F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is one of my least favourite books. Yep, I said it. I mean, I understand why it has endured – it’s a dark satire of Roaring Twenties mores and behaviours, and more widely acts as a time capsule of the American milieu of the same era – but even though it’s not a very long book, it’s very boring. What doesn’t help its cause is that many students, this writer included, had to read it during high school, a task legendary for its total destruction of any interest one might have had in a text had one not had to analyse the living daylights out of it. And yet, after all this, I absolutely loved the Baz Lurhmann adaptation.
This makes two adaptations of the book that are superior to their source material. The 1974 adaptation was strong as an interpretation – the visuals emphasised the poetic and visual nature of Fitzgerald’s writing. Whilst slow moving, that film was certainly very faithful to the book, insofar as plot was concerned. Lurhmann’s adaptation turfs a lot of that, arguably for the better given the kind of films we’re used to in the 21st century, and instead emphasises the glamour and shallow excitement of New York life in the 1920s, of which Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda were very much a key part.
The film has a new framing device, in the form of Nick Carraway’s frenzied documentation of his experiences with Gatsby, used as a form of therapy. This serves to justify Carraway’s voiceovers throughout. For those unfamiliar with the story, it also serves to foreshadow the doom and gloom to come at the end. It seems Carraway’s recollections are occurring in October 1929, and we all know what that means! So much for the Great Gatsby – it’s THE GREAT DEPRESSION. I never said Lurhmann was subtle. It’s an effective format that also reminds us that decadence and greed seldom have a good effect on people.
Obviously Lurhmann’s take on Gatsby was going to be unique. That’s just how he rolls. The use of modern music and artists punctuating period musical styles was inevitable, but actually works extremely well. The idea Lurhmann seems to be pushing is that Nick Carraway is experiencing what for him is very surreal, and so the sudden presence of Jay Z and Kanye West doesn’t detract from the overall product in the slightest. Indeed, they bring home to the audience the fact that the outrageous behaviour and mistakes of the 1920s that we’ve all heard about aren’t necessarily confined to that most decadent of decades.
Lurhmann has drawn some very good performances out of his cast. Tobey Maguire, who is not necessarily as good looking as Nick Carraway should be, puts a great spin on his character; a new money kind of guy who’s experiencing the good and the bad of wealth. He gets to hang out with a pretty sweet crowd, but he also gets dragged into an unpleasant orgy (literally) of sexually liberated people and bootlegged scotch. Carey Mulligan is the perfect pretty little fool as Daisy – there is nothing to her character, and that’s exactly how she should be. Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker is very mysterious, and also a little underused – it’s a shame Lurhmann didn’t elaborate on exactly why she was living with the Buchanans (hint: Fitzgerald implied she cheated at golf). Joel Edgerton is appropriately sleazy and unhinged when required, and his paramour Myrtle is played by Isla Fisher with a marvellous sleaze. And of course, Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby. What can one say except that he was born for the role. Like Gatsby, he’s not wholly likeable, he tends to be mysterious in his personal life, and he brings the role an intensity missing from Robert Redford’s portrayal, even if Redford did have a nicer smile. Once again, DiCaprio has made a role his own, and his Gatsby is enough to make this the definitive version for me.
The director’s style has always been one over-the-top with a visual flair; so, whilst some of his films might be rubbish, they are a feast for the eyes. Certainly this is apparent in the magnificently photographed party scenes. These parties are far from the kind of orderly, sombre affairs one might expect from a couple of hundred people wearing black tie and cocktail dresses. They are completely hedonistic, drunken and disorderly. Champagne and martinis flow like water, and as the scenes go on, the camera work becomes more and more wobbly and disjointed, and lens flares become more distracting, resembling the drunken stupor of many of Gatsby’s party guests. Indeed, Tobey Maguire does an excellent job of showing us exactly how we all look after a few champagnes and a very dry martini – an image rather too close to home for many university students!
No expense has been spared computer generating much of 1920s New York. Incredible panning shots and crash zooms highlight the important Field of Ashes and the impending importance of that place, and the all-seeing eyes of Dr TJ Eckleburg are a constant feature. The houses of both Gatsby and the Buchanans are outrageous – maybe it’s symbolic of my own lack of understanding of the era and its setting, but good grief, nothing in my imagination could have compared to those edifices. It only serves to highlight, yet again, that someone like Gatsby, when cut down, will fall a lot further than the average Joe Schmoe.
Of course, there are criticisms. I’ve already mentioned Tobey Maguire’s lack of good looks, but to be fair, Lurhmann does a lot with a little and manages to make Maguire look strong jawed in many scenes thanks to some decent lighting. There is also a lack of depth in the motivations of some characters, Jordan Baker especially. This could be more of an issue to do with running time – i would be interested to see how much footage was left on the cutting room floor.
The other major gripe I had with the film was the gratuitous product placement for Moët and Chandon champagne. Initially, I thought it was just too obvious a choice, and even suffered a little cultural cringe at the Australian producers of this film choosing Moët as the classiest thing out. But, I just did some research and it turns out that in the 1920s, Moët and Chandon were industry leaders in the export of champagne from France, and so as a matter of historical accuracy, it would have to be Moët. Why not Dom Perignon? Apparently, that was first made in 1921 and didn’t make it to the US until about ten years later. Touché, Moët!
Lurhmann has created yet another modern classic with this film. Many critics have used this as an excuse to pretend to be literary scholars and go to town on Lurhmann for desecrating a work of art, but I think Lurhmann has created a work of art of his own. It’s a 21st century movie for 21st century viewers, and I feel it captures the tone and feelings of emptiness that Fitzgerald so verbosely set out in his novel. This is Lurhmann’s best film since Strictly Ballroom, and I strongly recommend paying to see it at the cinema, on the biggest screen you can get!