I want to let my biases be known right off the bat: I love The Great Gatsby. It’s one of my favorite books, and while I can understand others’ antipathy towards it (plotwise, it’s just Rich People Problems: The Book), whenever I re-read it, I always find something new to appreciate. As it was pretty much inevitable that I’d see the new Baz Luhrmann version, I took the opportunity to re-re-read the book, with a particular eye towards how a cinematic adaptation might work.

Another personal bias: I’m not a fan of Baz Luhrmann. With the exception of the ‘Roxanne’ tango scene, I found Moulin Rouge overly melodramatic, and wasn’t particularly impressed by his version of Romeo + Juliet either. (But to be fair to Luhrmann, I probably wouldn’t enjoy any version of Romeo and Juliet just out of principle.) However, even after seeing the movie, I don’t think that Luhrmann was totally the wrong person to direct a film adaptation of Gatsby. There is that aspect of glitz and glitter in wild parties that Luhrmann captures quite well (almost too well), and probably better than any other adaptation.

And for the record, the Jay-Z soundtrack isn’t nearly as distracting as I thought it would be. I was horrified when I heard autotune in the trailer, but in retrospect, Luhrmann was speaking some sense when he observed that since jazz was now a revered and respected form of music- classy and almost historic- the audience would not be able to understand the wild emotions that it excited during the 1920s. This kind of artistic license might make loyal readers apprehensive, but at the same time, being too deferential to the source material can sink an adaptation by sheer mediocrity. After all, the worst thing that Gatsby can be is a staid period piece, and if nothing else, a Luhrmann film is not staid.

Luhrmann’s decision to deviate from the book in superficials isn’t my problem (okay, sure, Gatsby is about the Jazz Age, but there’s more to it than that); I suspect that in his quest to bring Epic Doomed Romance to the screen, he sacrificed some of the book’s essence. In particular, his interpretation of the characters exchanges ambiguity for stock types suitable for Moulin Rouge 2.

I’ll mention the exception to start off with: Gatsby himself. Luhrmann and Leonardo DiCaprio play up Gatsby’s shadiness, his bursts of anger, and his attempts to control Daisy, with the implication that she might not be so much better off with him than with Tom. (That said, DiCaprio also captures Gatsby’s wistfulness, self-delusion, and charm, although I’m pretty sure he pronounces ‘old sport’ incorrectly through the entire movie.) However, the opposite is apparent in Tom Buchanan, who was never appealing in the book, but inches very close to mustachio-twirling territory in the movie. I could talk about Nick and Jordan in a similar way, but in my opinion, the most glaring adjustments have been made to Daisy’s character.

In the book, Daisy is beautiful and charming, but powerless. This is not only a consequence of being a woman who is stuck in a bad marriage in a rigid society, but also her own weakness of character. For example, when she shows a hint of insight about her condition in the book- her admission to Nick that her life is not going well at all- she immediately follows it with a smirk, as if her cynicism were fashionable. While Daisy is actually unhappy, she is apparently incapable of being sincere about it; she has accepted it and allows her powerlessness to pull her along. Contrast this to Carey Mulligan’s Daisy, who delivers the speech as if Daisy were being entirely sincere about her ennui. It provides a very, very different image of her character- a much more sympathetic one.

Fitzgerald himself admitted that he didn’t give the relationship between Daisy and Gatsby as much depth as it needed in the book, but perhaps it was a fortunate mistake. Nobody comes out of reading The Great Gatsby thinking that Daisy and Gatsby were so perfect together, and if she’d just eloped with him, they would have lived happily ever after. Their love is insubstantial- Gatsby’s great passion for Daisy is representative of his deeper desires; she is only his dream, and ultimately his delusion.

None of this is really addressed in the film version, which only hints that Gatsby and Daisy might be anything more than tragic, star-crossed lovers, despite Gatsby’s flaws. Often, the film slips into unnecessary melodrama to support Luhrmann’s story of doomed love, which usually provokes laughter more often than rapt attention or tears. The most glaring example I remember was the introduction of Gatsby himself, what with the swell of dramatic music as Gatsby turned around in slow motion to reveal- Leonardo DiCaprio’s face in an uncomfortably close close-up. (As if anyone was surprised by DiCaprio being there.) All this goes to show that if Luhrmann is an unsuitable director, it’s less because of his loud aesthetics or his willingness to deviate from the source, and more because of his lack of narrative subtlety.

