Some say the book is always finer than the film adaptation —that it catapults a reader’s imagination in a way the camera cannot even dream of. I, however, have always defended movies. Like the tired cliché goes, a picture speaks a thousand words, and what is film but a winding string of 24 frames per second? However, I responded to the news of the latest Gatsby adaptation with the former reaction. (Well, if I’m going to be perfectly honest, it was more like a tearful outburst that was wildly unbecoming.)
No one, frankly speaking, has ever managed to capture the lyrical subtlety of a Fitzgerald novel. And I wasn’t exactly pleased that Baz Luhrmann (the man who had given us Romeo + Juliet, which still sends a shiver down my spine) to be heading the production. I grumbled away for a few months, but somehow was overcome with the desire to see what exactly I was despising. Perhaps the critic in me knew full well I couldn’t criticise something I hadn’t seen, and so involuntarily wandered into the movie theatre to see what I could slam. The film that greeted me was unsurprising, and yet, it would be wrong of me to say that I hated it entirely.
F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a beloved piece of American literature, is a novel that really needs no introduction. We all know the story —a universal tale of lost opportunities and showy decadence, set against the backdrop of the roaring 20s. It is in the execution of this setting that the film succeeds, (or fails on every level depending on your point of view). Under the stylistically excessive hand of Baz Luhrmann, the wild parties of Jay Gatsby work surprisingly well. Personally, I thought those surrealistic explosions of colour and (at times, terribly unfortunate) music were actually oddly effective, and captured the superficial extravagance of the era interestingly. There is, of course, such a thing as way too much, and Luhrmann’s interpretation of the film practically embodies the phrase.
I’m afraid that seems to be the extent of my quasi-praise for The Great Gatsby. Any deeper themes from the original novel are hurriedly swept under the carpet, in favour of an endless parade of cinematic acrobatics (mostly consisting of habitual whoooshing and zooming through scenes) that is more than enough to induce a ceaseless wave of nausea. And while the literary perfection of F Scott Fitzgerald’s prose cannot be disputed, Luhrmann’s practice of making his words bound across the screen is more than a little distracting.
Seeing the film on the big screen also magnifies the inexplicably peculiar way in which Nick speaks —a kind of mumbling through gritted teeth. Either Maguire hasn’t quite mastered the art of speech or he’s added an unnecessary quirk to his character. Either way, Nick Carraway’s main function, to tell the tale of Gatsby, is severely compromised. DiCaprio’s fluctuating accent is no consolation either. The way in which he says “old sport” makes you want to punch your fist through a wall.
With all this ranting, (apologies, by the way) you’ll be astonished to find out that there was one scene which I did like. (Perhaps there were more, but the terror-inducing gaudiness probably blotted some out.) It is towards the end; Carraway and Gatsby are standing on the dock, looking out towards East Egg. Gatsby talks of the past and of the future, he talks of his unbreakable dream for a life with Daisy. For me, this was the truest moment of the entire film. Stripped of the garish decorations which Luhrmann so revels in, we discover a quiet honesty, an indestructible and often dangerous hope that runs through both the film and its titular character.