Film & TV

On Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby


I like Tobey Maguire. The casting of The Man Who Used To Play Peter Parker as Nick Carraway in Baz Lurhmann’s lavish adaptation of The Great Gatsby was, I feel, something of a masterstroke. It’s important to like Nick, indeed if we can’t embrace Carraway as a friendly, trustworthy narrator, then Gatsby’s rather rigid ‘Platonic conception of himself,’ to borrow Fitzegerald’s own words, becomes highly problematic. It is because of Carraway that we are able to balance out the ‘appalling’ sentimentality of Gatsby with a fidelity of the soul that makes him ‘worth the whole damn bunch put together’. Carraway is the minstrel of embellishment to Gatsby’s Romantic hero, and Maguire makes for an earnest and affable narrator.

I liked the fact that Carraway’s role as narrator is fleshed out a little in the adaptation, that he writes his memoirs whilst rehabbing. The physical realisation of his emotional hangover — his character shift is one of wide-eyed innocence to abject disgust — provides a nice conceit for his reflections in the past tense. It also gives Lurhmann an excuse to digitally type Fitzgerald’s prose  up on the silver screen, which is far better than trying to squeeze it horribly into temporally confused, hybrid dialogue.

The key to enjoying the film is to rather abandon any kind of literary agenda — the book will always be there, after all — and to enjoy it for what it is: a grand, shimmering carnival of boom excess and capitalist hedonism, appropriated by one man for an altogether altruistic purpose.

Lurhmann’s adaptation is trashy, operatic spectacle stuffed with modern musical numbers and an executive producer credit for Jay-Z. It’s not the Gatsby movie that we wanted, perhaps, but it strikes me that it’s the Gatsby we deserve: a decidedly early-21st century take on a 20th century American Dream fable, with one or two particular salient notes given our own mini boom and bust in the past decade or two.

Moreover the film itself is almost an embodiment of one of Gatsby’s own parties: overblown, aesthetically stunning, stuffed with famous names, and seemingly bereft of heart and soul. But Lurhmann allows us to laugh at Gatsby, it invites us to find him to be flawed as well as heroic.  It’s a funnier, far-better acted film than the Redford-Farrow movie as the characters are given room to breathe.

Reading through some of the purist fury that emerged from certain critical quarters, I couldn’t help but be struck by a passage from the novel itself, wherein Nick talks about Gatsby struggling to deal with the possibility that his dream might not be realised:

 […] he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about … like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.

It’s interesting that, of the fifteen people I’ve asked for their opinions on the film, seven of the nine between the ages of 18 and 30 said they enjoyed it, compared to three of those between the ages of 30 and 55. Now, that small survey doesn’t really prove anything of any empirical note, but Lurhmann’s transformation of a literary classic into a pop-cultural spectacle that juxtaposes the past and the present is nothing if not bid for generational relevancy. Knowing Lurhmann’s work, however briefly, that was to be expected and, by and large, I thought it worked well.

Those looking to the film to find some kind of cinematic pinnacle to rival the impact of Fitzgerald’s novel on the literary landscape are doing so in error. And let’s not pretend that the book itself is perfect. Indeed, the reason that many films have struggled to find and realise the emotional heart of the novel and have it make as much of an impact is because the book is actually a little broken. The greatest criticism made of Fitzgerald’s most complete novel is that it was ‘in form no more than a glorified anecdote’ that did not get ‘under the skin of its people’1; a statement made by H. L. Mencken, one of the most prominent critics of the time. He was supported in his criticism by the author himself in a letter to Edmund Wilson that can be found in The Crack-Up:

The worst fault in it, I think is a BIG FAULT: I gave no account (and had no feeling about or knowledge of) the emotional relations between Gatsby and Daisy from the time of their reunion to the catastrophe. However the lack is so astutely concealed by the retrospect of Gatsby’s past and by blankets of excellent prose that no-one has noticed it – though everyone has felt the lack and called it by another name […] I felt that what [Mencken] really missed was the lack of any emotional backbone at the very height of it

So Fitzgerald there critiquing his novel by critiquing a critic’s performance. META-CRITICISM!

But this is what the film did. It made me want to go back through the dissertation I wrote on Fitzgerald five years ago. It made me want through The Great Gatsby again almost immediately. For every person who hadn’t read the book that Lurhmann’s extravagant adaptation encourages to now do so (and I feel it might prove fairly successful), it’s a win. For purists who disliked it, well, the book will always be there. For those who’d never read it in the first place and hated the film, not a huge amount has been lost.

You don’t have to treat classic material with staid reverence, and Lurhmann’s film is actually at its least impressive towards the end when he tries to play things a bit too straight given the previous hour and a half. I wasn’t convinced by Carey Mulligan as Daisy — and that’s not really a slight on Mulligan, who’s fantastic in everything else I’ve seen her in — but I think that was just spotty casting. Daisy Fay is a problematic, heavily idealised character, and the joy of the novel is that you can read heavily into her character. Here, I never really saw Daisy, just Mulligan, in what shall henceforth be known as The Simon Pegg Effect (thanks Star Trek).

But I enjoyed the film, it put a smile on my face and sent me back to a book I have loved for years with fresh perspectives swimming in my brain. It both related and embodied Gatsby’s story and, given the character of Fitzgerald himself as a conscientious modernist, I’d wager that the author might have rather enjoyed the adaptation were he around today.