I confess that I approached Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby with a feeling of dread. It has taken a terrible panning at the hands of many critics. The most common critique I have read is that somehow Luhrmann’s crass, lurid tale has not done justice to the delicacy of Fitzgerald’s masterwork. Even the most casual familiarity with the book will show that this is simply not quite true.
Don’t misunderstand me — the movie version of Gatsby is crass and lurid, but then so, taken at face value, is the narrative of the book. Luhrmann’s version is pretty much true to the book’s plot, and I think the actor’s all make a very decent stab at the parts they play. Joel Edgerton, who plays Tom Buchanan in particular is excellent, and Di Caprio is probably the modern movie star best suited in terms of looks, charisma and charm to play the title role.
I don’t object to Jay Z’s score either. It is an honest attempt to convey a truth. The Jazz Age may look to us like the set for Hercule Poirot but when Fitzgerald was writing the book, he was writing about the contemporary pop culture of his day. Jazz was the edgy music of the time. Bootlegging was the gangsta culture of its day. The film avoids being the nostalgia fest that I recall the 70’s Redford movie being even though it was much closer in time to the books release than we are.
The critics I read were uneasy about something. Clearly many of them felt that something had been missed, and, of course, they are correct. What is missing is the beauty, poetry and charm of Fitzgerald’s writing. The whole book is seen through the lens of Nick Carraway’s unreliable narration, and Nick himself is manifested in Fitzgerald’s lovely prose. I don’t see any way the movie could have overcome this. Lines which are powerful and evocative on the page become clunky when spoken as dialogue. To tell the truth, I was surprised by how well some of them survived the transition. But in general what is a strength of the book becomes a weakness on screen.
The difference between the movie and the book is a powerful example of the technical differences between the two mediums. A book is a collaborative fantasy shared between author and reader. It requires work on the part of both. It can be picked up and put down. You can pause to think about what you have just read. A movie hammers its way into our consciousness through our eyes and ears and it unfolds in real time. We all may take a different length of time to read The Great Gatsby. It’s going to take us all one hour and fourty six minutes (or whatever) to sit through the movie if we do.
In the novel, it is easy for Fitzgerald to elide time. He can casually allude to the rumours swirling around Gatsby by weaving them into the ongoing narrative. In the movie, we have to be shown them. They have to be spoken in real time, by actual characters in the actual setting and that sometimes comes across as clunky.
Imagery is handled differently. The movie can show us the titanic excess of Gatsby’s parties. It can seduce us with enormous sets but it misses the subtleties like Fitzgerald’s use of light, particularly moonlight, in the text. By its very nature, the use of imagery in the film becomes a bit ham-handed. We see the eyes of Dr T J Eckleburg because we are meant to. The camera homes in on them. The valley of ashes looks like the road to Mordor. Luhrmann does not want us to miss the point. This is where the subtlety is lost.
All of this aside, I confess I enjoyed The Great Gatsby. It was far more true to Fitzgerald’s vision than I expected it to be, and the watching of it was, for me, a pleasure.