The Great Gatsby by Baz Luhrmann (with additional material by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

When I first found out that Baz Luhrmann was planning to direct a film version of The Great Gatsby the presiding emotion could not described as joy. It couldn’t even be said that I was, on balance, reasonably optimistic about the idea. No. Baz makes Baz Luhrmann films, I thought, and this book should not be filmed like that. If it were possible to put into words what I felt it might be something like the feeling that some literature deserves more respect, that some books shouldn’t be fiddled with, that some adaptations should be painstaking and laborious and the result a kind of slow and meditative exploration of where cinema and literature can intersect, and that what you get with a production by Baz is a lot whizz and plenty of bang, which leaves little room for genuine emotion and sensitivity in the telling of the story. The films he makes tend to become too much like musicals, possessing a similar shallowness of feeling, and even when they are outwardly less ‘musical’ there is still a sense that surface predominates and one needs to look very hard to find the meat or the core or the truth of the story. And perhaps that is because there is often very little truth. It’s artifice, artfully communicated, and that’s enough for some stories: these films are technically very fine and in many ways there is nothing at all wrong with them.

And, lacking the critic’s lexicon, or even conceptual framework, I wondered if I was being really fair. What was I really uneasy about? If I couldn’t quite put it into words then it couldn’t be a real misgiving surely. It was a consolation that Baz does big, showy, shiny, loud scenes very well, and a great deal of Gatsby has scenes with just those qualities. Perhaps it would be alright, I thought.

But I didn’t convince myself. I just introduced a modicum of doubt.

I shall go through the film in roughly chronological order, making observations as they occur. Before commencing, it should be noted that the screenplay by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce is based on is the novel Trimalchio (subtitled An Early Version Of The Great Gatsby). It was the text used by the actors when on set too, and it’s a book which, shamefully, is not in my collection. Yet. Some comments which follow could be explained by the fact that the film is based closely on this early version, which I haven’t read, and the two versions of the book vary on some points.

Firstly there is the framing device of Nick Carraway being a patient at a sanitarium, suffering from alcoholism. His doctor suggests writing down his memories and that involves the telling of this story, which explains the voice-over of Tobey Maguire (who plays Nick), and the writings, it is suggested, become the book at the end. This is fine. Perhaps a framing device of this kind wasn’t really necessary, although this choice worked, as a way to stop and review the story so far, at a couple of points during the film, and as a way to begin and end. I had always thought, for some reason, of Nick becoming the editor of a small town newspaper when he went back to the mid-west at the conclusion of the story, and felt that this could have performed a similar function as the sanitarium idea, but that’s just an observation.

Joel Edgerton did a good enough job, I thought, of Tom Buchanan, however the attempt to make him a kind of malevolent perpetual sportsman didn’t work for me. Yes, he played football at Yale, and yes, he brought a string of polo ponies down from Lake Forest, but those details are meant to convey an explanation for his competitiveness and bullying (this is a man who is used to winning), and provide an example of just how wealthy he is. We don’t need to see him throwing a football around inside his house. In fact, I don’t think he would do that. We don’t need to see him hitting a ball, in his polo gear, at the beginning of the story, towards his house either. You could mistime such hit and the ball might strike one of the gardeners who were standing nearby or you could even break a window or something. And you wouldn’t want to damage any part of a house that lovely.

This view of the perpetual sportsman misses the point of Tom Buchanan. Part of his tragedy as a person is that life will never be as exciting as those days of adventure and heroism on the sporting field when he was at college.

…I felt that Tom would drift on forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game

He has a lot of money and he also has other people who have a lot of money to spend his time with, but he’s a fundamentally unsatisfied and bored individual who admits to having the occasional affair, but even that isn’t terribly exciting. He always comes back, because he loves Daisy, even if his and Daisy’s view of love is a somewhat warped by their experience as mega-wealthy people. Tom has become pathetic, in a way. When he says “Civilization’s going to pieces” and mentions The Rise of the Coloured Empires Fitzgerald is laughing at him and we are all meant to laugh too. Not to take him seriously. He is a man in need of an enthusiasm and the one he has chosen is a rather embarrassing one. Daisy makes fun of him (“Tom’s getting very profound”) and the narrator comments:

There was something pathetic in his concentration as if his complacency, more acute than of old, was not enough to him any more.

Thus we have a man with very little to do, who just wants to do something. Thus the affairs. Thus the thinly veiled mirth at his expense. And thus, crucially, his awareness that he is something of a joke, and therefore asserts his dominance in those spheres of life where he is able to assert it – bossing Nick around, treating Wilson with disdain despite the fact that the two of them do occasional business together, and having an affair with Wilson’s wife, who is also bored (for different reasons).

It seems to me though that Tom is at his most powerful when he and Daisy are working together, on the same side, and for this reason it has always made sense that they were indeed in love with each other. It may be a strange kind of love, but they represent each other’s best interests and understand each other better than anyone else can.

Daisy is well portrayed by Carey Mulligan. This newcomer made me nervous, as it is natural, I suppose, to cast the characters from a favourite book in your mind, but there isn’t much to criticise here. She seems rather still and reactive, in some ways, like an object, which is exactly the way that both Tom and Gatsby saw her, and in that sense she worked well.

Jordan Baker (played by Elizabeth Debicki) seemed aloof and serene and somehow mysterious, self-sufficient almost, as she should be. I thought she was very good. It seems to me that Nick almost fears her to an extent and this came across in the film. When he finally ends the relationship, she expresses surprise that he ended it as she’s the one who normally does that, but you also get the impression that there will be another man very soon in her life. The same can’t be said for Nick (Tobey Maguire). He’s a little odd on the screen, and the character is a little bit odd too. Nick’s casting also worked.

