On Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby

Baz Luhrmann adapts Fitzgerald and the result is pretty much as you might expect. There are no surprises here. You have a continual sense that you have seen this film before. That is largely because you have – if, that is, you happened to chance upon any of Luhrmann’s previous four features. Luhrmann goes for the same notes all the time, he modulates them less than a Wahhabi muezzin delivering an unwavering call to prayer. The film is all singing, all dancing, all loud, all of the time. But, you expect that, don’t you?

Luhrmann tackles the jazz age by ignoring jazz entirely in favour of executive producer Jay-Z’s sub-woofed party fuzz; but there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that – the anachronistic music is one of the least jarring things about the film. His approach to the roaring twenties is to make the film roar, and boy, does it roar. Like a haemmorrhoidal lion. With sunburn. The film is a yabbering orgy of more-ishness; no sound is too much, no colour too garish, no cut too abrupt to let us know this was one swell era that just doesn’t come across in the rigidly analogue format that was a novel published in 1925.

Underneath all the slobbery excess and the over-designed munificence are the characters, who are considerably thinner than in Fitzgerald’s original, despite mouthing identical dialogue. This is largely down to poor casting and bad acting: Tobey Maguire, God bless him, is fit only for afternoon TV with his permanent look of fortunate surprise (no amount of radioactive spider bites will ever bestow a screen presence on Tobey). Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway is a cipher but he is not that empty. Carey Mulligan has never convinced me much before and she struggles badly as Daisy, she is playing an actor playing someone dressed up to resemble Daisy Buchanan. Leonardo di Caprio is, on the face of it, well cast as Gatsby, but he chews the 3D scenery up something awful. The ensemble acting is poor but you can hardly blame the actors involved; it doesn’t look like they were getting any direction worth talking about, not least from a man whose mise en scène is all over the place (and the 3D only makes it look worse).

The film captures the essence of the era, but not much of the flavour. It is also a bit annoying to see Nick’s narrative being couched in such an overt way as part of his later therapy sessions; what’s wrong with old-fashioned voiceover? Luhrmann’s Gatsby is a whirlwind of ineptitude from start to finish, and is surprisingly uninvolving. That said, it is not a travesty. If anything, it is too faithful to the book, or at least the period background to the book. It tries, as is common with any new contemporary version of a canonical novel, to show how different it is from all that have come before – it may even know the original novel better than Fitzgerald did himself. It probably would not have been a better film had it aimed a little less at the cultural history surrounding the novel, but a greater attention to the poor tenants of Fitzgerald’s novel would have at least made it slightly more watchable.

As bad as Luhrmann’s film is, it is admirable in many respects. It is like the uncouth distant cousins that show you up at weddings, all loud mouths, shirts the colour of a pack of Opal Fruits, propping up the bar. But they are still cousins and you cut them a bit of slack. Similarly, The Great Gatsby and its cheerful, blasé vulgarity is preferable to much of what passes for literary adaptations these days. Slavoj Zizek admires Ayn Rand because she betrays more readily the disingenuousness of mainstream capitalism, unlike real predatory capitalism’s more disciplined, streamlined advocates. In the same way, Luhrmann’s film shows up all the better the predatory pedantry of literary adaptions. It even clocks in at two hours twenty minutes, twenty shorter than Jack Clayton’s 1974 version, which looked right but had all the memorability of a wedding you have been invited to at the last minute.

My heart sinks when I learn of a book I like being adapted for the cinema, not because, as per the usual gripe, the film will ruin it (any great novel’s reputation is strong enough to long outlive the three to four weeks of PR inanity that surrounds the release of a film). No, the reason my heart sinks is because there are people out there who cannot read a novel without imagining how it would look projected on a screen, its costumes, its sets, its characters painstakingly reproduced. If that is what you’re thinking of when reading a novel, you’re missing the point. It’s a little like drinking a beer and wondering what it would taste like, frozen, as an ice lolly. Sure you can do it but why bother? A novel’s inner life and its outer structure are made of words, which is a sand-like substance, notoriously difficult to replicate on screen, but still the most interesting thing about the novel.

That’s not to say that novels (or plays, or even poems) should never serve as source material for films – there have been many fine films adapted from books, and there continue to be so. It is, however, depressing that we must be visited, every fifteen years or so now at this rate, with a new adaptation of a particular Dickens, Brontë, Jane Austen or Tolstoy, when few of those in the past have been terribly memorable anyway. Some filmmakers do get it right – Andrea Arnold’s recent Wuthering Heights understood the brute social relations that underlie the intense romance of the novel. Most adaptors of literary classics though are content to wallow in the crinoline, the fine teak wainscoting and the Received Pronunciation (American actors in particular are wont to apply RP to any character, of any nationality, from before the 20th century). That is why most film adaptations of classics bring little to the table and are instantly disposable, like the covers in a fast-food restaurant.

It is not only classics that are subject to this either; the film rights on practically every contemporary novel that makes a splash are instantly snapped up. It’s not too surprising – it is a relatively easy way for studios to make money, provided the production is not delayed for too long, and few writers can afford to say no. A strong contemporary novel will likewise survive the brief ignominy of being associated with an idiotic film adaptation, and will only gain in reputation from a good film treatment. But this industrial reproduction of hit novels rarely leads to good cinema – one need only look at the work of Stephen Daldry, who, it seems, cannot behold a Waterstone’s 3-for-2 table without thinking of getting into the cinematic pants of every book on it. This is why we should welcome more adaptations like Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, no matter how vulgar, how misplaced, how tin-eared they might be. Such violence done to the po-faced edifice of ‘literary’ cinema might sensitise people to the pedantry of the slavish adaptation and might lead people to enjoy the source text without wasting time ruminating over whether Keira Knightly or Carey Mulligan might make a better Maggie Tulliver.

Originally published by Berfrois.