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The Great Gatsby movie review: The unquiet darkness

Luhrmann’s hyperbolic version of ‘Gatsby’

Editorial Editor

Published: Monday, July 1, 2013

Updated: Friday, July 5, 2013 16:07


Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Baz Luhrmann joins a group of directors who have failed to reinvent the original genius of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby with his film version that hit theaters in May.

Film: The Great Gatsby

Release Date: May 10

Studio: Warner Brothers

Grade: C

When you see Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, you realize what a misapprehension it was that such familiar material was befitting for this modernized retelling. Not because the film is a total disaster or that the crew of filmmakers were completely misguided, but that its source – so idiosyncratic in its original form – renders any attempt to present the story through a different medium incapable of not getting somehow lost in translation.

It took only a little over a year for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel to be adapted for the screen following its publication in April 1925. That film, directed by Herbert Brenon, is all but lost (all that remains now is a trailer held at the National Archives). In 1949, Elliot Nugent brought the story to the screen again (partly to promote the career of Alan Ladd), and in 1974, Jack Clayton delivered the most prominent version to date, starring Robert Redford with a screenplay from Francis Ford Coppola. Two more versions would follow – a television movie and a hip-hop adaptation loosely based off the novel – and it pretty much goes without saying that none of these adaptations have delivered us a satisfactory film version of Gatsby.

When Luhrmann (Australia) became the sixth director to throw his hat in the ring – with Leonardo DiCaprio (Django Unchained) in the eponymous role as Jay Gatsby – he embroiled himself in a unique tradition of limp attempts to transmit this particular literary narrative into cinematic form.

Fitzgerald exercises the technique of using a dramatized narrator, Nick Carraway, looking back on something that has happened in the past. It is the way he formulates his summer spent on Long Island in 1922 – as an intricately woven and patterned account of a specific period in time – that sets up the framework for providing the text its substance and complexity; the plot, however, is simple.

The obstacle for filmmakers is to find a way to convey Carraway’s narrative thread through film. His role in the plot is primarily a witness. There is never much he is doing physically but constantly observing (aside from having a few conversations) – so, as Bruce Jackson has pointed out, the invariable struggle has been to have his personal voice drive the narrative without his visual role in the film being superfluous.

What Luhrmann moderately recognizes but ultimately fails to fulfill is the central role Carraway’s recollection plays in the story. He and his screenwriter, Craig Pearce (Charlie St. Cloud), begin the film with Carraway (Tobey Maguire, The Details) being treated for post-traumatic stress symptoms at an eerie sanitarium back in the Midwest following his time spent in West Egg.

It is there that he composes the text of The Great Gatsby. As the film progresses, Carraway recounts the summer. Occasionally, lines from the book appear on the bottom of the screen as his voice-over narration intermittently guides the rest of the film.

Maguire plays Carraway as a naïve country boy, restrained and mantled by a veil of ignorance, never quite giving us a glimpse of the snob he starts out as – the wide-eyed character he plays would never have the juice to talk down at Yale or World War I. And when he tells us “I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known,” we could actually believe it.

Luhrmann places Maguire in the movie as more of a device than a character; he is a sycophant that provides the lens for looking at Gatsby. Neglecting to portray Carraway as a self-absorbed narcissist diminishes the potential for demonstrating his development – which never finds a real role in this version – and discards the fabric of Fitzgerald’s text.

All the major encounters Nick has following Gatsby’s death (Mr. Gatz, Jordan Baker, Tom Buchannan) are omitted – so it wouldn’t matter if it never builds up to him saying he is now “five years too old to lie to himself and call it honor.” The film does not concern itself with the novel’s true subject.

While a film owes no fidelity to its original source material, Luhrmann and Pearce run in circles by deliberately seeking to supply a new narrative mode to deal with Carraway, only to wind up retaining the convention of keeping Gatsby as the central figure without adequately maintaining the parallel register demonstrating how he influences Carraway. And by doing so, we lose the depth of Gatsby’s character, too.

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