“The Great Gatsby”–Revisiting an American Classic

Gatsby jacket

The new version of the F. Scott Fitgerald’s celebrated classic (1925) by Baz Luhrmann (of Moulin Rouge fame) has divided critics. Half of professional movie critics praised the movie, the other half panned it.

Gatsby 2There will be endless reinterpretations of a novel that has become burdened as a literary icon, the Great American Classic. Mr. Luhrmann’s reverence for the source material is evident. Occasionally he quotes dialogue directly. But he has also made the narrative his own: a wayward, lavish theatrical celebration of the emotional and material extravagance that Gatsby embodied.  For that reason alone, this film should be celebrated for its eager, calculating mix of refinement and vulgarity, trust and betrayal, freedom and entrapment.  Filmmaker Lurhmann has bravely ventured in with costumes and landscape not entirely authentic for the period, rap music by Jay-Z , with little jazz featured, and the story is of an American Dream and class system some viewers will take issue with, and circus-like showmanship, sometimes excessive. But after all, Gatsby was nothing if not gaudy and glitzy.

Fitzgerald’s novel is not easy to film.   For most young viewers the Gilded Age, Roaring ’20s, and Jazz Age feel about as distant to them as Shakespeare.  Labeled an American classic, a cautionary tale about the decline of American moral values, Fitzgerald’s novel eviscerates the American Dream as the dream for happiness through material wealth.

And this year’s “Great Gatsby” never loses sight of that central message. But Luhrmann also wants to start over in revealing a new Gatsby.  The filmmaker’s astute reinterpretation captures not only the emotional core of the narrative but also its primary intellectual themes. There is a much better rendering of the novel’s symbolism, of loss that cannot be regained:  lost love, self-respect, values–even though the American Dream (myth) is you can start over. This is exactly how Fitzgerald intended Gatsby to be: a man of inconsolable desperation, dreaming an impossible dream.

Great Gatsby 3Leonardo DiCaprio breathes new life into Gatsby’s character and personality.   Unlike Robert Redford’s Gatsby in the 1974 movie version, DiCaprio convincingly plays a stupendously rich entrepreneur with a secret past, too poor to be accepted by upper-class society. Redford was too pretty a patrician face to be believable as a driven businessman who clawed his way to great wealth. In sharp contrast, DiCaprio’s Gatsby subtly evokes sympathy–he has been fooled by the society he wishes so much to enter.  Even his beloved Daisy (well played by Carey Mulligan), is incapable of leaving her social standing to be with him.

The entire movie has been well-cast.  Mulligan’s Daisy Buchanan loves and yet endures not being loved at the same time.  Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, the friend and narrator, has undoubtedly the most challenging role and succeeds as the observer who does not know who is authentic, who is the liar and who is the truth-teller.

Fitzgerald’s prose is stunning and Luhrmann conveys some of the literary quality with floating letters and various fonts superimposed on screen.  Elements of irony and tragedy, observed through the narrator’s voice, require such visual cues. And, some of the screen shots are masterpieces of art.  For those of you who remember your term papers on this book, the green light (a symbol for Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy) is carefully placed without being overdone.  The same can be said of the faded billboard of Dr. Eckleburg’s spectacles, — a puzzling metaphor Fitzgerald uses–that rarely appeared in the 1974 version.  It is adroitly presented here as a visual punch for the growing commercialism in America.