In 1925, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald – a splendid name, eh? – wrote The Great Gatsby. And in 2013, when Baz Luhrmann got his hands on it, he transformed a classic 180 page novel into a 142 minute film. That’s just over one page per minute, following an uncomfortable trend in modern movies for those of us who like our films to bing-bam-boom finish-before-the-popcorn-goes-cold. Judging by other recent trends, somewhere deep in the earth’s core the powers that be are probably plotting a 2017 sequel, The Great Gatsby 2: Finding Miss Daisy starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
Yet in this tediously-too-long adaptation, Luhrmann still cut crucial sections and subplots from the book. Or so is my understanding. For you see (and I am making this confession early on so as not to be caught out and despised later) I have never got through more than the first chapter of the novel. Even though I’m an English Literature student. I know… To be fair, I have read the first chapter three times, leaving some confused memory of wests, easts and Eggs.
Now, put the book down and turn to the film. Something my mother would never say. In 1920s New York, a time of extremely pronounced left-side partings and terribly loud ties, Leonardo DiCaprio plays deluded fool, suspected murderer, moonshine peddler and wannabe-Kardashian, Jay Gatsby: a man whose biggest secret is that (in this picture at least) he is a very angry florist.
Every week Jay throws a huge party to ensnare a girl he hooked up with half a decade ago, making him a hopeless romantic, or possibly just a creepy stalker? Meanwhile, Tobey Maguire, whilst not being able to spell Toby, redeems himself in my eyes by proving himself to be an actor in his portrayal of Nick Carraway, who moves in next door to Gatsby. He is our narrator and gets tangled up with another pair of these ever-so-common star-crossed-lovers Gatsby and his cousin Daisy Buchanan, played by the jaw-droppingly beautiful Carey Mulligan. Even with her boyish haircut she looked ornamentally feminine, and everything from her exquisite costumes to her American accent is created for the role. She is far better than Mia Farrow in the 1974 adaptation, who I am allergic to and whose stars aligned when Woody Allen fell for her slightly wooden charms.
Luhrmann’s 2013 reimagining is a film full of juxtapositions and clashes which, whilst not to everyone’s taste, I think are stunning. Give me Jay Z, Amy Winehouse and Lana Del Ray thrown together with 1920s jazz any and all days of the week. I adore the interplay between 1920s icons and modern day culture. It’s clever, it’s interesting and it serves a purpose. This crazy combination stops people seeing The Great Gatsby, and the 1920s in general, as a cemented and rather cartoonish historical event filled with stereotypes like Asterix and his fat pal Obelix. Slapping a bit of Beyonce on the decks helps Baz’s audience remember that the 1920s didn’t seem ‘olde worlde’ when it was current.
Nick wasn’t aware that the word ‘spiffing’ was soon to be dated and parodied, that he outfit was soon to be retro and ridiculous. Jazz wasn’t some sort of nostalgic yearning for a past century and used as a signifier for the past. It was Radio 1. Gatsby entices his guests with Florence Welch or will.i.am’s equivalents. Oh, and the fact that Mr Luhrmann commits the cardinal sin of changing the ending a little to fit a more hopeful agenda doesn’t faze me at all. Maybe it should, but it doesn’t. My rule is if you love a book, don’t see the film. It will inevitably crush and stamp upon every vestige of your imagination.
They only need to cast someone with the wrong coloured hair or pick a house with the wrong shaped windows and it’ll take four hours, copious alcohol and the loss of many friends before you can be coaxed back to a sense of perspective: that these things really don’t matter. Just clench you fists and hide in the airing cupboard until it’s all over. This is certainly a strategy that worked for me and the 2008 release of Julian Jarrold’s Brideshead Revisited.
Luhrmann manages to employ every film technique in the book (a book he presumably downloaded onto his Kindle called ‘film techniques for dummies’): sepia, black and white, text, flashbacks, car chases, POV, dramatic irony, voice-over, framing narrative, nausea-inducing 3d, aerial shots, newspaper headline bridging shots, extreme Tom Hooper-esque close-ups, slow motion… Honestly, it’s exhausting watching him try. And oh the sweeping, gushing orchestral music at dun-dun-daah Important Moments.
I promise that I actually quite enjoyed this film. It just had it flaws. And they were numerous and outlined here:
- Are we meant to like Gatsby? I sort of got the impression that women (and men) everywhere are meant to swoon like giddy morons at his appearance and feel in their gut that he’s the perfect man for Daisy. Well, frankly… he’s an arse. He’s a violent, lying, stalker who represents the ultimate perils of Golden Age thinking. Who tries to recapture the past to that extent without being tested for a serious underlying mental illness? And for all of his ‘oo I’m so thoughtful’, he chucks all his shirts about with reckless abandon, I bet not giving two hoots about who is going to have to fold them all later. And, to be honest, although it’s claimed that he’s cheated out of an elderly gentleman’s inheritance, funnily enough elderly gentleman’s inheritance goes to elderly gentleman’s family; not some deluded teenager who rocks up and then sticks around impersonating the elderly gentleman in hope of an inheritance. Is he really every girl’s ultimate dream: a money-grasping, jealous, control-freak with a God-complex? I’m undone…
- And, while we’re about it, why are his eyes (and everyone’s) so blue? And whilst we’re on it, skin either orange or porcelain? Turn down the filter, Baz!
- Some reviewers didn’t think that the film captured quite enough homoeroticism and Nick’s questionable sexuality: a theme that allegedly permeates the book by the bucketful. But these people are clearly morons. Subtlety is not Baz’s middle name. Take the montage in which Jay, Nick and Daisy dance together. The influence and echoes of Cabaret loom in the foreground, as does the ever-encroaching risk of a threesome. I think that Luhrmann very effectively captures Nick’s tensions and admirations of Gatsby without going so over the top that everyone starts calling it ‘that movie where Spiderman goes gay’. He perfectly nudges the issue and theme without leaning on it and spelling it concretely for audience members who can’t notice a nuance without a musical number and jazz hands.
- For all the millions Baz spent on special effects, why was the hat continuity still a nightmare?
- Vie are some of ze Buchanan’s staff French?
I haven’t been enticed to have another crack at the book. And although I would consent to watch it again, with or even without a gun thrust into my temple, I’d probably rather watch Romeo + Juliet. That’s all. That’s Baz at his best.
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