Ten Filmmakers Who Should Have Directed The Great Gatsby

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Though time will only tell if Baz Luhrmann is the right filmmaker to tackle The Great Gatsby, I remain a skeptic. The material may suggest a certain grandiosity that Luhrmann has proved to be able to bring to life but the story remains fundamentally simple and down to earth. The novel is highly critical of the extravagant lifestyle the characters live, as well as the culture that allows them to flourish. In many ways, it is the anti-epic, a small story with a large scope. The extravagant parties that Gatsby throws, which seem to be the primary motivation for hiring Luhrmann are beside the point. They are largely a display of greed and posturing throughout the text.

As a means of softening the blow that one of my favourite novels will be adapted by a filmmaker whose talents are not only questionable but ill-suited to adapting this particular work, I have assembled a list of filmmakers whose failures at adapting The Great Gatsby might be more interesting than most filmmakers’ successes. In each case, I will also suggest a “key casting” decision. This is of course reflective only of my own personal tastes and I am more than looking forward to your own suggestions for filmmakers and any defences you might have for the Luhrmann.

 

Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen has proved himself to be one of the most promising young filmmakers with Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011). His second feature demonstrating an understanding of the American ethos, using the backdrop of New York City as a means of reflecting the excess and lack of control of the central character. His startling modern style and ability to create a period drama that feels contemporary make him an ideal candidate to adapt one of the most vibrant works of the 20th century

Key Casting: The two-faced nature of Michael Fassbender’s acting makes him an ideal choice for Jay Gatsby. He could easily embody the artificial construction while suggesting a darker past and a man of great secrets.

 

Lynne Ramsay

With her recent adaptation of the diary format novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lynne Ramsay has demonstrated a talent for adapting difficult works. One can only assume her take on The Great Gatsby would be one suited for both the screen and her vision. Ramsay is a filmmaker who has a strong visual eye and creates imagery that are not only evocative but suggest a critical counter-balance to content. It creates an incredible dialogue between sound and image, a skill that will be invaluable in the adaptation of Gatsby’s lifestyle.

Key Casting: Though Myrtle has a certain earthiness that seems to demand an actress who is not so white-bread, Jessica Chastain’s performance in The Help makes me believe she can play a highly sexually charged man-eater, who is as much an aggressor as she is a victim.

 

Sofia Coppola

Even those who have grown tired of Sofia Coppola’s niche, have to acknowledge her talent at bringing the disillusioned and numb upper class to the silver screen. The idea of watching beautiful people in the 1920s sleepwalking through life is strangely alluring, especially if properly contrasted with Myrtle and Nick Carraway. Furthermore, Coppola’s pastel colour scheme is perfectly suited to the deco decade, where pinks, baby blues and creams ran rampant.

Key Casting: Elle Fanning is one of the most interesting young actors on the rise and Coppola has already proved she can get a strong performance from her. Fanning is still too young to play Daisy but she is perfectly suited for the youthful golfer Jordan Baker, a snarky and cruel lounging flapper beauty.

 

Jane Campion

Jane Campion has a unique talent at bringing to life poetry and I am not just talking literally as she did in Bright Star (2009). This ability is what makes her suited to bring to life the stronger symbolic elements of the text from the fading billboards to the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. Also, considering her ability to reveal character’s inner violence, I have no doubt she will be able to make Tom Buchanan as frightening as he needs to be. She understands the multi-faceted nature of humanity and consistently allows for characters to say and mean two different things. This contradictory nature essential to bringing to life Fitzgerald’s work.

Key Casting: Paul Schneider proved all too well he can play brutish masculinity well in Bright Star as the slimey Mr. Brown in Bright Star. He still has the All American looks that could work for Tom Buchanan and is one of the best and under-utilized actors working today.

 

Arnaud Despleschin

Something of my wild-care choice, Arnaud Despleschin has never made an English language film. He is hardly known outside of film circles and his best known work is an operatic and hilarious family drama about sibling rivalry and cancer. His outstanding ability to handle multiple storylines and a large cast without neglecting any one person for a moment. Yet, it all works within a small scale. This ability to create a small and personal environment in spite of the scope and ambition would suit the extravagant setting but personal story.

