The Great Gatsby
Produced and distributed by Warner Brothers Pictures
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Screenplay by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce
Why do studios keep trying to turn F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby into a film? Fitzgerald’s extraordinarily vivid prose and his unmatched descriptive powers would seem to make it a natural choice, but, through five attempts, it’s proved to be thoroughly allergic to the screen. Why? It may be that Fitzgerald was working less as a novelist than as a poet when he wrote it. It’s well known that poetry refuses to yield to the inherent literalism of film.
Take, for instance, the valley of ashes glimpsed by the novel’s characters several times while riding the train from Long Island to Manhattan. On the page it’s an image that hovers between the literal and the symbolic. The first-time reader registers its suggestiveness subliminally. Here’s a wasteland in which train laborers shovel cinders to maintain ballast under the rails. But it’s also the realm of modern man’s parched soul deprived of spiritual sustenance. Made literal on the screen, the conceit looks at once precious and thoroughly ridiculous. This is just one of the narrative’s many metaphoric images that do not lend themselves to film’s literal treatment. This difficulty, however, hasn’t deterred filmmakers, who no doubt took notice of the book’s academically nurtured audience.
By 1949, the year Alan Ladd donned Gatsby’s white flannels, the novel was becoming a classroom staple. Once the professoriate discovered that Fitzgerald had echoed some modernist masters—principally Joseph Conrad and T.S. Eliot—in his pages, there was no stopping its canonization. It wasn’t merely entertaining; it had become Significant. All those modernist themes to elucidate before rooms filled with rapt students! My wife—a Brooklyn-born cynic—has her own explanation for the book’s inclusion on reading lists coast to coast: “It’s short.” However much the modernist influence has counted in its academic favor, there’s no denying the appeal of the book’s brevity (182 pages in the Scribner edition). “Teachers like that,” my darling goes on. “They can assign a chapter a night and in little more than a week they’re passing out the test.”
So it happens that every American knows the story—or at least its CliffsNotes rendition. Adultery in high and low places—Anna Karenina on Long Island, at one fifth the length. Wealthy idlers Daisy and Tom Buchanan have so little to do that they relieve their boredom by seeking excitement in extramarital amour. Tom is an inveterate womanizer specializing in lower-class broads. The more fastidious Daisy retaliates by allowing herself to be swept off her feet by the dashing criminal parvenu Jay Gatsby. The usual follows: emotional turmoil, recriminations, and, finally, violence that cuts three lives short. What saves the novel from its melodramatic familiarity is its narration. Everything passes through the consciousness of its narrator, Nick Carraway, who, with strategic assistance from his creator, rescues significance from the jaws of cliché. His voice makes of the story’s ingredients a meditative poem on the decline of the American idea, specifically, and the Christian tradition, generally.
Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) poignantly and unintentionally heralds this double demise. He’s American to his core in that he’s rejected the past. Unfortunately, he’s reinvented himself in accordance with a decadent notion of what constitutes success in the land of the free—i.e., money, and tons of it. Still, money is only a means for Gatsby, not an end. Uneducated as he is except for a few weeks attending classes at Oxford University, a British courtesy offered American soldiers for having saved the king from the kaiser in 1918, he’s gained enough savoir faire to address others as “old sport” and seems to have picked up a watered-down notion of chivalry that sets him on a quest for his holy grail, Daisy Buchanan, the wealthy girl he lost before the war because of his lowly origins. She’s the sadly perishable vessel in which he invests all his half-baked ideals, an imitation Beatrice to his bedazzled Dante. On this shifting foundation, he hopes to establish his own la vita nuova. Although Gatsby can hardly be said to grasp the significance of his romance beyond its obvious sentimental, sexual, and class appeal, it nevertheless echoes the Christian idea that everyone has a mission to imbue transient, imperfect reality with permanent spiritual significance, that we have the obligation and privilege to rescue moral meaning from the flatly mundane. And Daisy, like her name, is as mundane as a weed.
Based on Gatsby’s inadequate words, Nick imagines what must have happened between Daisy and Gatsby during their first intimacy: “At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.” But Nick, creature of his desiccated time, can’t quite say what this means. Or so he or Fitzgerald or both pretend. Nick goes on, improbably enough, to tell us that Gatsby’s musings remind him
of something—an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound, and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.
What fails to take shape in his mouth, what’s incommunicable forever, is the Christian significance of Gatsby’s love. This explains the novel’s repeated scenes of “the valley of ashes,” the image that Fitzgerald borrowed from Eliot’s The Waste Land and “The Hollow Men,” betokening the arid hopelessness and perplexing aimlessness of a world stripped of faith and, with it, spiritual purpose. (I suppose Nick forgot this in the same way one forgets an inconvenient obligation. Father’s Day, perhaps.)
So how do you record this on film? Baz Luhrmann clearly thought he knew, but his solution lacks, shall we say, tact. He’s done things big, gaudy, and thunderous. It’s as though he took Gatsby’s late-night invitation to drive Nick to Coney Island for literal inspiration. He decided he would take us all on a Coney Island ride. He’s rendered the novel’s story a grotesque variant of the vulgarian’s dream destination. At Gatsby’s famous parties outside his mansion on Long Island Sound, Luhrmann’s retained a barker-voiced ringmaster to introduce one spectacle after another: Divers, some professional, others merely drunk, plunge into a pool from a 20-foot-high platform. The soundtrack thuds with Jay-Z’s hip-hop score that’s supposed to echo 20’s jazz and dismally doesn’t. Later, an orchestra tunes up and, in a transcendent effort, accompanies Gatsby as he turns to the camera for the first time. As he flashes his patented smile, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue reaches its caterwauling crescendo, which, like Luhrmann, has arrived earlier than it should, this being 1922. (Gershwin’s composition premiered two years later.) Let that go. The effect is as wildly theatrical as Gatsby’s ostentatiously contrived performance as a gentleman.
In short, everything is overdone. When Tom breaks his mistress Myrtle’s nose, instead of the “short, deft movement” Nick describes in the novel, he swings at her face as if he were trying to bat a pitch into the bleacher seats at the old Polo Grounds. On the page, Gatsby sends his servants to mow Nick’s lawn and dress his rooms florally, preparatory to meeting Daisy in his neighbor’s cottage. This is not enough for Luhrmann’s screen. He has teams of landscapers mowing, trimming, and pruning while florists install more sprays and wreaths in Nick’s living room than ever bedecked a Mafioso funeral. It all becomes hilarious, which, I suppose, was Fitzgerald’s original intention. You might say Luhrmann has out-Gatsbyed Gatsby. Enough is never enough, not when you can shove 3D excess into your audience’s collective face.
As Nick says,
The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.
There’s enough meretricious beauty in this movie to fill five Platonic ballparks.
I should add that the acting is uniformly exceptional, starting with Leonardo DiCaprio, whose Gatsby is absurdly desperate to impress others. As Daisy, Cary Mulligan is at once enticing, listless, and infuriatingly self-involved, just as any spoiled siren should be. But my hat’s lifted especially high to the Australians in the piece. Joel Edgerton brings to the seemingly thankless role of Tom Buchanan an altogether frightening fury as well as an unnerving tenderness that I never suspected in the character. And as the insouciant golfer Jordan Baker, Daisy’s confidante, Elizabeth Debicki commands our attention with nothing more than a slouching gait and languid regard. She’s rendered perfectly her character’s calculating carelessness.
In its own vulgar and silly manner, this film tries to honor Fitzgerald’s conception. It’s also quite beautiful at times. As such, it’s well worth seeing.