Film Review: The Great Gatsby
To be fair, this is less of a review and more of an analysis of Baz Luhrmann’s attempt to adapt The Great Gatsby and why I think it failed. Being that The Great Gatsby was one of the few books forced on high schoolers that I actually enjoyed, this film had some expectations attached to it. But that’s the case with most films adapted from iconic books. And while it was a very entertaining adaptation, the issues stemming from it were too many to ignore, and definitely hurt the movie, even for non-book viewers.
Most of my complaints with the film come from the adaption choices. I re-read the book right before seeing it, so the text was fresh in my mind. And since Luhrmann chose to translate it almost exactly, these problems were even more glaring. They start right from the first scene.
Before getting into the adaptation issues, I think at least some could have been avoided with a better Nick Carraway. He is the narrator and the main voice running throughout the film. Tobey Maguire’s interpretation was terrible. His speech was stunted and hazy, which may be okay during the actual events of the story but not upon reflecting on it all. He could be described as a bit aloof as the story plays out, but by the end of the book (and the point at which he is reflecting on it all), he has a solid understanding of what happened. This was not reflected in Maguire’s performance at all. His state of mind also comes into play in one of the few additions of Luhrmann’s adaptation.
In order to get Fitzgerald’s exposition in, Luhrmann places Nick Carraway in a sanitarium, dictating the story to his psychiatrist. So instead of finding a way to work the text organically into the film via added dialogue or some more character direction, we get a lazy framing device. Maguire’s voiceover was almost painful to listen to, butchering some of the most iconic text in american literature. His performance left me feeling almost like Carraway still didn’t understand all that had happened, which is the opposite of Carraway’s reflection at the end of the novel.
The other character that was mishandled was Jordan Baker. The film version was much to empathetic compared to her book counterpart. However, this change and condensing of her and Carraway’s relationship didn’t hurt the film in my opinion since her supporting character role is mainly to advance the plot, in both the film and book.
The dialogue and narration was mostly taken straight from the book. This was both awesome and disappointing. Seeing the skilled actors repeat Fitzgerald’s words was a lot of fun. However, at times they were a hollow duplication because the film didn’t convey the same emotional weight that the book did. A great example is when Daisy first comes to Gatsby’s house. There is a bit of voice over from Nick about Gatsby finally reuniting with Daisy,
“Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. …Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.”
The problem with the film is that it didn’t properly convey that the green light was a substitution for Daisy. It symbolized everything that Gatsby had worked towards, his version of the American Dream. And that statement from Nick signaled that Gatsby had thought that he finally had everything… right before it all came crashing down on him.
The empty, direct translation of the novel’s text also highlights the film’s biggest failure, its inability to properly communicate the underlying theme of the whole story. Each of the main characters is striving for their own version of the American Dream and ultimately discovers that it’s a futile endeavor. Yes, Carraway’s character does directly talk about it near the end of the film via the lazy voice over, but up until then that feeling is non existent, while it pervades every chapter of the book.
The other problem with taking the dialogue straight from the book is that when something is left out, it can be distracting. Here are a few of the iconic quotes that I don’t remember being in the film:
“There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.”
“I wasn’t actually in love, but I felt a sort of tender curiosity.”
“You see I usually find myself among strangers because I drift here and there trying to forget the sad things that happened to me.”
“Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead.”
“No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”
The film’s structure also suffers from adapting straight from the book. Fitzgerald can segue into Gatsby’s various back story sections smoothly in the text. They don’t fit well in the same places in the film. The transitions come off as clunky, and unwelcome distractions from the main story. After the car accident, the audience doesn’t care about a detailed account of Gatsby’s life story anymore, they want to find what happens to Gatsby and Daisy in the aftermath.
The film definitely has a few bright spots as well though. As expected, Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Jay Gatsby was amazing to watch. The ease at which he communicated Gatbsy’s range of emotions at the flick of a switch put a smile on my face. The scene when Gatsby and Nick go to lunch in the city and run into Tom Buchanan puts this on full display. With just a split second facial expression, DiCaprio shows the utter frustration that Gatsby feels at having an unexpected diversion from his master plan, right before resuming his one-of-a-kind smile to greet Tom. Also, the pink suit that Gatsby spends much of the third act in is perfect. It’s subdued enough to be classy, but has just enough pomp to validate Tom’s annoyance by it.
Luhrmann’s vision of the world of The Great Gatsby was perfect. The settings from the book come to life on screen exactly as imagined. The drive from West Egg to the city perfectly illustrated the contrast between the luxurious neighborhoods that the characters spent the majority of their time in and the Valley of Ashes, the dregs of that world.
The music also played a big part in the film, a lot having to do with Luhrmann’s choice of using modern music in a period piece. Like A Knight’s Tale, I think it mostly works. The song selection fit each scene that had it. Its only failing is that the scenes with an actual score behind it, like the car accident, felt much more powerful when accompanied by an orchestra.
I think that The Great Gatsbyworked as a film for the most part, it was definitely entertaining and worth going to the theater for. It did not succeed on being a great adaptation. And unfortunately, because of the material, making the comparison will be unavoidable. Hopefully non book readers (are there many?) can see through these issues and enjoy it just as a film.