Monday, 20 May 2013

The Great Gatsby?

The Great Gatsby is my favourite book and has been ever since my first encounter with during my A-Levels. I have owned many copies, although the well-thumbed version I currently own (and which I read in one sitting on a recent flight) is probably my favourite: a Penguin Classics edition with a wonderful introductory essay by Tony Tanner.

The romance and subtlety of the novella linger long in the mind, the perfectly crafted prose reveals a gem on every single page, the central characters delight and repel in equal measure. It’s impossible to quite put your finger on The Great Gatsby’s ineffable qualities – largely thanks to F Scott Fitzgerald’s skill and craft in creating a tale in which responsibility, morality, right and wrong are fluid concepts which can be repeatedly interpreted and reinterpreted according to the readers’ mood.

Baz Luhrmann is a film-maker capable of no such subtlety. His bombastic, over-the-top productions fizz and sparkle with energy: the epitome of style over substance. As a teacher, my love/hate relationship with his Romeo & Juliet sees me laud its attempts to make Shakespeare accessible whilst simultaneously despising it for mangling the very essence of what Shakespeare is all about: beautifully constructed, poetic dialogue.

Here, surprisingly, much of Fitzgerald’s source material survives intact. Whole scenes are lifted verbatim from the novella, with occasional snatches of prose flashed up on screen. While the original dialogue fizzes and crackles, the same cannot be said of Luhrmann’s clumsy attempts to pay tribute to Fitzgerald's words.

Bizarrely he has added an entirely unnecessary framing device, turning Nick Carroway’s (Tobey Maguire) famously unreliable narrator into a recovering alcoholic telling his tale to a shrink after a nervous breakdown. There is no rhyme nor reason for this decision, and even Luhrmann seems to lose faith in it halfway through the movie, abandoning it in favour of Nick typing his ‘confessional’ up as a book.

Other than this, the narrative is a fairly straightforward telling of the tale. Sadly, the film’s myriad problems can be attributed not to the storyline but to the stylistic devices employed by the director. The baffling decision to make the film in 3D is utterly unjustifiable: an affectation surely designed only to make still more money at the box office. Some early whizz-bang effects fall utterly flat thanks largely to the lame CGI which give an unconvincingly plastic sheen to the sets. Perhaps this is deliberate – an allusion to the false appearances which permeate the plot – but it only succeeds in lending a feel of plasticky inauthenticity to proceedings.

The film is, of course, all about appearances. The deceptively simple story is that of Nick, a Wall Street bondsman who coincidentally winds up living next door to the titular Gatsby. His mysterious neighbour is famed for his wild parties, yet is rarely seen – although often spoken about. Rumours abound that he’s involved in bootlegging, organised crime or even murder.

Nick’s cousin, the flighty Daisy (Carey Mulligan) lives across the water from them, married to the boorish polo player Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). He’s a serial womaniser with a string of affairs and a brassy mistress in the city – none of which is kept secret from his wife or anyone else. So when the enigmatic Gatsby reveals to Nick that he is in love with Daisy – and has been since they first met and had an affair five years previously – the wheels are literally set in motion for a battle of wills between the two men as they seek to capture (or recapture) Daisy’s love.

Tobey Maguire fails to convince as Nick – a major failing in a film which is told through his eyes. Despite his constant assertions that he is ‘within yet without’, he never really convinces as an observer. Instead, he is involved throughout – usually staring vacantly around him like an awed child, seemingly too gormless to really appreciate the world around him. Perhaps Luhrmann realised this – he certainly doesn’t seem to trust Maguire’s delivery of the poetic prose and chooses to reinforce it by having it appear on screen as it is spoken. This is hugely misjudged.

Other characters fair better: Edgerton is fantastic as the brusque Tom, Mulligan plays Daisy convincingly, Jason Clarke is excellent as the cuckolded George Wilson. Key to the whole thing, though, is Jay Gatsby – the enigma at the film’s centre.

For me, the only actor that could ever convincingly play the part would be a young Richard Gere, but Leonardo DiCaprio was arguably the ideal contemporary choice. He’s slimmer than he’s been in some time, the boyishness of his early performances in Titanic and Romeo & Juliet restored. Perhaps more than anyone else involved, DiCaprio seems to understand the essence of Gatsby, but his performance is undermined by some seriously flawed direction.

Although Gatsby’s insalubrious activities are implied in the novella, Gatsby is never revealed with any certainty to be involved in the criminal underworld. Here, though, everything is made explicit: bootlegging, fraud, extra-marital sex with Daisy. Baz Luhrmann has fatally misunderstood the book , failing entirely to realise that Gatsby’s ambiguity is vital to the success of the story. He is the only morally decent man on show – someone who believes in the power of love and somehow transcends the squalid debauchery of the New York scene. Here, though, the explicitness of his wrongdoing prevents the audience from making their own minds up about whether they can reconcile his criminality with his romanticism. It’s a fatal flaw.

