The Great Gatsby

Come out you Baz Luhrmann; come out and fight me like a man

gatsbyDespite anachronistic and invasive music, Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – considered one of the Great American Novels by many (myself not included) – is more or less scene-by-scene accurate when it comes to story events.  This does not make a movie a “good adaptation,” however.  Two elements makes a good movie adaptation of a book: 1) the understanding that books cannot “become” movies, and that a movie adapted from a written work must stand on its own as a unique piece; and 2) a basic (or preferably advanced) understanding of the thematic material, i.e. what the book is “about.”  This film is more hot-and-cold in that area, though not as overt as Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.

I won’t hash out the entire plot this time, because you do not need me to.  Leonardo DiCaprio appears as the titular Gatsby, a former soldier living as a wealthy socialite on the East Coast in hopes that his old lover, Daisy Buchanan, will show up at one of his unbelievably lavish parties.  She doesn’t, but her cousin Nick (Toby Maguire) does – am I hashing out the plot? Apologies.  I’ll stop.  The first bit of irony we’re fed is the title, specifically the word “great,” and this is where Luhrmann gets it wrong.  Much of the point of Gatsby is that the most morally corrupt characters are the ones idolized, and that the masses become obsessed with the most superficial garbage (i.e. the incredible parties, the glitz and glamor, the alcohol and whoring, etc.).  Fitzgerald’s inclusion of the word “great” in the title was meant to reflect this irony on the reader, and to invite us to look smugly upon the inhabitants of the novel who just don’t seem to reach the conclusion that the readers do.  In the novel, Nick is much more savvy to this knowledge than Maguire’s character in the film – one major difference includes his placement in a sanitarium, wherein he relates the story’s events to a doctor and eventually writes a manuscript called “Gatsby,” which he eventually changes to the title of the novel after adding “The Great.”  This injects a bit of narrative poison into a film that almost gets it right: Nick, as the narrator (not as a fictional representation of the reader, mind you) is supposed to realize (as he comes much closer to doing in the text) that Gatsby is in fact not great.  No one in this story is.

The other major missing element is that of “Owl Eyes,” a minor but very important character who appears in two scenes of the novel.  The above themes are in some ways conveyed through this character – a bespectacled man encountered by Nick in Gatsby’s library – who expects Gatsby’s books to be nothing but hollow covers (for purposes of giving the illusion of a great library) and is surprised to find that they are all real books.  Owl Eyes comments that Gatsby has mastered something similar to theatre – the elaborate party itself is a fabrication masking an ulterior motive – and suggests that everything in Gatsby’s life is mere illusion.  Thus, the “great” in the title feels similar to a moniker a mediocre magician might possess.  Instead, the film spends lots of time (and real-life money) on the glamorous parties and never stops to remind us how much of a sham they are (nor does it respect us quite enough to allow us to figure it out on our own).  In the end, Nick realizes that the people of the West (the entire main cast) are completely unable to jive with the values of the East, and that Gatsby’s lifestyle – which so closely resembles the exemplary “American Dream” (also a sham, represented by the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock) – is an illusion in and of itself, because Gatsby’s dreams are dead and gone before the story even begins.

The movie does include the billboard featuring the bespectacled eyes of forgotten oculist T.J. Eckleburg, which serve as a sort of uninvolved “observer God” who sees everything but does nothing to intervene or impart advice (much like the Owl Eyes character, who comes with some Lost Generation subtext as well).  The connective tissue between the character and the billboard, however, is never explored, nor is the meaning behind the fact that this billboard watches over the shittiest part of town.  But wait – I said that books cannot be “made into” movies, so some things get left out, right?  Sure, if your biggest concern is time.  But The Great Gatsby is a short novel, and what’s left out here is the most basic understanding of Fitzgerald’s themes.  Look at 2012’s Anna Karenina for an example of a film that (mostly) did a respectable job with its source material while creating a visual adaptation that was, in many positive ways, its own piece of art.

The despicable characters are still despicable, however, which is right in line with the novel.  Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), who goes on histrionic rants and says boring non-applicable racist stuff (which seems inserted simply because a period piece can get away with it), does all of the bad things he does in the novel, including getting Gatsby killed, though in the movie it’s spoiled (don’t you dare call it foreshadowed) far too soon.  At the very least, Nick realize that Tom and Daisy are horrible people who rely on their money to save them from every situation.  Bafflingly left out is Nick’s relationship with Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), one of the only likeable (and only in minor ways) characters in the story.  Elizabeth Debicki, who has only appeared in one movie previously, plays Jordan with such confidence and adventurous intrigue that her lack of involvement later in the story is nothing short of infuriating.  While DiCaprio’s performance (especially his completely organic-sounding “old sport” dialogue) is impressive as ever, Debicki is the highlight of the cast.

I’m just waiting for someone to screw up Absalom, Absalom! next.

The Great Gatsby (2013); adapted from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel; directed by Baz Luhrmann; starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Toby Maguire, Elizabeth Debicki, and Carey Mulligan. 

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