I re-read The Great Gatsby before Baz Lurhmann’s adaptation hit the theaters, and the question I pondered in my journal was whether the film would grasp the nature of the novel’s tragedy. It was obvious from the trailers that Gatsby would be of a piece with Lurhmann’s other successes Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge (Strictly Ballroom is a charming film, but positively minimalist by Lurhmann standards, and the less said about the execrable Australia the better). And both of those films are tragic love stories—as, superficially at least, is The Great Gatsby. But where the first two are tragedies of circumstance, Gatsby is what we might call a systemic tragedy: the deaths of the titular character and Myrtle Wilson are not so much accidents of fortune as the end results of a culture of excess and, as Nick Carraway characterizes it, of carelessness. Would Lurhmann’s film capture that tragedy, the indictment of an age, rather than see it as another grand love story?
In a word: no.
Let me back up. My first thought on leaving the theater was that Lurhmann, or whoever markets his films, was premature as establishing Strictly Ballroom as the first film of his “Red Curtain” trilogy. Yes, that made for handy three-DVD sets to sell, but I’ve always felt that Lurhmann’s first film is something of the odd man out in that trio. For one thing, it’s a happy film; for another, in spite of all the glamorous dance sequences, it is aesthetically and thematically out of step with the other two. R+J and Moulin Rouge establish a certain Lurhmannian (Bazian?) preoccupation with the mixing of historical material and contemporary aesthetic, whether it’s Shakespearean characters duelling with 9mm handguns, or fin-de-siecle dandies belting out Nirvana. Finally, these two films center upon tragic love—the all-consuming love of the liebstod variety that effectively eclipses all other concerns.
For all intents and purposes, The Great Gatsby reshapes the Red Curtain Trilogy. Strictly Ballroom should go off into the world as its own entity, and R+J should be counted as the first film of three. I say this not just because Gatsby looks and sounds the same (the soundtrack, as usual, is amazing), but also because it follows a similar narrative pattern in the first act: in R+J and Moulin Rouge, our handsome if slightly naïve protagonist finds himself at a somewhat hallucinogenic pre-party, followed by a much grander party of bewildering proportions.
In Gatsby, Nick follows Tom Buchanan into New York, with an impromptu stop on the way to pick up Tom’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson. There in the city, in Tom and Myrtle’s love nest, Nick gets drunk for the second time in his life, with much the same effect (cinematically) as when Romeo drops Mercutio’s acid and Christian tries absinthe for the first time. Though there is a small gap in Gatsby between the Nick’s New York debauch and his first party at Gatsby’s mansion, the sequences are very much of a piece. Gatsby’s party—with its music and vaguely choreographed dancing, the revelry that unfolds like a fever dream, and just the general loud, colourful excess of it all—strikingly resembles the Capulets’ masked ball and Christian’s first experience of the Moulin Rouge floor show.
For the record, this is where the film is at its best: love Baz Lurhmann or hate him, you cannot deny his extraordinary talent for excess in his mise-en-scène. The extended party scene is always just this side of being too confusing, too jumbled … but somehow holds together.
But: Aha! you say. In R+J and Moulin Rouge, the handsome young protagonist then espies at the party the woman with whom he falls madly, hopelessly in love. Not so with The Great Gatsby. Yes, Nick runs into Jordan Baker, the friend of Daisy’s with whom he carries on a casual love affair over the summer, but that hardly counts as a grand love on par with Romeo and Juliet and Christian and Satine. The true tragic love of this story is Gatsby and Daisy—and that does not happen until later.
Well, imaginary interlocutor, you have a good point there. Except that you’re wrong. Structurally speaking—which is to say, looking at Gatsby in the context of the other two films of the reshaped trilogy—the film figures Nick as the young lover. And the beloved? Gatsby, of course. And unfortunately, it is in this subtle thematic shift that the wheels come off.
