May 15 2013
Image by Courtney Nicholas
The challenge Baz Luhrmann had in adapting The Great Gatsby to film was similar to what Walter Salles faced with On the Road: how to stay loyal to the era depicted, while still retaining the rawness of the original text. Salles did a great job of capturing the ambiance of 1950s America, but it could be argued that his Dean and Sal didn’t have enough zeal—enough of that desire to live, live, live.
The old saying is that a good book makes a bad film, while a paperback potboiler like The Godfather makes a great film. But this wisdom is derived from the idea that a good book is made by the writing, and if it’s adapted into whatever, its magic is lost. As just about every (film) critique has already noted—and they’re right, if repetitive—most of what makes The Great Gatsby great is Fitzgerald’s prose. We allow the classics to get away with so much because we love the characters. But when older stories are revived for film, the issue of the past and present must be rectified. But that lack was not a function of anything missing in the actors or the general direction as much as it is a result of the passage of time, the encasing of a book in the precious container of "classic" status.
When adapting Gatsby to the big screen, the main questions Baz Luhrmann faced were: What will work? And, like Romeo and Juliet before, How do I make this older material live in a new medium for a modern audience? And somehow Luhrmann managed to be loyal to both the original text and to his contemporary audience. The jazz music of the 20s was raw and dangerous, but if Luhrmann had used that music today, it would have been a museum piece—irrelevant to mainstream and high culture alike, because they would’ve already known what’s coming. There have been objections to his use of 3D, but frankly it’s a nonissue. It works, and is neither distracting nor game changing. You just deal with it because you want to. It’s fun to watch.
The critics who’ve ravaged the film for not being loyal to the book are hypocrites. These people make their living doing readings and critiques of texts in order to generate theories of varying levels of competency, or simply to make a living. Luhrmann’s film is his reading and adaptation of a text—his critique, if you will. Would anyone object to a production of Hamlet in outer space? Not as much as they object to the Gatsby adaptation, apparently. Maybe that’s because Gatsby is so much about a time and a place, while Shakespeare, in my mind, is more about universal ideas, ideals, and feelings. Luhrmann needed to breathe life into the ephemera and aura of the 20s and that’s just what he succeeded at.
A film, of course, relies on an immediate tension in a fundamentally different way than a book. And barring the most cinematic of texts, films developed from literary sources must run along a tighter thread. Once Gatsby’s mission of wooing Daisy back is accomplished, some of the wind is taken out of the story. We don’t really care about their relationship as much as we care about Gatsby’s overblown efforts to rise in social and economic status to get her back. And this is a universal and rarely accomplished goal that is still relevant today, made even more so by the director’s use of modern window dressing. Gatsby’s desire is revealed to be that of a 16-year-old boy: not only does he want to win Daisy, he wants to control her affections. It reminds me of my high school relationships, where I tortured girlfriends for getting fingered by other boys when they were freshmen. Just move on, dude. We are obsessed by his obsession but aren’t significantly moved by his accomplishment of the goal.
Also, one downside of Nick's being so obsessed with Gatsby that he has to resort to therapeutic writing about their friendship is that it in essence makes their friendship that much greater. How long did they actually know each other? They weren’t that close were they? And what makes Gatsby’s greatness so appealing to Nick? That he did a lot of shady deals and made a lot of money? That he was in love with a woman? That he said “old sport” all the time and was generally charming? Was he in love with Gatsby? Fitzgerald had many reasons for being obsessed with Gatsby-like characters in his personal life (Monroe Stahr also merges business and romantic obsession in The Love of the Last Tycoon), particularly because Fitzgerald was unable to marry Zelda until he became a literary success. But Nick, outside of the action, doesn’t have personal stakes in the story, and while placing him in an institution raises his stakes, it makes his obsession with Gatsby even more convoluted. But maybe Luhrmann’s reasoning is that this sort of confusion is interesting, and who could fault him for that. Or maybe he just loved Gatsby and if they could have just gone on living side by side, just as Tobey and Leo did in real life, all would have been fine. That actually sounds like a good movie, too. But I guess it’s been made—it’s a show called Entourage.
In the end, Luhrmann made it work, and that’s all that matters. The movie held together. We watched the story, we felt things, we were transported, and we were engaged.
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