Key Casting: Myrtle is all about oozing sexuality: broad hips, ample chest and tight clothes. She is American but her roots in the ‘old country’ still shine through. Lea Seydoux would be an interesting counter-casting, not fitting the page perfectly but somehow satisfying a perfect mind image.

 

P.T. Anderson

P.T. Anderson has already successfully brought to life two of America’s greatest institutions: the porn and oil industries, there is no saying he can’t be equally good at doing the same for one of the country’s greatest literary institutions. Especially considering the pull between greed and humanity at work in There Will Be Blood (2007), it’s easy to imagine him meticulously bringing to life the roaring twenties with similar care and artistry. His fascination with the crumbling American hero, brought down by their own hubris makes him an ideal match for the novel, and like Lynne Ramsay, has proved to be a strength for adapting challenging works of fiction.

Key Casting: Armie Hammer is one of the most promising actors on the rise, and the fact that he isn’t a big star (yet) might serve the narrative, contributing to the mysteriousness of Gatsby who seems familiar but you still can’t quite place him. A bit more youthful than many of my other choices, he has an air of experience that will suit the role beautifully.

 

Wong Kar-Wai

Sure Wong Kar-Wai’s transition to english-language filmmaking was less than stellar, that only means there is more room for improvement. The best possible scenario might actually be wildly divergent from the original text, which under normal circumstances might be a horrible idea, but for Wong Kar-Wai means some of his best work. Actually in choosing him I am reminded of the production process of Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Arthur Penn was not the first choice of director, it was Jean-Luc Godard. Godard’s vision was too much for Hollywood though as he wanted to transplant the story to Tokyo. This might be history’s chance to give us an idea at what could have been, an Asian interpretation of a Western classic by one of the world’s premiere auteurs. The arthouse fan in me is giddy at the prospect.

Key Casting: Shu Qi as Daisy only seems right, she has a sort of flippant beauty and yet a histrionic performance style. She seems somehow perfectly suited for Daisy’s constructed artificiality and phoniness, while at once suggesting her incredible allure.

 

Steven Soderbergh

Soderbergh has displayed two key things over the course of his outstanding career: attention to detail and incredible range. Is there a working contemporary filmmaker who has excelled under so many different genres and circumstances as Soderbergh? His willingness to take risks and employ a recognizable albeit flexible sense of style promises an interesting and unpredictable adaptation of familiar material.

Key Casting: Matt Damon rarely plays against his “boy next door persona”, but it would be interesting to see him as the brash and utterly awful Tom Buchanan. Soderbergh who sees fascinating by the idea of celebrity is constantly bending expectations in terms of casting and him twisting Damon’s persona would be a sight to behold.

 

Guy Maddin

Though all prints are thought to be lost, there was an adaptation of The Great Gatsby made during F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lifetime. Little is known of it’s critical reception but Fitzgerald and Zelda were apparently none-to-fond of the screen depiction of Gatsby. That film lost, one can only guess at what a silent version of The Great Gatsby might look like. Here comes Guy Maddin, whose collage style has consistently and cleverly drawn on silent film style for decades. No other filmmaker could bring to life this vision as Maddin might, and his focus on style, construction and reflection might make him the best suited to tackle this tricky material.

Key Casting: Working under the assumption that Maddin will pull a full on silent with this adaptation, I want to cast Polish actress Karolina Gruszka as Daisy. The name probably doesn’t ring a bell, but she has a rather important role in Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006).

 

Lars Von Trier

The Great Gatsby may be an ideally American story, but this sometimes necessitates an outside view. Lars Von Trier has already tackled America with both Dogville and Melancholia, both suggesting a strangely mythic land. Trier seems ideal in his ability to reveal the dark humour present in Fitzgerald’s text. Trier is stylistically unpredictable and there is no saying what approach he will take in adapting this work. Let’s not forget the sense of doom hanging over the film’s epilogue, if Trier can do one thing right, it’s the end of the world.

Key Casting: Alexander Skarsgard as Jay Gatsby might just be me fulfilling my desire to see Skarsgard as often as possible on the big screen, but the ambiguity of his nationality, his aptitude for uncomfortable sexuality and his personification of physical perfection makes him an interesting match for the alluring but mysterious Gatsby.

