Literary adaptations have no obligation to be slavishly faithful to their source. Rather, they simply need to work on their own terms. That’s what Baz Luhrmann’s film of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s celebrated novel THE GREAT GATSBY does – it works. I kept waiting for the moment in which, according to other reviewers, I would get bored. Reader, it never happened. Luhrmann directs, cuts and scores the film as if he imagined his audience might collectively be fighting an attention deficit disorder. It’s a film of bold transitions and a booming score that samples both Gershwin and Beyoncé (Rhapsody in Blue, Crazy In Love) - well, Emeli Sande covering Ms Knowles hit single. It features outsized performances and lavish set pieces. It’s an American tragedy representative of a country trying to spend itself out of recession. It portrays confidence, the quality that drives stock markets and a sense of the world’s stability, as a state of feverish mind.
Readers – and viewers of Jack Clayton’s ploddingly dull 1974 film – will tell you that THE GREAT GATSBY is a romance. As the billing tells you – first Leonardo di Caprio, then Tobey Maguire -Luhrmann convincingly foregrounds the bromance. Our narrator, Nick Carraway (Maguire) first pictured in a sanatorium, is in a state of remission. Gatsby’s story – and his tragedy – is the intoxicant. Carraway is a social climber related to Daisy (Carey Mulligan), the wife of ‘former polo star’ and ‘old money’ man, Jack Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). He gets told early on, in a party scene, that he cannot compete with the rich. In this regard, Carraway is just like the mysteriously wealthy Jay Gatsby (Di Caprio) a man who lives next door to him in a well-appointed mansion, who is revealed to have been a man of humble – let’s say dirt poor – origins whose army uniform concealed his lack of fortune. He met Daisy at a party and the pair fell rapturously in love. Gatsby returned to service and had to make his wealth – though how he did so is intentionally unclear. He wants to pick up where he left off. Daisy’s marriage to the boorish Jack, who in any case is cheating on her, is an aberration that can be effaced. ‘Leave him and be with me’ is what, in effect, he asks her, unapologetically in front of Tom.
There is a point near the end of the film where the famous line (spoken by Carraway in voiceover) ‘they were careless people, Tom and Daisy’ is justified. Luhrmann makes a decision to minimise our engagement with Daisy; we don’t see what Gatsby sees in her. So we don’t identify with her when tragedy strikes. The tragedy itself is a beautiful one; Gatsby never discovers Daisy’s true nature, her banal, lacklustre instinct for self-preservation. He holds his ideal to the end.
‘You can’t repeat the past,’ Carraway tells him. ‘Of course you can,’ intones an on-fire Gatsby. Indeed, one of the reasons Di Caprio seems so comfortable in the role is that he has repeated the past. He shamelessly reprises his turn as the self-deluding, compulsive liar Frank Abagnale Jr in CATCH ME IF YOU CAN with a shade of his Howard Hughes from THE AVIATOR for good measure. Di Caprio is starting to resemble a pre-Falstaff Orson Welles, and his Gatsby has more than a touch of Charles Foster Kane about him, CITIZEN KANE being the film that most expresses the GATSBY story without directly quoting from it. Tobey Maguire is a film star who would like di Caprio’s career, with the latter having worked with Spielberg, Scorsese, Scott, Tarantino and Nolan. He is convincingly in awe and has the wide-eyes to match.
A bromance needs to be two-way, and Gatsby does not just admire Carraway because he is a means to an end – inviting Daisy to tea in the film’s most comic and successful set piece – but because he admires Carraway’s innocence. There is a point at which Gatsby’s business associate, Meyer Wolfsheim (Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan) thinks Carraway needs to have a business opportunity thrown his way, but Gatsby protects him. ‘He’s not the man’, he says pointedly. He wants to preserve Carraway’s uncorrupted self, wishing he could deny his own.
There are scenes of cars tearing down roads – Gatsby’s sporting yellow number – that match the roaring spectacle of the FAST AND FURIOUS franchise, at least for volume and editing. There is also a booze filled evening that Carraway charitably forgets, a potential loss of innocence avoided by his passing out. (‘I don’t know how I got home, but I sensed Gatsby was watching me.’)
Should Luhrmann have turned down the volume several notches to dwell on the complexities of the characters? I don’t think so. Gatsby’s story – the attainment of a fortune – is incredible. Luhrmann adopts a hyper-active, 78 revolutions-per-minute style to match. The contemporary score is far from out of place; it’s an expression of the unreal world that Gatsby inhabits and of Carraway’s bruised recollection.
The two hour plus running time flies by, mainly because the scenes themselves are edgy. Dialogue overlaps, people are in a rush. There is the sense of a world about to spin off its axis. This is the America Luhrmann vividly portrays, attempting to deny the fiscal cliff – the abyss, the hangover – by sheer velocity. THE GREAT GATSBY is a worthy adaptation and a thrilling film; the detractors have let their memory of the novel stand in the way of a mesmerising movie experience.
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Screenplay: Luhrmann, Craig Pearce
Cinematography: Simon Duggan
Production Design: Catherine Martin
Editors: Matt Villa, Jason Ballantine, Jonathan Redmond