It feels like I have been waiting a long time to write this post. Maybe even one of the reasons I started this blog was to write this post. And I know that when I am done, I will feel like it is woefully incomplete.
I love The Great Gatsby. It is my all-time favorite novel. Since the first time I read it in my first year of college, I have felt an attachment to the story. Someone so haunted by their past, so faithful to the idea of the green light, so hopeful that things can be the same as they were. It is beautifully written, perfectly romantic, and wonderfully simple. It really is the greatest example of American literature that we have. I have read and re-read it, studied it and taught it in the classroom. It is the first book I will recommend to anyone looking for something good to read, regardless of the person. Millions have poured over Fitzgerald’s words already, and I hope that millions more will. The Great Gatsby is one of those novels that should never die, and never fade away. There is no more perfect explanation of the American Dream, and no more perfect commentary on its failures than in this book.
So, naturally, I was excitedly terrified when the new film came out. Maybe one of the reasons I waited so long to try and write a review or comment about it, is because I wanted to digest it. I have now seen the DiCaprio film version three times, and I only now have some concrete thoughts on the movie. I could go into details about plot changes, but I just want to highlight some of my pros and cons of the film. For people who know Gatsby, they already know the manipulations undertaken to take this work of art to the big screen (again).
+ This film version is essentially two films. The first half illustrates Baz Luhrmann’s reckless direction and love of in-your-face, over-the-top, visuals. But is works. Sort of. Aside from the cartoonish scenes with the cars, the garish and decadence behavior of the 1920’s lends itself perfectly to his style. He seems to demand nearly hammy performances from his actors, and he gets it from them. For the second half, he reins himself in and manages to tell a tender love story, where the eyes of the viewer are drawn to the character, and not the impressively high confetti budget.
– This movie is a waste of 3D (for those who saw it in the theatre). Yes, the party scenes were cool, but aside from that, I wished I had seen it in good, old fashioned, 2D. Wearing the stupid glasses on top of my glasses was not worth the couple of scenes where it was visually interesting.
+ The casting for this film was sound. DiCaprio was the perfect choice as the titular character (can you really think of anyone else who should have played this role?), partially because DiCaprio is very much a real-life Gatsby. Daisy, Tom, Myrtle, George, and Jordan were all physically perfect for the film, and they could act as well, which helps.
-Tobey Maguire was very hit and miss as Nick Carraway. He plays the nerdy third-wheel well, but I wonder if there could have been a more capable actor, that could have brought some guts to Nick, to make him a more loveable character, instead of one who we feel is being used over the course of the entire film. This film adaptation embraces the idea of Nick as a watcher an enabler, when there is more substance to his character, in my opinion.
+ Jordan Baker is my favorite character in the novel, and she was as well in the movie. And not only because she is played by an absolutely beautiful Glamazon of an actress (Elizabeth Debicki). At 6’2 1/2″, she towered over her co-stars, but she also humanized Jordan a little bit more than she is in the novel. She is not an awful, dishonest, person, but one who believes in the love story that Daisy and Gatsby shared. I like Jordan because she is beautiful, selfish and kind of evil. She came across perfectly in this movie. And wow, absolutely stunningly beautiful.
– I hated that Nick was in a sanitarium in the film. He doesn’t need this made up excuse to be telling the story of his former neighbor. I thought that was a weak choice, as it spoonfed the audience too much and also crippled our views of Nick as being a reliable narrator.
– Too much narration crippled some of the performances in the film. When you have strong actors like Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio, let them act. It was unnecessary that so many of their scenes were spoken over by Maguire. I understand that there are so many beautiful lines in the novel that they didn’t want to leave out, but I felt that it was overkill.
+ I have gone back and forth on the soundtrack for this movie. Luhrmann traditionally puts modern music into his movies, regardless of the era of the setting, and I think, in the end, it worked on this movie. Sure, there was a lot of Jay-Z in a movie about the 20’s, but it lent itself well, specifically to the party scenes where 20’s inspired music was amped-up with modern techno-style synthesizers. As a separate entity, the actual OST for the film is excellent, highlighted by Jack White’s fantastic “Love is Blindness.”
– According to IMDB, the phrase “Old Sport” was uttered 55 times in the film. That is a lot. Tone it down, as it lost some of its effect. I know that they use it often in the novel as well, but at times it seemed like every line Gatsby said ended with his catchphrase.
– The funeral was a huge miss on the part of the screen writers and director. One of the saddest parts in American literature is the fact that nobody went to Jay Gatsby’s funeral aside from his own father and Owl Eyes. That he was the most famous person on Long Island, a man surrounded by mystery and excitement, and nobody would come to say their final goodbyes is the most gut-wrenching part of the novel. And they blew it in the movie. Having the media there ruined the sadness of the moment, and we never even saw Owl Eyes there, to utter his disbelief that people used to show up at his house by the hundreds and couldn’t make it out for his final appearance. The narration Nick provides over this moment is lost in the visuals of dozens of reporters and flashbulbs looking over Gatsby’s body. Definitely the biggest missed opportunity of the film.
+ The scene where Nick pays Gatsby his only compliment was perfect. The look on Gatsby’s face was one of pure happiness and understanding, perhaps the last moment of that in his life. Luhrmann kept this simple, and it worked wonderfully.
I could probably go into far too much detail on what I liked and didn’t like about this movie. Overall, I would say that I wanted to love it, and despite the parts that I hated, ended up liking it. This is definitely a valued addition to the Gatsby collection of adaptations. Despite being both helped and hindered by an eccentric filmmaker, the strong cast bring my overall view of this movie into the plus side.
And now that I have pretty much finished writing this post, I realize that there are a million other things I would like to add. But I will leave it here. The Great Gatsby is a million miles from being perfect, but I don’t think that it is possible to adapt a text that is so famous and so beloved into something that everybody will love. This version gave it a shot. And for the most part, succeeded.