Contributed by Sam Holle
**Note: Spoilers of both the novel and the movie are included in this post, and this is a longer post than I normally blog, but considering the buzz around this movie, I thought it was warranted.
If anyone who knows me were to tell you about me, I’m sure my obsession with The Great Gatsby would somehow make its way into the description. I’ve read the book ten times and can recite whole lines of it in my sleep. With its perfect mix of mystery, romance, and heartbreak, it is the great American novel. It captures the spirit of the 1920s in all of its liquor-fueled, Charleston-dancing glory. The book’s themes of unattainable love, longing for the past, and wealth acting as both a facade and a security blanket aren’t specific to the 1920s. In short, the story of Jay Gatsby is timeless and relatable. I have been against the movie ever since I saw the first trailer last year. So, naturally, I saw it on opening day.
The movie certainly encapsulated what made the 1920s “roaring”: loud parties, extravagant outfits, fast cars, over-the-top fits of drunken joy and rage. Having seen Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet, I knew Baz Luhrmann would at least be able to nail the parties at Gatsby’s–and did he ever. The parties are larger than life and successfully translate Fitzgerald’s words into a visual spectacle of booze, sequins, and confetti (and in 3D, it’s almost like you’re there).
But the 3D doesn’t translate well to the other parts of the movie. It just adds unnecessary flashiness. In the movie, When Nick gets drunk at Myrtle and Tom’s apartment, he is also drugged by Myrtle’s sister. This doesn’t happen in the book, and leaves him and the viewer feeling lost, confused, and perhaps a little nauseated. What is a Baz Luhrmann movie if someone isn’t hallucinating on drugs?
Despite the glamor of the party scenes, the majority of the movie was dizzying, choreographed, and highly impersonal. I felt nothing for anyone. The characters in the movie seemed like bad caricatures of the ones in the book. Jordan Baker might as well not even have existed in the movie, as there is never a relationship between her and Nick and she is used only to supply us with the narrative of Gatsby’s life.
Jason Clarke as George Wilson was excellent at being pathetic, giving off the perfect forgettable vibe that is so essential to George’s existence in the book. Nick’s recovering-alcoholic-writing-in-recovery seemed lazy when I first heard about it, but it works for why Nick (who, in the book, is simply considered a “bond man”) is writing the book in the first place. But generally, Nick and the rest of the gang are empty and uninteresting.
The only exception is Leonardo DiCaprio as the ever hopeful, sometimes vulnerable Jay Gatsby. Unfortunately, his character isn’t fleshed out as much as he could’ve been, and no one shows up to his funeral. In the book, his father comes and gives Nick some insight into the real James Gatz, something the movie would’ve benefited from.
The book was quoted extensively, but often times quotes were cut short and replaced with watered-down translations of the actual lines, as if the screenwriter assumed the audience would be too dumb to understand what the character was saying.
The best use of quotes from the book is in the movie’s climax (and possibly best scene), when Gatsby, Nick, Jordan, and the Buchanans go to the Plaza Hotel and Gatsby desperately tries to get Daisy to leave Tom. The interactions between Daisy, Tom, and Gatsby are believable, tense, and awkward–everything Fitzgerald intended for it to be.
The scene is almost word for word what is written in the book, with one dramatic exception. At one point, Tom points out Gatsby’s facade and predicts that he will be unable to care for Daisy if his whole life has been a lie, which Gatsby responds to by destroying the bar, grabbing Tom by the collar, and screaming in his face. After this violent outburst, Daisy changes her mind and seems afraid of him. This never happens in the book, and is almost insulting to people familiar with it. In the novel, Daisy changes her mind because she is comfortable with Tom. She is accustomed to domestic violence (frequently calling her husband a “hulking brute” and pointing out bruises on her hand caused by Tom), so it is unrealistic to think that Gatsby yelling in Tom’s face would be the catalyst for her refusal to leave him. She knew she’d never leave Tom from the moment Tom pointed out how Gatsby made his money. Tom’s money is inherited; Gatsby’s money is earned through questionable practices.
A recurring topic of discussion in the book is the issue of bad drivers (at Gatsby’s parties, Jordan’s attitude about bad drivers, and Daisy’s reckless behavior behind the wheel, to name a few), yet this is never mentioned in the movie. It is glossed over with the actual scenes of accidents, Gatsby swerving around other drivers, and the drivers of any automobile rarely looking at the road in front of them. The metaphor about bad drivers and people who are careless about others’ emotions (namely Tom, Daisy, and Jordan) is an important realization Nick makes in the course of the novel, but one that is lost in all of the swirling cinematography.
My final gripe with the movie is the soundtrack. The soundtrack is great, but do we really need to hear every song played in the background of every scene? And how many times (and in how many renditions) do I have to hear “Young and Beautiful” by Lana Del Rey to get the point they’re trying to make about exterior beauty and shallowness? And was anyone in 1922 driving into NYC blasting “Izzo” by Jay-Z? I understand the need to want to make this “modern”, but it is unnecessary. The themes of the story are timeless, and Jay-Z doesn’t have to be used to reach an audience in 2013. I think Fitzgerald did that well enough on his own when he put pen to paper in 1922.
The movie is chock full of visual excitement, but very little else. When reading the book, whole lines of text can jump out for being poignant, meaningful, and beautifully written. At the end of the movie, lines literally jump out at you in 3D cheesiness. The book deserves the title The Great Gatsby because Fitzgerald didn’t have to beat anyone over the head with meaning or water-down his words with easy-to-understand replacements. I hate to say that I actually found myself bored a few times. The movie title might’ve been more accurate if it were The Flashy, Leo-Driven Gatsby or The Okay Gatsby.
Final say: The Great Gatsby will never be a good movie. This was a decent effort, but it fell flat in many places. As an English teacher, I’d prefer it if Baz Luhrmann left literature alone and let good writing speak for itself.