The (Could Have Been) Great (But Wasn’t) Gatsby – My Thoughts on the Film

So I finally got to see The Great Gatsby. I walked into the theater hopeful and expecting to love the film unequivocally. I mean, I love the book and I love Baz Luhrmann’s work and all of the trailers and clips that I had seen seemed more than promising. But for all that, I walked out of the theater mostly disappointed.

 It’s been a couple of days and I am still struggling to get all my thoughts into something coherent that people might actually want to read. I have had a distressing tendency towards ranting that I’ve been attempting to restrain. Not that the movie was so terribly awful. It wasn’t. There were multiple aspects of it that I enjoyed. But what went wrong went really, really wrong (at least in my opinion) and the shinning bits of good almost make me angry because I could see glimpses of the movie that could have been in them.

Overall, my reactions fall into two categories. There are my thoughts on the film as a movie and there are my thoughts on the film as an adaptation of the book. When my sister heard that I had seen the film she asked if I thought she would like it, despite never having read the book. And I had to admit that she had a much better chance of liking the film because she had never read the book. So I have decided to approach this blog post from both perspectives and let people read whichever one they may be interested in

Gatsby as an Adaptation

As a book lover, the film got on my nerves almost immediately. Before we had met a single character, seen a flicker of a green light, or heard a single note of hip hop infused jazz music, I was ready to throw something at the screen. The movie starts with a voice over by Nick which I expected. The overwhelming strength of Gatsby as a book is Fitzgerald’s prose and any adaptation would be wise to incorporate as much of it as possible. But Luhrmann’s version starts out using Fitzgerald’s words and then veers off into something else. The opening line of the film goes something like this “In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I have been mulling over. “Before you judge someone else, try to put yourself in their shoes first” Wait! What!?! Every time they did this, it was as jarring as a record screeching to a halt and I was struck by the arrogance of the screenplay writers in thinking that they could write Gatsby better than Fitzgerald did. I understand that they couldn’t read the book verbatim (although there has been  one adaptation that did pretty much just that and was fascinating enough that people didn’t mind sitting through 7 hour of it! ) but they were taking foundational quotes and changing the meaning of them!!

They also made major changes to the character of Nick Carraway that were extremely grating (more on that later).

In terms of minor quibbles, the film seemed to excise any notion that Daisy might have been as much of a symbol as the green light and Eckleberg were. (It would have taken so little to satisfy me on this point. All I would have needed was the line about Daisy’s voice being full of money but they left it out.) Lastly, I wasn’t fond of how the film portrayed the aftermath of Gatsby’s death. The shots of the reporters and photographers swarming over the open casket instead of hounding the house from the gates seemed a bit much. It didn’t bother me too much that Gatsby’s father wasn’t there for the funeral. I could understand not wanting to introduce a new character at that point but I was disappointed not to see the man with the owl-eyed glasses.

 Gatsby as a Movie

 Having said all this, there is a certain resignation that any book lover has when coming to a film adaptation of a book. What works on the page doesn’t always work on the screen and choices and changes are inevitable. If the film had worked as a film, I would have been a lot more forgiving of its departures from the book but even when taken as its own entity, The Great Gatsby film falls short.

I should mention right up front that Leonardo Di Caprio and Carey Mulligan were FABULOUS as Gatsby and Daisy and any scene that focused on them was worth the price of admission. Leo brought both suaveness and vulnerability to the role that was incredible to see. And Mulligan was lovely and charming as Daisy and (even more impressively) added layers of depth to a character that was (even in the novel) rather shallowly written.

 I wish I could say I was equally impressed with Tobey Maguire’s performance as Nick. Before the movie came out, I had heard a great deal of outrage over the casting and I couldn’t understand why. I never really thought of Nick as having much of an independent character that needed to be portrayed one way or another. He is mainly there as a witness to the events of the story and as a mouthpiece for Fitzgerald’s prose. So I didn’t think there was much Maguire could do to “ruin” the character. I was wrong.

 To be fair, Maguire’s performance was in keeping with the changes that the film made to the character. In the book, Nick is from a “prominent well-to-do” “clan” of a family who attended Yale University and grew up with “advantages” that most others didn’t have. In the film, however, Nick is poor (so much so that a bully at one of Gatsby’s parties actually taunts him by calling him “poor boy” and swoops in to steal Jordan away from being contaminated by Nick’s obvious lack of money and status).