Let me back up again. Lurhmann’s film makes obsequious obeisance to the novel … or at least to the quality of Fitzgerald’s prose. It does so by having Nick Carraway (Toby Maguire) narrate much of the exposition in voiceover, mostly quoting verbatim from the novel. While I am (1) not the standard cinephile hater of voiceover, and (2) theoretically in favour of preserving a novel’s text as much as possible in adaptations, Nick’s VOs really, really grated on me … in part because more often than not the actual text of what he’s saying appears on the screen. Though the film is superficially faithful to the novel (i.e. very little happens in the film that is not in the novel—which, as I’ll emphasize below, isn’t the same thing as getting the novel right), the one major departure is that Lurhmann frames the story within Nick’s retelling several years later, as he recuperates in a well-heeled mental hospice. As part of his “therapy,” his doctor encourages him to write down the story of his summer with Gatsby—which, as quickly becomes clear, is the site and source of his trauma.
In this respect, Nick is strongly reminiscent of Christian (Ewan McGregor) in Moulin Rouge, whom we also initially meet as a man devastated by the death of his beloved and who can only take solace in the writing of his story.
The writing in both cases is an act of catharsis and tribute—though with Nick and Gatsby, there is the added element of recuperation, in which he essentially defends Gatsby’s character against the popular perceptions of media gawkers. In Lurhmann’s hands, the story loses its critical edge. Two small moments serve to illustrate what I mean by this, and highlight the way in which the film turns Nick from a jaded, detached observer into a Gatsby partisan.
First, toward the end of the film, after Myrtle’s death, Nick worriedly leaves Gatsby—unlike the novel, Gatsby is waiting in pathetic anticipation for a call from Daisy in which, he assumes, she will tell him she’s ready to leave Tom for him. In the novel, it is left far more ambivalent: when Nick attempts to call from work later, he is told that the line is being kept open for a call from Philadelphia; in the film, Gatsby wants the line kept free for a call from Daisy. As he leaves Gatsby, Nick calls back “They’re a rotten crowd … You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” This line is taken verbatim from the novel, as is the voice-over that follows: “I’ve always been glad I said that,” he says. “It was the only compliment I ever gave him.”
The problem here, as those who’ve read the novel will grasp, is that the film leaves out the crucial caveat that follows: “because I disapproved of him from beginning to end.” The novel frames the fact that Nick only ever complimented Gatsby once as perfectly understandable, and ultimately generous for having done so at all; the film frames it as a woeful failing.
Second, the film ends with the completion of Nick’s manuscript. He has placed it in a handsome box, and looks down for several long, soulful moments at the simple title GATSBY. After a moment of consideration he uncaps his fountain pen and writes in “The Great.”
Fitzgerald struggled with the title for his most famous novel oscillating between the ludicrous (The High-Bouncing Lover) and the obscure (Trimalchio in West Egg), until he was finally convinced by his wife and his publisher to settle (reluctantly) on The Great Gatsby. He was never entirely satisfied with his final choice, and I like to imagine it’s because he worried some readers might not catch the irony.
One way or another, Lurhmann’s film does not. Emphatically does not. On one level, the film is a magnificent example of how cinema can bring the vision of a novel to life; on another (and, I would argue, more crucial) level, it’s exemplary of how the visualization of text can brutally obscure or elide its necessary subtleties. As I hope I managed to say in my first Gatsby post, there is a pretty massive dissonance in the novel between the tone and quality of Nick Carraway’s narration—his talent for understatement—and the excess and spectacle of Gatsby’s wealth. Superficially, Gatsby is ideal source material for Baz Lurhmann, insofar as opulence and excess are his principal métier. But where he falls down is in the lack of anything resembling critique: even given his historical perch, not just post-1929, but post-2008, the film cannot quite bring itself to be critical of Gatsby. It has no problem being critical of Tom and Daisy and their old money, any more than Moulin Rouge had difficulty vilifying the Duke. But Gatsby himself—bafflingly, when you really think about it—comes across as a paragon of innocent love, even when it’s made clear that he got to where he is by nefarious means. There is a faux-B&W newsreel montage about Prohibition and bootlegging, as well as commentary on the new culture of greed infesting the early 1920s—which, very obviously, is meant as critique of contemporary Wall Street. Well and good … but the film does not follow through.
For Lurhmann-lovers, this film is a beautiful example of what he can do; but as an interpretation of The Great Gatsby (and I say this to students who might toy with the idea of watching the film instead of reading the novel), for all of its technical narrative fidelity, it misses the point entirely.