It was only after half of Lurhmann’s Gatsby that I finally understood just how hard it is to make a film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. Fitzgerald had such a disdain for his time that there isn’t a single character in The Great Gatsby that you are supposed to like. However, as author John Green said about the novel, “I don’t know how you got the idea that the quality of a novel should be judged by the likeability of its characters, but let me submit to you that Daisy Buchannan doesn’t have to be likeable to be interesting.” And that quote puts both of the most recent adaptations of the novel into good context. The narrative of this film, what happens and who is being affected and what happens to them in the end is not the point of Gatsby. These films are both art films, and while Lurhmann’s performs far better than the other, both directors take Fitzgerald’s prose, symbols, and themes to say something about The American Dream. Most importantly though is that neither are meant to be solely entertaining. Entertainment wouldn’t do justice to the story of Gatsby.
The Great Gatsby
Written by: Francis Ford Coppola
Directed by: Jack Clayton
United States, 1974
The Great Gatsby
Written by: Baz Lurhmann, Craig Pearce
Directed by: Baz Lurhmann
United States, Australia, 2013
To understand what makes Lurhman’s film great, it helps to understand why Jack Clayton’s adaptation from 1974 wasn’t. On paper it looks like a perfect recipe for Gatsby: Robert Redford has a handsome enigmatic quality, Mia Farrow is the spitting image of Daisy, and Bruce Dern feels like the arrogant and hypocritical Tom. However, as the narrative progresses and we learn about the characters, none of it feels real. Daisy is intolerable, but not because of her entitlement or her indecisive nature; Farrow simply comes off as annoying and undeserving of the praise she receives from Gatsby. Tom is racist but he doesn’t have the ruthless pride to be believable. Redford looks enigmatic, but his delivery of Gatsby’s dialogue feels contrived and emotionless. When Tom and Gatsby begin fighting, there is no animosity between the two. Worst of all, the narration pulled directly from the novel and delivered by Sam Waterson is flat and boring, emphasizing the lack of gratuity and lavishness that should be abundant. There is a distinct lack of humanity coming from the actors in the film (with the exception of Karen Black and Scott Wilson as the Wilsons) which undermines the most powerful narrative tool the story offers. The themes of excess and frivolity and hopelessness are heightened when the character’s care so intensely about them; something totally lost in the 1974 Gatsby. The themes and symbols of the novel are lost, and since they are the meat of the narrative, it’s difficult for the film to work without them.
To move to Lurhmann, the initial strength of the film is through the same treatment of Fitzgerald’s prose. Toby Maguire’s narration serves that purpose incredibly well, delivering with rhythm and flow, but Lurhmann learned from the uneven performances in Romeo + Juliet that the delivery is everything. Every actor delivers Fitzgerald’s dialogue beautifully, sometimes literally making the words jump off the screen. Then the dialogue manifests as gorgeous and emotional in the hands of the actors, paying true respect to the quality and legacy of the novel. The actors all give top notch performances, humanizing the themes so important to the novel. Dicaprio is relentlessly hopeful as Gatsby. Carey Mulligan is aggravating but sympathetic as the naive Daisy. Joel Edgerton is terrifying and poignant as the racist Tom. But the most effective thing that Lurhmann does is in the style of the film.
Lurhmann is known for his lavish sets and over the top directorial style and in Gatsby it is used to an extreme. The production is very over-directed and that will definitely be a point of contention for some fans. When the parties are wild or the cars are fast or any aspect of the narrative wants to be larger than life, Lurhmann obliges. The New York city sky-line is a CGI dreamland of light and contrast, the parties are extravagant affairs of bright colors and over-the-top dancing and music, everything about the film is big and bombastic. But in terms of an adaptation and the goals that Lurhman had when making the film, the film had to be this way because he wanted to be faithful to the novel. The language and descriptions in the novel are not realistic. No one talks like Nick Carraway (except maybe Fitzgerald himself), but generation after generation of reader falls in love with the narration in the book because the lush language and vivid descriptions are suited to the narrative and compliment the incredible entitlement and empty extravagance of the characters’ lives. Lurhman makes everything overt and his presence is felt throughout the film, however in doing so he paid proper respect to the novel and everything that was great about it.
To return to John Green who said the quality of a novel shouldn’t be based off of the likability of its characters, I would submit that the quality of a film doesn’t have to meet that litmus test, nor a test of apparent realism. Yes, Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby is an over the top spectacle with style and direction abound, and yes it sometimes feels melodramatic because of the heightened drama; but in some sense, isn’t that the point? The themes and symbols of the novel are the true meat of the story and when you read Nick describing the other characters’ interaction it feels surreal because their obsessions are so alien to the average person. When he describes the city of New York everything becomes enchanted to fantasy. But when all of that is taken into account and that green light fades on the other side of the bay, none of it matters. Gatsby cared so much, to his own downfall. So much so that even his incredible sense of hope can’t help but beat on like, “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Lurhmann’s Gatsby is great because he saw the strengths of the novel and never changed them, only added to them. He added the gambit of cinema tools he had at his disposal and knew when to sit back and let the words work the magic they always do.
Perhaps there will always be people who look at this and see a bad film despite it being a great adaptation. However Lurhmann did something with his adaptation that very few directors attempt to do and that Jack Clayton failed to do: complement the novel. And while maybe as a stand-alone film everything said above becomes moot, as a lover of the novel, it’s not something that can simply be brushed aside. All of the meaning is there, and just like a great novel, all you have to do is find it.