 In the book, Nick is sophisticated, even self-admittedly snobbish. Having had almost every kind of confession and “plagiaristic” confidences forced on him, Nick starts the book a little jaded and so experienced at navigating awkward social encounters that he is accused of acting like a politician. Yet, the film portrays Nick as a wide-eyed yokel, gaping at everything he sees. Yes, in the book Nick is rather fascinated by Gatsby and by Gatsby’s lifestyle but the film takes that way too far. Maguire approached Carraway with a naïve, bumbling “Oh Gosh!” wonder that was, frankly, annoying. I don’t know how much of it was the completely unnecessary re-write of the character in the script and how much of it was Maguire reverting to a well-worn path acting-wise but it seriously didn’t work!

 However, my biggest issue with the film is that it seemed like director, Baz Luhrmann never really decided what kind of movie he was making. A glitteringly excessive, over the top, spectacular, spectacular would have been so much fun to see. Conversely, intimate moments where Luhrmann wasn’t tempted to throw in all the whistles and bells (like the scene where Gatsby and Daisy first re-encounter each other while having tea at Nick’s house) were simply lovely and hint at what a breathtaking movie Luhrmann could have made if he had restrained all the histrionics and played to the more personal side of the story. If there is one quality that defined Gatsby himself, it was his “extraordinary gift for hope,” an uncompromisedly grand vision of himself and his life to which he was totally faithful. The essential tragedy of the book is that Daisy is unable (or unwilling) to have the same faith and commit herself to his vision. The essential tragedy of the Gatsby film is that Luhrmann didn’t have a defining vision and so made a film that was rife with unsatisfying compromise.

 The problem with Gatsby as a spectacle is that (with the exception of the party sequences) Luhrmann never really goes far enough to sell it to the audience. The excesses of Moulin Rouge worked because when it went over the top, it went so far over the top that it came across as stylized and fantastic. It committed so much to being that over the top that audience could lose itself in it wholeheartedly. Maybe the fact that Moulin Rouge was a musical gave Luhrmann permission to take the unabashed leaps into the fantastic that he did but he didn’t show the same commitment in Gatsby. His use of special effects and editing are all so inconsistent that they distract from rather than add to the film.

 And the music…. Oh the music! There has been a lot said about the soundtrack to this film. There are plenty of people who were bothered by the decision to go with anachronistic hip hop and modern music rather than period appropriate pieces. Luhrmann has been quoted as saying that jazz music at the time was daring and rebellious and cool in a way that modern audiences wouldn’t get so using modern music that has similar connotations to the viewers would evoke a more period appropriate feeling than using actual jazz music would have. I can certainly understand that theory. I would even take it a step further and say that the use of hip hop is particularly fitting because the Jazz Age was also the time of the Harlem Renaissance, a time when African American art and music and culture was all the rage and there is something really kind of cool in just transposing this music up a few generations. I particularly liked how many of the songs like “Crazy in Love” by Emeli Sande, “Bang Bang” by will.i.am and Fergie’s “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” fused elements of the 1920’s music with the more modern music. But, like the special effects, the music wasn’t used consistently enough. Some scenes featured the new music, some used the old but the switching back and forth was distracting.

 Once again, Luhrmann introduced a lot of things but didn’t see any of them through and the movie suffered for it. By choosing to give his audience a little bit of everything without giving enough of anything, Luhrmann creates a sort of uncanny valley where the fantastic elements of the film clash with the realistic rather than creating a believable fantasy, resulting in a middle of the road film that, with notable exceptions, comes across as campy and cartoonish and fails to satisfy.

 At the same time, Luhrmann could have had faith in the strength of the story, the skill of his actors, and the sheer visual gorgeousness of the sets and costumes, (not to mention the images of the green light and the Eckleberg billboard – which were everything my bibliophilic heart could desire) and he could have let them carry the film, which quite frankly they could have done very, very easily. But to make this film, he would have had to show much more restraint. The party sequences could have stayed mostly the same (giving Luhrmann an outlet for his more ADHD impulses) but odd hallucinogenic sequence, unnecessary special effects, and the book-ending narrative of Nick at the sanitarium could (and should) have hit the cutting room floor.

 It is way too late to make this long story short but for those of you who aren’t willing to wade through my obsessive rant of a review, here is the tl;dr version: The Great Gatsby could have indeed been great but it wasn’t. And so we beat on, boats against the current, still in search of a satisfying Gatsby movie.

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About Ciarrai

Hi. My name is Kerry but here online I tend to go by the Gaelic version of my name, Ciarrai. I am a woman in my mid-30's who lives on Long Island, NY, with my husband, Rob, several guitars, a Nikon D40, more yarn, beads and books than I care to admit to and a cat who has a million nicknames and quite a few theme songs. I have a B.A. in Psychology and have recently returned to college to pursue a teaching degree so that I can eventually get a job as a High School English teacher. In addition to my major obsessions (Reading, Beading, Knitting, Music and Photography), I also enjoy playing Board Games, going to Renaissance Faires, Museums and Broadway Musicals.
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