If there is a fate worse than obscurity for a novelist, perhaps it is having one’s novel prescribed for multi-generations of high school students. That fate – shared by Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, or Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, or Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, or Knowles A Separate Piece – ensures that everyone will believe they know your book based on a cursory reading at a young age that was likely mediated both by a teacher and a handy set of Cliffs Notes. And is there a more high school-bound book than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby? Maybe Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, but probably not.
Admittedly, I hadn’t touched Fitzgerald’s jazz age novel about the young and green Midwestern bond salesman who moves next door to a magnanimous, if mysterious tycoon on West Egg (ahem, Great Neck) since high school. So I picked up the novel late last year and found it a both breeze of a read, Fitzgerald’s legendary prose living up to its stylistic reputation — light, energetic, and razor sharp – and altogether more fascinating and multifaceted than I remembered. I was also struck by how what makes the novel wonderful is precisely what makes it seemingly inapproachable, on a level, for high school students. After all, The Great Gatsby is about time — time as an impenetrable layer of experience, time as a free flow that rockets along like Jay Gatsby’s roaring yellow car, sweeping us up in its emphatic, incessant, and insatiable inertia, stealing us, as it were, from our past. In high school, The Great Gatsby is raucous fun and a love story, filled with digestible symbolism that helps you learn how fiction works. Rereading at the age Gatsby is in the novel, and having developed at least some unease with the indelible mark of the past, Fitzgerald’s novel suddenly opened entirely anew.
So say what you want about Baz Luhrmann’s busy, caustic, cacophonic, messy, indulgent, slapstick, Leonardo DiCaprio-starring adaptation of The Great Gatsby. The director is at least dead set on trying to make Fitzgerald’s novel feel new. I’m not sure he exactly succeeds, but Luhrmann’s film is by no means a failure. It is an engaging, romping, full-fleshed movie. It shouts and swoons, and it manages to capture aspects of the original story in a way that bring key themes to bare. Perhaps most refreshingly, and as you might expect, Luhrmann is by no means overly-reverent to his source material. He populates some scenes with narration straight from the novel that manifests itself on the screen in the form of typeface that swells up and then drops off, but then cuts to a party scene which pounds to the music of a remixed Jay-Z song. This Gatsby does not dance to ragtime trombones.
In fact, if Luhrmann brings anything new to bear on Fitzgerald’s novel it is the multi-dimensionality of this pop transparency. We seem to be meant to know the background story between the film’s two leads — Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jay Gatsby and Tobey Maguire plays his neighbor Nick Carraway — and the lurid debauchery the two actors shared during their real life youth. That exterior storyline informs the tone and texture of the interior one. Likewise, we are bombarded with music that blurs – perhaps slurs is the better word – the old and the new. Music comes pounding onto the screen during Gatsby’s parties like a thunderous invasion, as glitter puffs out of giant champagne bottles and stocking-clad legs flail about. Often Lurhmann’s camera charges straight at it, as if attached to a cannonball and fired through a crowd or launched from Gatsby’s deck across the Long Island Sound towards the light at the end of Daisy’s dock. Even the non-party scenes are constantly fluffed-up with an overabundance of sensual information: white curtains blowing in the sea breeze, snow peppering the screen, New York glittering and sparkling, hyper-real and mythological, like Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind” made flesh.
The problem with Luhrmann’s approach, though, is that it is a little too obvious. The Great Gatsby makes for great movie material precisely because it is prone to spectacle. The parties! The racing cars! The drunken scenes in New York clubs and apartments! The parties! But the parties are both literally and figuratively a means to an end. Gatsby (if you were sleeping in 10th grade English) is a self-made millionaire who is hell-bent on trying to steal back his first love, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), whom he met when he was a pauper army officer and who has now married old moneyed Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). He has purchased an estate directly across the Long Island Sound from the Buchanans, and he throws lavish parties in the hope that one day she may come sauntering in.
Fitzgerald’s novel itself is not without its imperfections. It glosses over aspects of Gatsby’s story and obsession that have too much to tell us about his character, namely his incredible and improbably rise from nothing in North Dakota to wealth beyond our wildest dreams. But that’s because what interests Fitzgerald is not so much the allegory of American exceptionalism, of a kind of Rand-ian triumph of enterprising individualism, but of Gatsby’s particularly American romantic spirit. Gatsby is a character whose brute will, intoxicating sentimentality, and gregarious generosity of spirit are shaken together in a tragic cocktail that Fitzgerald holds up to define his age – and something of the soul of his country.
DiCaprio is a natural at sentimentality, and while he has shown increasing dynamic as his career matures, here he seems unable to hold his place at the center of this spinning world. There are times when he feels upstaged by Edgerton’s Buchanan, who fills out his role with cartoonish pluck, but nonetheless comes to the screen with tremendous presence. The great disappointment, though, is Maguire’s Carraway, who feels dazed and doe-eyed, as the actor always appears. Maguire does’t so much act as mouth and flash his eyes. If there is an actor who most ably fits the part, its Carey Mulligan’s Daisy, whose performances is taut with the inwardly-focused pathos that charges a story that is otherwise all about extending one’s desires outwards.
The Great Gatsby is a story about trajectories, about the extension of the romantic imagination through time and space in search of an image of perfection, and of one man’s hopeless efforts to merge reality with the fiction of his dreaming, all set against a backdrop of a world that has become morally unhinged and the ambiguous eyes of an ever-watching deified advertisement. So it makes sense, on a level, that Luhrmann’s camera is a busy bee, operated, seemingly, by a cameraperson who neglected to take his ritalin. This adds energy, but it also inhibits the filmmaker’s ability to make the softer, more poignant aspects of Gatsby stick. There is one important scene when DiCaprio’s Gatsby walks out on his dock with Carraway and offers a soliloquy about his plans, about time and his desire. It all feels so hokey, over-explicated, and clumsy. It reminds us why Luhrmann’s brash approach to Gatsby catches the spirit, if not the style, of Fitzgerald’s novel. The novel is marked not by energy, but by elegance, with prose that can sweep us along at breakneck speed before stopping on a dime.
It is not insignificant that Gatsby’s story comes to us in the novel through a direct engagement with the mind of the narrator. This internalization of the Gatsby story in the character of Carrayway-the-narrator is essential to overall experience of the book, and it places Carraway in the story as a more essential character than the dopey voyeur that Tobey Maguire brings to part. Also lost in the film is the romantic subplot – more of a pragmatic sexual relationship, really – between Carraway and Daisy’s friend Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki). Without that relationship, Jordan is reduced to a bit part, and the relationship isn’t present to frame Gatsby’s central romantic urge as it does in the book.
Perhaps Luhrmann’s greatest mistake, though, is the approach he takes to overcoming this discrepancy between film and fiction. This Great Gatsby uses a hackneyed framing technique, opening with Carraway in a mental hospital, exhausted, presumably from his experience with Gatsby. This allows Luhrmann to present his story through the text, with the overdubbed narration originating in conversation in the hospital and then evolving into that old clichéd motif of the writer tippy-tapping away at his typewriter while the words dissolve to flashback dramatizations. It is a drained cinematic technique, and it leaves you wondering just what Luhrmann is trying to say about Carraway’s supposed madness, highlighting just how shallow and sucked of significance the film has made Nick. While frustrating, however, the end result is still something highly watchable, often enjoyable, and momentarily moving. It is both louder, and less, than the novel. But reason enough to make you want to go back, pick it up again, and have a read.