Having singularly failed to recognise the real heart of the film, one has to wonder exactly why Luhrmann chose to make it in the first place – until you realise that it gives him exactly the kind of canvas on which to paint his gaudy, over-the-top mish-mash of genres and styles. The cartoon absurdity of Tom’s affair with Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher) is excruciating to watch, the extended party scenes are unforgivably dull, Jay Z’s soundtrack is painfully out of place, and the quick fire editing is simply atrocious.

Only when Luhrmann, seemingly tired of showy pyrotechnics, relies on the strength of Fitzgerald’s writing does the film really work: the tense, sweat soaked scene in which Tom and Gatsby face off over Daisy is beautifully acted, unfussy and uses the book’s dialogue verbatim. It hints at what this movie might have been had it been directed by someone with even an inkling of what it is that makes Gatsby great.


  1. There should be a law against makes movies this shit. Imagine never having read the book and thinking that F. Scott's books bared a likeness in style and message to this vomit slick. A scary thought. My advise: dump the flick; break out the book.


  2. Agreed.

    Obviously a literary adaptation will be different to the source material, but this one has trampled over everything that makes The Great Gatsby what it is. If you're going to adapt for the screen, you at least need to retain the spirit of the novel.

    Epic fail.

  3. Really good read that Rigobert, great review. As a fan of the book like yourself I won't be watching this, I doubt I'll even catch it when it ultimately winds on up on C4 one Sunday evening in a few years time. I thought your penultimate paragraph was quite telling - why the hell he even chose to make this is quite bewildering really. I was relatively annoyed when it was announced he was directing this, and the garish trailers and poor reviews compounded my view. Obviously turning a well loved book into a film is an almost thankless task due to the vagaries of the human mind and the simple fact that you can't please all of the people all of the time, but if you can't even recognise what makes this such a beloved piece of literature and transpose even a smidgen of that onto the big screen, then what is the point in even attempting it.

    Reading your review it is patently obvious that you have a love of the source material. The same cannot be said of Luhrmann.

  4. Cheers, Christopher.

    You're right about literary adaptations - have you ever favoured one over the source material? I can only think of The Shining - and Stephen King was bloody furious about how Kubrick interpreted that.

    I heard Mark Kermode reviewing the film yesterday - he says that Luhrmann saw the 1974 film first, then heard an audio recording of the novel while travelling on a train. That makes complete sense - he certainly hasn't approached it like someone who loved the language first and foremost.

    You do right avoiding it. I wish i had.

  5. Having read The Shining many moons ago I have to say that I honestly cannot remember a single thing about it, whereas certain parts of other King books such as Misery, Pet Sematary and Salems Lot feel like they are forever stamped into my mind. I suppose that’s why the film is widely regarded as such a classic, in that it has so many stand out moments and contains so many iconic scenes / images that it simply swallows up the novel and becomes something bigger. When I think of The Shining, I think of the film. When I think of IT, for instance, I think of the book.

    Jaws is a film that simply blows it’s source material out of the water (sorry), which is in itself fascinating in that Peter Benchley co-wrote the screenplay with Carl Gottlieb, and there are some major plot changes from page to screen. The book itself I found to be rather clunky and used a few plot devices that I thought simply did not work, whereas I would honestly describe the film as virtually perfect in every way.

    On the other hand, the worst adaptation of one of my favourite books has to be the absolute abomination that was the 2007 release of I Am Legend. The book contains some absolutely heart-stopping moments with a superb ending, but either the Director completely missed the point or the Studio wanted a more uplifting conclusion and the result is a complete celluloid shitstain about as far removed from Matheson’s story as possible. If you’ve not read it, I highly recommend it.

    And as we’re talking about adaptations I’d like to give a shout out to John Hillcoat’s take on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a staggeringly beautiful novel which he clearly loved, understood and recreated on film about as successfully as anyone could I reckon. It is in no way a classic like the book clearly is, but as an honest attempt at putting the key theme on the big screen he clearly succeeded for me, treating the source material with love and, most importantly, respect.

    Fuck you Baz.

  6. Fully agree on all your Steven King points. There really have been some classic films made from his material (i even like The Running Man). People get very sniffy and snobby about King, and i lost interest in him a while ago, but he really has written some outstanding novels - perhaps if he concentrated on quality rather than quantity he'd be more fondly regarded - he simply releases too many titles.

    I've never read Jaws and don't feel i ever need to. The film is surely definitive? And as for I Am Legend - the film is a fucking stinker. I only read the novel last year and absolutely loved it. I then foolishly made the mistake of watching the film - despite my well documented dislike of Will Smith. He was the best thing in it - an indication of just how woeful it was. Risible.

    You're right about The Road, too. I wanna use it as a teaching resource - it's so spare and stylish that it'd be a great tool for getting kids to recognise another writer's technique. They could even have a go at imitating it. And then we could watch snippets to see if it marries up with their vision of what they thought it would be like on screen. Sadly, i'm too busy teaching them SPaG tests and other exam-related nonsense at present.