Critics were divided on Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby as soon as it emerged that the director of Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge and Australia had taken on the challenge of interpreting F Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American Novel for the silver screen. To put it another way, film critics already have their opinion of Luhrmann.
In many ways, Gatsby and Luhrmann were made for each other. In all the superficial ways – lavish parties, unchecked excess and a triumph of style over substance – Luhrmann’s films, according to his detractors, reflect something hideously Gatsbyesque. To borrow an English equivalent, Luhrmann’s pictures are full of what Evelyn Waugh called ‘vile bodies’. This is not to say, these critics maintain, that the director is Fitzgeraldesque. Many reviews have taken the lazy view that somehow Mr Luhrmann’s film has done the novel some sort of disservice. The movie’s bright, brash and high octane style, according to this view, lacks the subtleties of Fitzgerald’s prose.
Well, duh. If you will forgive my mixed metaphor a moment, the only thing for which such a sledgehammer of an opinion is useful is to finally crack once and for all the old chestnut about films being ‘not as good as the book’. It should be self-evident that being entirely different artforms – one that uses words as its medium, the other sound and vision – films should be reviewed against a completely different set of criteria to books. Equally, the starting point for a review of an adaptation should be the film itself, not the novel on which the film was based. Of course the novel is relevant and important – as it is in this case – but it is not the thing.
My admiration for the films of Baz Luhrmnann stems primarily from the fact that through a combination of enthusiasm, energy and sheer derring-do, the director blasts a hole through the entire film/book dichotomy. It is rumoured that his next project is Hamlet. You didn’t expect that? Nor did I. It fills some people with horror. Why? Bring it on! Baz Luhrmann has an irreverence and a contemporaneity that is akin to that of Shakespeare himself.
Baz Luhrmann has an irreverence and a contemporaneity that is akin to Shakespeare himself.
As you might expect from an arch-postmodernist, there are plenty of nods to Fitzgerald in Luhrmann’s Gatsby. The writer’s image adorns a billboard above New York City, and the striking original cover image – a pair of godlike eyes with spectacles – watches over the Valley of Ashes. But this playfulness is not the point of the movie. As with his previous literary adaptation and collaboration with leading man Leonardo DiCaprio, Romeo + Juliet, there is a heightened, bloated grandeur to the project. The director uses his artform – cinema – to lend an operatic scale to the almost-too-painful insight of Fitzgerald’s slight novel.
DiCaprio – one of those Hollywood stars who is always, partly, himself – as Gatsby makes a kind of sense. Gatsby is an actor, his whole life as the so-called ‘great’ Gatsby is a lie. Di Caprio manages to bring out the balance between the vulnerability of James Gatz, the boy Gatsby was born as, and the consummate ease with which Toby Maguire’s Nick Carraway posthumously engenders him. Maguire captures the narrator’s narrative arc, from wide-eyed newcomer to the New York ‘scene’ to world-weary writer disillusioned with the whole circus. Luhrmann goes as far as inventing a frame narrative that has Carraway telling the story from an asylum on the day of the Wall Street Crash. Meanwhile, Carey Mulligan sparkles as Daisy. All within a picture that manages to balance Luhrmann’s trademark MTV-pastiche setpieces (and appropriately anachronistic twentyfirst century soundtrack) with slower scenes that add tone and depth.
When many critics say Luhrmann’s films look like music videos, they mean it as an insult. It should be taken as a compliment that an artwork in a medium based on visuals and sound looks like the high-budget subgenre most devoted to the combined maximum impact of the two on the dwindling attention spans of a young audience, whilst stretching said impact it to an impossible sounding 143 minutes.
It is in fact the balance achieved between surface and depth that is ironically where one can draw genuine comparison between the film and the book. Luhrmann’s picture is every bit as emotionally affecting as Fitzgerald’s novel, but I am not interested in a comparative analysis. As the critics line up to decry the undoubtedly flawed but nevertheless fearless director, at the cutting edge of his craft, I feel like echoing the words of Nick Carraway as he bids farewell to the ‘great’ Gatsby for what turns out to be the final time: ‘Baz! You’re worth the whole damn lot of them put together!’