If you know me in person, you’ll know that I was anticipating the premiere of the Baz Luhrman The Great Gatsby long before this spring, long before the first Christmas release date. For me, it all started when I started showing off my American Literature nerd-iness in my English class junior year. My teacher told me later that she never saw a student get so excited over the announcement of new class reading when she started handing out the copies of The Great Gatsby. I also own a Great Gatsby sweatshirt, courtesy of one of my best friends in Austin, another high school friend who got way too excited about reading Fitzgerald for class (obviously we are on a similar wavelink). it made me very nervous to wait to see the film a week after it came out. Unfortunately it came out right on the eve of my graduation from Rice University and those memories and family time pushed back my own viewing of Luhrman’s Gatsby adaptation.
This all being said, I am also a film buff, I am familiar with Baz Luhrman’s style, and I appreciate the differences required by the different genres. (For my best example, I appreciate both the original novel and film adaptation of Ella Enchanted, even though they are radically different.) Yes, I was definitely comparing Luhrman’s interpretation with the original text, but I could also see places where his version worked really well. First and foremost, Luhrman’s film was gorgeous. Visually, every scene was stunning. I didn’t see it in 3D and yet it still seemed to have depth to it, to leap off the screen from the slow opening pan through the curtain into the world of 1920’s New York and its iconic West and East Egg. Everyone has been talking about the glitzy jewelry from Tiffany’s and the suave, Jazz Age costumes from Prada, but for good reason: they are shown off to their best throughout and since The Great Gatsby has to do with surfaces and the distinctions between the social classes, it makes perfect sense that they play an important role.
For the months before the premiere, I complained about the casting, but this ended up being a great cast. Initially, I loved every chosen actor, except for Tobey MacGuire. I had heard rumors that he’d only been cast for being friends with Leonardo DiCaprio. I just thought of him in the Spiderman trilogy and cringed. I thought that he would be the weak point in the film, unable to become a relatable narrator and medium for the tale. But after re-reading the book and entering the theater with an open mind, he actually held the big role well. Leo was incredible, of course, as everyone predicted. Carey Mulligan was enchanting, Isla Fischer was so horribly perfect in the obnoxious part of Myrtle, etc.
The narrative style was Luhrman’s true weakness in this film. Many of my friends have complained about the music (well, mostly parents and other adults; but that’s a generational gap thing and if not, a big stylistic choice which I respect) and about the film’s slow pacing. But the true problem is not the pacing; that was a symptom. It was film’s wavering between the strict framing of one character’s narration and an omniscient point of view. If Luhrman wanted everything to come from Nick Carraway talking and writing to his psychiatrist, then he needed to keep that framing throughout the film.
It started out strong. Every few scenes would flash back to the cold Midwest asylum and the disheveled Nick staring out the window to compose his next thoughts. It annoyed me that Luhrman conflated the character, Nick, with the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, so much because it’s not the most original or exciting interpretation, but I appreciated it as one of his filmmaking tropes (think the framing device in Moulin Rouge; and that was such a success I can see why he tried it again). But this all broke down when the asylum scenes faded away and we followed Jay Gatsby and Daisy–UNACCOMPANIED–into the garden. Without Nick and the framing device driving the film forward, there was nothing to distract, not as much to raise the stakes or to focus in on character. And it got worse when Gatsby later explained all his plans to Nick, repeating himself. There is no need for more exposition if the audience has already seen Gatsby’s motives in action, and worse, the repetition slows down the pacing so that when everything explodes in the Plaza Hotel, there is no anticipation, no mystery to make it truly sparkle.
I could talk about adaptation, narrative choices, and Fitzgerald all day, but for now I’ll leave you with the short version: this film was Luhrman’s all the way through from the staging and cinematography to the narrative style he so loves. But because he didn’t take the liberty to stray more from Fitzgerald’s text and instead played in an odd middle ground with the narration, the film’s story and intensity suffered.