This has become a series of comments about the cast, and that wasn’t intended. I’ll just quickly say that Isla Fischer was tough and vulnerable as Myrtle Wilson and seemed pretty nearly spot on to me. Jason Clarke as George Wilson was too young and almost a little bit hunky (yes, he works as a mechanic, but that doesn’t mean he is supposed to look good with his shirt off). George Wilson is a bit of a loser and a bit older than his wife, which emphasises his feeling of emasculation in his dealings with the younger, much wealthier, Tom Buchanan, and emphasises even more his feeling of helplessness (all he can think to do is lock her up and plan to take her away) when he suspects that his wife has been seeing another man. And lastly Amitabh Bachchan is clearly a very fine actor but Myer Wolfsheim is a Jewish “businessman” and this casting decision was just plain weird (and quite distracting).

The party at Myrtle Wilson’s apartment in New York was good and bad. We saw dramatised what Fitzgerald was trying to show us about how a gathering of even only a few people, with liberally flowing drinks, can become out of hand and events can become hazy and recollection can be blurred and some things don’t quite make sense at the time, let alone in retrospect. But the men all taking off their shirts and spraying champagne at each other seemed more like the sort of thing which happens when parties get out of hand nowadays and less true of what happened when people let down their hair 90 years ago. It didn’t work for me.

Another scene which didn’t work was when Gatsby introduces Nick to Wolfsheim and the older man offers him a “business gonnegtion”. They meet for lunch at a Forty-second street cellar and drink highballs. This is an illicit enough detail, during Prohibition, and the cellar location of the restaurant ought to indicate that this is a location for secret deals and intrigue, but that isn’t enough for Baz. He makes it a speakeasy. It seems the possibility of a setting with loud jazz and wild dancing was too tempting, and so we miss Wolfsheim’s story about the night they shot Rosy Rosenthal (or at least we can’t quite hear it over the noise), and that’s a shame. Yes, when it’s done this way we can see the police commissioner and other worthies enjoying themselves illegally with the criminal classes, and having a thoroughly good time, but we miss the import of Gatsby’s information about Wolfsheim fixing the 1919 World Series. And by extension we miss another key lesson from the scene. Wolfsheim says his goodbyes and makes this comment: “You’re very polite but I belong to another generation”, he says. The story is about age and a generational changing of the guard: the younger people are in charge now, or are moving into the forefront. People like Wolfsheim, from the older generation, are still there, but content to take a back seat now, or to use the likes of Gatsby and his colleagues to add a patina of legitimacy to the unorthodox activities they all indulge in.

And besides, Tom Buchanan makes an appearance, at the same restaurant, which indicates that all classes meet and eat at establishments like this one, that everyone is involved in flouting the Prohibition rules (if the scenes at Gatsby’s mansion were not enough of a hint), and that there is no difference between the main groupings in society. Everyone is a bit criminal, everyone is less respectable than they seem, and old and new money are not the clear distinctions which everyone seems to feel that they really are. The entire story is about old and new money really, and in this way the whole story is about appearance and hypocrisy.

Later in the film Gatsby and Daisy meet, arranged by Nick, after a number of years apart. This sequence is very good. Firstly, Nick’s house looks almost exactly as I had pictured it, and the material is handled very well between the actors. After adjourning to Gatsby’s house there was a tour of the rooms for Daisy and Nick. What followed was a beautiful scene where Gatsby threw down a proliferation of coloured shirts from his wardrobes and clothes shelves on a mezzanine above. This is not at all how I imagined it to look in the book, but it worked wonderfully. A great example of what cinema can do and why giving events a twist of colour and movement can be just the thing if you do it right. It was enchanting and added to the emotion of the scene, when Daisy, lying on Gatsby’s bed, became overcome.

The party scenes at Gatsby’s place were staged around a circular ornamental swimming pool. Bands played on a small bridge across it and some guests even found themselves falling in. When the story nears its climax and Gatsby announces that he will go for a swim it was very disappointing to find that the pool he was talking about was the same circular, ornamental pool, on the terrace between two sweeping stone staircases. This didn’t seem right at all. He must have had another pool, for swimming, I thought, but perhaps this is just nitpicking.

Lastly, it is a shame that the film didn’t include the funeral or the character of Henry C. Gatz, Gatsby’s father. This is one of my favourite characters from the story, and the conversation where he tells Nick, full of praise for his son, about Gatsby’s drive and his boyhood list of ways to better himself always elicits a brief laugh when I read it:

Jimmy [James Gatz, Jay Gatsby’s real name] was bound to get ahead. He always had some resolves like this or something. Do you notice what he’s got about improving his mind? He was always great for that. He told me I et like a hog once, and I beat him for it.

But the real waste is a very brief scene which would have said so much. Henry Gatz shows Nick a photograph Gatsby sent to him of the huge house they are both standing in.

It was a photograph of the house, cracked in the corners, and dirty with many hands. He pointed out every detail to me eagerly. “Look there!” and then sought admiration from my eyes. He had shown it so often that I think it was more real to him now than the house itself.

After all this is a story about artifice, about pretending to be respectable, and hoping that will be enough. The film is about artifice too. It is all artifice. And that’s often a good thing.  But perhaps the film really falls down because Baz didn’t realise that what he has given us, too often, is the photograph of the story, when he could have given us the story itself.

It’s a good film though. Worth seeing. I liked it, despite some of the comments above. The book is better, and that’s an easy thing to say, but it’s so very true. One of the many reviews I read when this film had just been released said not to be concerned. You might like the film and you might not but the film can’t hurt the book, which will go on forever. And that’s also true.

Published in: on August 29, 2013 at 5:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

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