– Justine Smith

9 Comments
  1. porkchop says

    Okay, you kind of turned my head with Anderson. That would be stunning! But for the same reason as Luhrmann–those party scenes are not “beside the point.” Since Fitzgerald is such a Great Man, people always talk about Gatsby in a cerebral way, but the themes and conflicts that are explained by the characters and the action are -evoked- by the party scenes. The parties are so vivid in the book that you feel what the characters feel–anxious, overwhelmed, cynical, yet still seduced, falling in love with something you KNOW doesn’t exist.

    The bankruptcy of class aspiration and the emptiness of excess has already been told plenty of times in subtle, nuanced ways. When you read this book, you’re practically squinting when the light bounces off the cars. I can’t see why the movie should be anything less than visually overwhelming, and that’s why I’m excited to see Luhrmann’s version.

    1. Justine says

      i don’t think the party sequences are beside the point, thinking to my memories of the novel, I am always drawn to the almost adolescent reverie on display. I think of that silly song someone is singing, The Sheik of Araby. They serve an important purpose, I agree. I just doubt Luhrmann’s ability to bring nuance to the reverie. I sincerely hope I’m wrong though.

  2. rabid goon says

    Todd Haynes

    1. Justine says

      I have absolutely no excuse to not include Todd Haynes. This is why I don’t make lists!

  3. Kathleen says

    I like how you write, Justine – your verve and candidness…I understand your ‘dissatisfaction’ with the choice of directors for the Great Gatsby and your reasoning. There’s certainly been enough articles out ‘there’ addressing the question whether or not Luhrmann is the ‘right’ filmmaker who can go that extra mile, take a new, artistic and innovative approach to create a Great, Great Gatsby…However, from my perspective, I like Baz – simply because of Romeo & Juliet and Moulin Rouge. (Actually, Australia was a visual delight for me too – my own personal view). Plus I believe he’s got the $$$ to create whatever his heart desires (using state of the art 3D, which I won’t comment on) + unlimited accessibility to top notch facilities/resources in Oz etc. etc…On the other hand, I too,am wondering whether he will be able to effectively portray the spirit, the essence, the heart of this classic. (I’d do anything to catch just a glimpse of the ‘new’ script.) Again, I lack confidence in any remake of any classic lit, but, perhaps that’s just me. I am very interested to see how the remarkable, diverse cast of actors work together and if they’ll be able to ‘sell’ it, so-to-speak. The track record for good remakes has not been proven for the past some years as Bill Mesce said it very succinctly in his post about the year 2011 being noted as the “not terribly successful year of the sequels, prequels, remakes…” etc. It’s been a while, but, I’m still waiting for a film with an obvious ‘impress for success’ factor – still waiting for a cinematic delight that you know without any doubt that once you’ve seen it/lived it…that it will survive the test of time, with value-add. Perhaps this is overly pessimistic, but, I’m still waiting. Sorry for the long rambling – Really enjoyed the ‘food for thought’ in your article!

    1. Justine says

      I actually like Moulin Rouge, and hearing that Luhrmann has freedom makes me happy for him, though all the qualities I admire in his work are ones that I don’t particularly want in my film. And yes, “classic literature” is almost always a mixed bag. There are few great adaptations, in part because many stick far too closely to the original text in terms of plot points.

  4. Mario in Philly says

    Great idea, great choices! Fassbender is on a roll and he’d be perfect. I’m a fan of Ang Lee’s directing. He’s tried various genres. And I’d like to see what Zhang Yimou would do to pull off the period piece.
    Wondering what George Cukor, Douglas Sirk or Vincent Minelli would have done.

    1. Justine says

      I don’t know why, but Ang Lee never occured to me. He would be a very good match I think. Not as keen on Yimou, but when he is good is excellent.

      I was actually tempted to include or at least, make a separate list of classic filmmakers who could have tackled the material. Minelli and Sirk would certainly be there. Ophuls is probably my personal favourite choice, not sure if a filmmaker in all of history would be better suited to the material.

  5. James Merolla says

    I love this. This was a fun read.

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