Thursday, 30 May 2013


Roadshow Films

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"Gatsby? What Gatsby?" In this, just the fourth film adaptation of the great American novel, The Great Gatsby, the answer is less the author's and more the auteur's. F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel of 1920s excess and tragic ambition has been lavishly adapted by Australian director, Baz Luhrmann, with an emphasis on the excess, a nod to the tragedy, but somehow missing the book's point amid the champagne and glitter.

It comes as no surprise that Luhrmann and his production/costume designer wife, Catherine Martin, have taken great delight in recreating Roaring '20s New York, and there's no denying the film looks fabulous, despite being unnecessarily shot in 3D. But one gets the sense (unfairly perhaps) that Luhrmann merely read the synopsis for Fitzgerald's book, first published in 1925, and got hung up on the era in which it was set and was not so concerned with what was going on in the book, and even less so with what lies beneath Fitzgerald's prose.

Not that Luhrmann and his co-writer, Craig Pearce, are averse to that wonderful prose; lifting entire passages from the novel and delivered, as in the book but far more successfully there, by narrator and observer Nick Carraway (sacrilegiously here, somewhat, having him tell his story whilst recuperating in a sanitarium). Played by Tobey Maguire, Carraway is a voyeur, on the edges looking in. He is us, the audience. And like the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckelburg, the God-like visage from the novel, he witnesses all. Unlike God, Nick's less judgemental and far more sexually ambiguous.

As neighbour to the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), and cousin to Daisy Buchanan (the beautiful but underused Carey Mulligan), Nick is the facilitator of a clandestine reunion between the two; young lovers before The Great War took the poor but ambitious Gatsby overseas and marriage (to the brutish but monied Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton)) took Daisy's hand if not her heart.

Gatsby's desire is that Daisy leave her husband and that the two will live their lives together as though the past five years never happened; the five years in which Gatsby may or may not have become a war hero, may or may not have attended Oxford, but who certainly accumulated a fortune, although he may or may not (almost certainly may) have done so through illegal means.

His house, on Long Island's West Egg, directly opposite Daisy's on the East, where that metaphorical green light shines in the night, a beacon of light and a promise that was never really made, is Gatsby's Taj Mahal: a grand romantic gesture and ornate symbol of the American dream of rags to riches come garishly to life. It's these visuals from Fitzgerald's book which Luhrmann seizes upon and less so the tragedy of a man who has built his life on a delusion: that money will buy happiness and that the past can indeed be repeated, old sport.

As it is, when tragedy inevitably strikes we don't much care. Despite spending more than two hours in these peoples' company, we've developed very little emotional connection to them. Not that the cast, which also includes small but notable turns by Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke (as the Wilsons), and newcomer Elizabeth Debicki, whose elongated figure lends pro-golfer Jordan Baker the necessary athleticism (and a touch of the young Cate Blanchett), are phoning it in. But it's hard not to come across as decorously attired mannequins when the film is more concerned with the look, the surface of things, rather than what lies beneath.

Not that it's all bad. And I suspect one's response to Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby will very much depend on one's relationship to Fitzgerald's book. The less enamoured you are with the novel (and I'll confess, I've been an ardent admirer since first reading it in high school), the more likely you are to swoon over the film (it also helps if you're a fan of Luhrmann's style of filmmaking).

And that's not intended as a backhanded compliment nor literary snobbery for as has often proven to be the case, a great book rarely makes for a great film. And while no text is sacrosanct, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby will always be great.

The greatness of Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby may reveal itself over time and with distance (and my opinion of it may very well change), but for now it's an English Lit. term paper which receives a mere passing grade.


  1. Extremely thoughtful review. The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite novels and I am looking forward to seeing this. I think that at last the casting is right. Redford never did understand Jay Gatsby, and Sam Waterston was meh as Nick. I've been dying for a new film version of this and since I am an ardent fan of the era and of Luhrmann, I'll probably like this.

  2. Hey Melissa, hope you have been well? Thanks for reading and commenting. There are no explosions (lol) but it is worth seeing in a cinema purely for the visual elements, though I'd argue that 3D in unnecessary. Recently re-watched the Redford Gatsby and it was a snooze; this version is definitely a livelier affair. Let me know what you think when you see it.