For nearly a century, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterwork, The Great Gatsby, has been more or less the archetype for “the great American novel”. First published in 1925, its celebration of jazz era decadence serves as the backdrop for a cautious morality tale warning against the perils of living in the past. Assuming that we’ve all been to high school, we’re all familiar with the story of Jay Gatsby and his attempts to woo a former lover away from her husband with wealth and extravagance. The story itself is deceptively simple and in its simplicity it weaves a tale so heartbreaking that its tragedy stays with you long after the book has been closed. Though critically panned for the first few years of its life, the novel was an immediate commercial success and has more or less remained such as subsequent generations have discovered the tale of Daisy and Jay. Though clearly a novel of the jazz age and all of the bombastic decadence that went with it, the story is just as poignant today as it first was 90 years ago. With all of its success and near universal appeal, it’s no wonder that Hollywood has been adapting the story almost since it first came out.
Of course, none of the adaptations of the novel have proven to be successful. The original adaptation, a silent film released in 1926, was panned by Fitzgerald and his wife (despite the generous payment they received for the rights) and has since becomes a lost film, with only about 1 minute of footage still remaining. They tried again in 1949, with the incomparable Alan Ladd this time playing the role of Gatsby. Though regarded better than the silent adaptation, this version, too, lacked the universal appeal and success of the novel. Then came 1974 with a Francis Ford Coppola penned adaptation starring Robert Redford in the titular role; this version has since been regarded as the best version of the novel, though still admittedly not so good. And the 2000 television movie adaptation is hardly worth remembering, let alone mentioning here.
The repeated lack of success of Gatsby adaptations has given the novel the reputation for being unfilmable with many critics of both literature and film crying that there is simply no way to translate Fitzgerald’s poetry to the big screen in a way that keeps it interesting. Once again, this assertion has been proven true.
Director Baz Luhrmann, known for extravagant pictures like Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge, has been nurturing his vision of The Great Gatsby for years and his vision finally hits theaters today. Unfortunately, it just isn’t that good.
Lurhmann’s version mostly stays 100% true to the novel; aside from a new narrative framework that has the narrator, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), telling his tale of Gatsby’s fall to a psychiatrist in a sanitarium (where he stays to combat gross alcoholism) there isn’t a single detail changed from the novel. So purists will be happy for that. But this reverence to the source material only gives further proof to the idea that Gatsby is unfilmable.
The film drags, especially in the third act, where the novel captivates. And more than a few artistic choices were, at best, puzzling. The film was shot in 3D which doesn’t really make too much sense and was ultimately distracting. Sure, the party scenes were fun to look at, but they felt more like a spectacle than was necessary for film. I can’t bemoan Luhrman for wanting to make a 3D picture—if anyone should make one, it’s him—but it just didn’t feel right for The Great Gatsby.
And then there’s the soundtrack. Luhrmann has long been known for anachronistic story telling. His version of Romeo and Juliet famously used the play’s original text while using a modern setting and Moulin Rouge used modern pop songs as musical numbers to tell its story of an early 20th century nightclub. This time, he uses a soundtrack provided by Jay Z to supplement the jazzy setting of West Egg and East Egg. I get the reasoning here; he was trying to draw comparisons to the bombastic era of jazz to the bombastic extravagance of modern hip hop. But ultimately, it too was distracting.
I will say that the cast, for the most part, shined. Leonardo DiCaprio is arguably the perfect Gatsby and he brought the character to life amazingly. Same goes for Luhrmann’s Daisy, Carey Mulligan. Additionally, the script was great, although most of its brilliance comes from the near word for word adaptation of the novel.
But aside from mostly great performances (Maguire, I feel, was the wrong choice for Nick and to a certain point, it almost felt like even he was wondering why he was there) there’s not too much to like about The Great Gatsby. Hopefully, Hollywood learns its lesson this time around. Or maybe they’ll just try again in another 20 years.