Whatever the digital equivalent of a stuck record is, that is how I feel when it comes to film adaptations of much-loved/’un-filmable’/challenging books, plays and the like. Analysis of such films often regresses into ‘this bit wasn’t in the film’ and ‘that bit wasn’t in the book’. Often that’s both irrelevant and unhelpful. Why? It’s instructive to think of the story as something independent of the film or book or play. It’s a different category of object, one which a book or a film or a play all look at from slightly different angles. Necessarily so; they are radically different media with different demands and different constraints. So a film of one story should give us different perspectives on a story which a book can’t. The skill is in doing this well, respecting the original novel but not so much that your film starts feeling like it’s on an entirely pre-determined course, a visual check-list of things to ensure are all present and correct.
It’s rarely that simple, though. People fall in love with works of art; they become part of us. We feel like we own them; so we can feel somehow violated when we sense that something we love hasn’t been served well by an interpreter. Our memories are trashed, our emotions trampled on. And we get angry. Adapting is hard and taxing work.
So to The Great Gatsby. The original novel is one of American culture’s touchstones. Written in 1925 by F Scott Fitzgerald, it’s a dizzying tale of the jazz era. The hedonism and endless partying of and around the smart and monied set is evoked in a series of surreal, almost hallucinatory images and metaphors; the majestic prose is wrapped around the story of the titular Gatsby, a man of wealth, purveyor of parties and possessed of a quirky and ultimately sinister passion towards the entrancing Daisy. The book itself is narrated by Nick, a man who rents a house next door to Gatsby and finds himself both part of and close to some increasingly out-of-control events.
That’s the original telling of the story in a vastly inadequate summary, and the novel is one that is often touted as America’s most-loved; it’s beautiful, mysterious and romantic, critiquing the American dream even as it portrays it. It’s a tough one to adapt for the screen – both because of the extraordinary prose and it’s status in American culture. Mess with it and you’re messing with America’s self-understanding.
All of which makes Australian director Baz Luhrmann an ideal but also dangerous choice. Ideal because his previous films indicate a fearless creativity around iconic texts: his Romeo and Juliet or Moulin Rouge show a breathless creativity and evangelistic passion to present something old as something vibrantly new. He’s not one to shirk a challenge. He’s a dangerous choice for the same reasons: with such singular and complete vision, the likelihood of offended book-lovers was high. Add to that rumours of a troubled production, the news it was to be presented in 3D and accompanied by an out-of-control budget; then there was every expectation of both severe disappointment and art imitating the life which the art was portraying. Decadence, opulence, carelessness with money and emotion … it’s all there, we were told.
So what is this new film, then? It’s an inevitable, joyous, emotion-wracking, dazzling, addictive, life-enhancing failure. A failure because with so much invested in the novel, with the stakes so high, it could only be a failure. But like Gatsby himself, what a failure. Like all Luhrmann films, it looks and sounds extraordinary. The colours are vivid; the cinematography fluid and energetic; even the 3D (and this is rare) somehow serves the story by somehow managing to look at times (deliberately, I’m sure) artificial so that you’re even further immersed into the ever more artificial world of the novel’s characters. It sounds extraordinary, again, as all Luhrmann films do. Here, as with Shakespeare and Moulin Rouge, he uses the music of today to soundtrack the world of yesterday. It works magnificently – either to reinforce the story or evoke the atmosphere on a whole other level.
The performances are uneven. Leonardo DiCaprio is very good as Gatsby; Carey Mulligan as Daisy is simply outstanding. Toby Maguire as narrator Nick Carraway is intended to be a little bland, a little melt-into-the background both to provide the viewer with an anchor and to portray how the world we’re seeing here gradually sucks your very sense of self; the trouble is he’s bland to the point of boring. Other smaller (but significant) parts just get lost in the haze; the performances either aren’t strong enough to be noticed or get drowned out by the surrounding noise: especially, and crucially Jordan, the woman who acts as Nick’s route into Gatsby’s world. The little known (to me at least) Elizabeth Debicki gives what felt like a humble and skilful performance; but it’s so under-written she disappears like fading fog.
As you’d expect from Lurhmann, some of his flourishes let him down; not least the sequences where the (written) narrator’s words appear as if typed on to the screen, then drift off towards the viewer. It’s clever and brave – looking the brilliance of the prose in the face but refusing to back down.It’s too much so: adapting such a well-loved novel it’s probably best not to remind people quite so directly why they so loved it in the first place.
So Lurhmann’s Gatsby is an apt and brilliant failure; and we should be grateful that Lurhmann has given us such a personal vision and in doing so launched the story into a generation’s visual consciousness. I’d rather watch a director of his passion, vision, courage and creativity fall short, than dozens of others get it spot on (if such a mark is possible). Films are made for the cinema, and should be seen there if at all possible; rarely for me, I find myself telling you to seek it out in 3D if you can. Whilst I hope that format doesn’t dominate cinema’s future, it’s good to see a director find a purpose in the format that isn’t pure financial profit. For that, and much else, we should be grateful for Lurhmann’s Gatsby.
For a good analysis of the film as a vision of the novel, from someone with deeper and more recent engagement of the novel than mine, see this excellent piece by my friend Sandra.
I rated this film 7/10 in imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com