“The Great Gatsby” was the first book I read in high school that was both literary and accessible. It had nothing to do with the relatively short length, although at the time my 15-year-old self was always looking for the easiest way to finish an assignment. For the first time, however, I found myself engrossed in an assigned book. I read quite a bit as a teenager, but my pleasure reading was mostly heavily plotted, action-filled books. “The Great Gatsby” seemed deep—this was a book that was about something abstract, something just outside of my own limited perception. I liked it. I can’t say that the book led me immediately into the study of literature, as I only tend to pursue interests indirectly, with shotgun-like precision, but it laid the groundwork for my eventual wanderings into the literary arts. Suffice to say, “The Great Gatsby” is a special book for me, and any film adaptation is going to be met with a certain amount of skepticism.
Baz Lurhmann’s interpretation of the novel was what I expected. It was gauche and garish, favoring spectacle over substance and art direction over acting. However, that doesn’t mean that Lurhmann’s vision is wrong. After seeing the film, I re-read sections of the novel and found that in a lot of ways, many the choices made were in line with the text. The difference is just in the reading. What I see as figurative language and clever word play, Lurhmann sees in a very literal and visual way. The vast differences between how I hoped to see the book presented and what is found in Lurhmann’s “The Great Gatsby” are the same as the differences in the way we look at life. Baz Lurhmann’s world is a circus of bright color and painted faces, loud music and frantic movement. My own world is softer and quieter, more earthen and dull. I’m not going to be able to reconcile Lurhmann’s vision with my own because we have between us a measureless gap of experience. I think it’s clear that we both love the text in our own way, and he made the film as only he can.
Take for example the actors in the film. Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey McGuire, Carey Mulligan, and Joel Eggerton are all excellent choices for the leads. But I would have encouraged a different reading of the characters. In this version, I feel that Daisy is far too likable. For me, the greatest tragedy of Jay Gatsby is his boundless pursuit of a woman who doesn’t warrant the effort. The Buchanans, as described by Nick Carraway, are thoughtless, terrible, and aloof. They are a representation of how excess and abundance can ruin a soul. Lurhmann, and Mulligan as an extension, see Daisy as wounded and hopeful, though not as hopeful as Gatsby. Too, the depiction of Nick Carraway as a resident of a mental institution writing down his experiences, is grating. The Nick Carraway I remember is writing down his memories because he is an author, a reporter of the drama, affected by the action but detached so as to reserve judgment. I understand that Lurhmann’s characterizations were pulled from secondary sources and earlier drafts, but I feel that the text itself is enough. Just tell the story on the page.
I will say that when the film focuses on the story and allows the extravaganza to subside, it stumbles across the heart of the book. DiCaprio does a service to the character and Luhrmann allows him to develop without unnecessary exposition or explanation. Gatsby is still something of a mystery at the end of the film, even though we understand his motivations. The symbol of the green light is a well-developed motif throughout the film, and that one aspect is very much appreciated. While the 3D was unnecessary, especially for such a highly visual film (the colors need to pop and 3D glasses wash out the brightness), luckily, the 2D option is available at most theaters.
Baz Lurhmann’s “The Great Gatsby” is exactly the film he wanted to make and by that measure is a success. I just don’t particularly agree with his vision. That’s OK. More people are now reading the novel itself and I like that. “The Great Gatsby” is a wonderful book.