This is so disappointing precisely because subtlety is what makes The Great Gatsby interesting in the first place. People have complained that nothing really happens, which is true, from a certain perspective. From another, it could be said that Fitzgerald manages to fit a lot into a slim little book that’s not even 200 pages long- and much of that is skillfully folded into the narrative structure. Usually, short books are ‘easier’ to adapt to screen than momentous tomes (though that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from playing around with doorstoppers). However, in this case, Nick Carraway’s deeply subjective and condensed narrative is problematic at best for an adapter.

Luhrmann (who is also one of the screenwriters) gets around this by framing the main story as a flashback narrated by Nick as he is being treated for alcoholism. It makes sense, but at the same time, something about Tobey Maguire’s flat, excruciatingly slow voiceover did not do justice to the Nick who talked directly to you with startling immediateness, as if we were already friends. The words floating across the screen as Maguire said them were also well past pointless. (Because I guess it’s important that Nick is literally writing the story?)

Luhrmann managed to preserve good chunks of the original text in this way, but I couldn’t help but think that with the cast he’d assembled, he’d be better off just letting them act, unimpeded by voiceover and cuts back to the doctor in the asylum (who no one cares about, come on). In fact, my favorite scene in the movie was when Gatsby meets Daisy in Nick’s cottage- one of the few played absolutely straight. Nick’s confused awkwardness and Gatsby’s excessive nervousness were portrayed perfectly by Maguire and DiCaprio, and the result was an absolutely hilarious scene.

Of course, I can’t argue that Nick’s narration is unimportant to the book- it’s crucial. There are all kinds of things dancing beneath the surface there, and Luhrmann probably felt that he couldn’t just toss it aside, even if he didn’t have space to address those underlying implications. This isn’t the first time that voiceover has been criticized- portraying subjective points of view in a film generally is really, really hard.

I’ve heard about one adaptation of The Great Gatsby that deals with this very interestingly: a six-hour, word-for-word stage version called Gatz. It starts with a normal man in an office who randomly picks up a copy of Gatsby and starts reading out loud; gradually, his coworkers meld into the characters of the book, with himself as Nick Carraway, and the dull office becomes the backdrop to the story as real life and novel combine.

But a six-hour film version of Gatsby just wouldn’t work, and the recent trend of splitting books into multiple movies would seem even more ridiculous with a book that is under 200 pages. What was Luhrmann to do when he was faced with such an elementary problem with his medium? I suppose you could say, ‘Well, some books should just be left alone, and The Great Gatsby is one of those books’.

You could probably make a good argument for it, and I won’t lie, I would be interested in seeing more original stories on screen and fewer mediocre adaptations. But when they’re good, movie adaptations have the potential to contribute significantly to the way that you look at the book. It can be really interesting to interpret a story in a way that’s new and timely- a good example is how Apocalypse Now transferred the essentials of Heart of Darkness to the still-recent Vietnam War to make a similar point about human nature.

To be honest, I wanted to see a 2013 version of The Great Gatsby not because I especially love 1920s excess (although it did look very pretty), but because I was interested in its relevance to the modern world. After all, the story is about THE AMERICAN DREAM, as we were all informed in high school, and it’s a dream that is currently in crisis. A new, thoughtful interpretation of a uniquely American story could have been a fascinating insight into Fitzgerald’s society as well as our own.

Was this too much to expect out of a two hour movie? Perhaps. You can’t keep every aspect of the book in the film version, and Luhrmann made an executive decision to focus more on the romance and glamor and less on the social implications. The result was a movie that was silly but entertaining. I didn’t hate it, and it was more or less what I expected it to be, but I can’t deny that I came out disappointed with all the unfulfilled potential.

This is already running excessively long, but the good thing about a mediocre movie is that it forces you to think critically about what you would do to fix it. It’s a good mental exercise, even if I never write yet another adaptation of The Great Gatsby. (Although another Gatsby movie is practically inevitable at some point in the future, especially since this one made money and a Gatsby sequel would be trashy, even for Hollywood.)

So sound off- is Gatsby fundamentally unadaptable? How would you deal with the problem of Nick’s narration in the film medium? (Personally, I think it’d be cool to see a kind of stream-of-consciousness where Nick’s present narration melts into simultaneous flashback somehow…but that might be better suited to the stage, like Gatz.) Did Luhrmann change too much or not enough? What do you think a modern adaptation of a 1920s classic should emphasize or de-emphasize? Onward to the comment section!

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  1. NeuroticPlatypus on 3 June 2013, 17:12 said:

    After all, the story is about THE AMERICAN DREAM, as we were all informed in high school

    This made me smile.

    And I’m glad to hear that the soundtrack wasn’t all that distracting. I was really annoyed by it in the previews (and I’m not even a Gatsby fan). The explanation about why it works better than jazz makes sense, though.

    I haven’t read the book since high school, but I think if they can’t deal with the narration properly, they could just drop it. They dropped (and really minimized the character of) the narrator in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Bromden). I didn’t like how they minimized the character in that, but it still made a good film. Maybe Nick’s narration would be better left out so that it is not yet another thing for filmmakers to worry over (like I said, I haven’t read it since high school and can’t remember how important Nick’s perspective is in the grand scheme of things).

    I think focusing on the social implications would be the way to go. Gatsby, as you say, is not supposed be about star-crossed lovers, so I don’t think that should be the focus of an adaptation. I think even a Gatsby that takes place in the present might be interesting because it could explore all the excess and death of the American Dream stuff going on currently.1 And that Gatz play sounds pretty interesting.

    Personally, I would like to see an adaptation where Myrtle is fat.

    1 Hmmm… apparently this is sort that.

  2. Snow White Queen on 3 June 2013, 17:55 said:

    Personally, I would like to see an adaptation where Myrtle is fat.

    I know, the book description of her is so vivid. But this made me laugh, so good job.

    They dropped (and really minimized the character of) the narrator in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Bromden). I didn’t like how they minimized the character in that, but it still made a good film.

    Ooh, interesting example. I should have thought of that myself.

  3. swenson on 4 June 2013, 08:34 said:

    I haven’t seen this yet and don’t plan to. Gatsby is a very special book to me. It’s not that it’s my favorite book or the best-written one or the most important, but it is very much a book with a style, and I simply don’t think that style could ever be translated to the screen—which is kind of what I got out of this review.

    I feel like with Gatsby, you either have to make it entirely a period piece, screaming ROARING TWENTIES at the top of its lungs and ultimately rather depressing, or throw out the original entirely and make something that just sort of hits the same notes in a modern world.

    But I just can’t accept an adaptation that might get the superficial elements right (the wild parties, even the music like you mentioned, the doomed love) and not get the themes right (old money vs. new money, that Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship is and would always be a failure, etc.). Nobody reads Gatsby because it’s a wonderfully uplifting book with wonderful characters everybody adores, after all.

    I do have two questions, though: one, did they keep the massive amounts of entirely deliberate racism (which I always thought was an important element); and two, was Jordan as self-destructive and careless as in the book? I always rather liked her, as much as I liked anybody from the book.

  4. Snow White Queen on 4 June 2013, 11:57 said:

    did they keep the massive amounts of entirely deliberate racism

    Kind of. They do keep the scene where Tom’s going on about ‘Colored Empires’…but Meyer Wolfsheim’s actor is actually Indian, so whatever anti-Semitism was there in the book doesn’t really come through so much in the movie.

    was Jordan as self-destructive and careless as in the book

    Not even close. Jordan doesn’t really do much in the movie other than have that meeting with Gatsby and kind of flirt with Nick.

  5. swenson on 4 June 2013, 12:47 said:

    Jordan doesn’t really do much in the movie other than have that meeting with Gatsby and kind of flirt with Nick.


    This may just be because I sort of liked Jordan, but I always felt her throwaway attitude toward life was part of the whole greater theme about how flimsy and insubstantial the life of the rich was—nothing really mattered, not even moral integrity or personal safety.

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