpretation.