Filmmakers who adapt a novel are not beholden to the major themes of that novel. They’re free to take away what they want to see and leave the richer aspects of the material behind. Such is the case with Baz Luhrmann‘s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby. Where Fitzgerald saw the relationship between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan as a laughable excuse to escape into the past, Luhrmann sees a doomed romance because Baz Luhrmann likes stories about doomed romances*. And like his previous movies—Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!, and Australia—Luhrmann is too afraid of actual intimacy, and covers it up in glitter and other shiny objects while laboring under the delusion that it makes the story operatic. With The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann isn’t adapting Fitzgerald as much as he’s remaking Baz Luhrmann.
Breaking away from the novel, Luhrmann’s version has Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) in a sanitarium. Nick is haunted by the memory of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), and seeks to work through the trauma by relating the story of a fresh-faced, starry-eyed Carraway coming to New York in 1922 to make his fortune. Instead, Carraway finds himself figuratively and literally in the middle of the opulence and self-indulgence of his neighbor Gatsby on one side, and on the other side his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her racist, overbearing husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), who is indiscreetly having an affair with Myrtle Wilson (Ilsa Fisher), the wife of sad, oblivious mechanic, George Wilson (Jason Clarke). Gatsby attempts to lure Daisy by throwing extravagant parties, but his longing for her eventually creates a collision course between all of the characters.
Fitzgerald’s novel is mostly cold and unforgiving. It’s a withering (and somewhat hypocritical) critique of a hedonistic society that has indulged in nostalgia, debauchery, and hollow relationships. The story is also drenched in symbolism, most notably the flashing green light in front of Daisy’s mansion, which Gatsby can see across the bay from his mansion. In the book, it’s a symbol of longing for something out of the reach and imagined. Gatsby sees opportunity, hope, love, and a romanticized past that can manifest a romanticized future. But it’s just a flashing green blub that a desperate man has imbued with meaning.
Luhrmann views Gatsby as a romantic hero instead of a figure who’s pathetic at best, and that’s the filmmaker’s prerogative. But that’s always Luhrmann’s prerogative, so what makes the story unique is lost in what he’s already shown us three times. It’s a close sibling to Moulin Rouge! complete with a tortured narrator and big party scenes with a love story crammed in between. With this kind of approach and desire to repeat himself, we’re left to wonder why Luhrmann didn’t choose from among the countless other novels that embrace the concept of a doomed romance rather than looking upon such a relationship with scorn and derision.
This could be forgiven if Luhrmann’s doomed romances actually contained love, but that is simply too complex and veers dangerously close to an actual emotion, so the director covers it up with grandiose party scenes. If nothing else can be said for Baz Luhrmann, it’s that he knows how to put on a show. His costumes and production design remain as dazzling and effervescent as ever. They’re also completely devoid of thought or feeling. Nick doesn’t see decadence in Gatsby’s magnificent parties; he sees wonder and magic as endless glitter rains down upon the guests. Who has time to feel conflicted when will.i.am is playing?
Placing so much emphasis on these superficial elements would be a sly move from Luhrmann if he didn’t do it in his previous pictures. Instead, it’s his security blanket, and the results are mixed. When Gatsby is finally revealed and fireworks go off in the background, it’s delightfully campy. When Tom slaps Myrtle and the picture goes slo-mo as she falls to the ground, it’s deeply troublesome. But mostly, the effort put into the glitz and glam turns The Great Gatsby into a series of music videos rather than a love story that actually contains love.
It’s a regrettable approach especially when you consider the incredible the film’s acting talent. When Luhrmann takes time to turn down the volume, DiCaprio and Mulligan are fantastic. DiCaprio perfectly plays Gatsby’s braggadocio and attempts to cover up obvious lies and insecurities. Mulligan taps into Daisy’s little-girl-lost attitude, although Luhrmann rarely allows us to see the character’s vanity and insincerity. When the director is finally locked in a room during a climactic scene and forced to give his movie over to his actors, he’s at an absolute loss. All of the energy goes out of the staging and cinematography. He just wants to get back to the party.
In some ways, Luhrmann is a perfect match for the material. His visuals are as crackling as some of the writing in Fitzgerald’s book, and the characters are almost as hollow. The difference is that Fitzgerald knew his characters were empty on the inside. There’s no sympathy for Gatsby because the story doesn’t really support it. He’s a deluded crook and a phony, and these are traits that can only be tolerated insofar as we can tolerate a child for believing in fairies because the child doesn’t know any better. Gatsby’s fairy is the mystical green light, and Luhrmann deeply sympathizes with his title character. Gatsby truly believed he could repeat the past. The Great Gatsby shows Luhrmann can only repeat the past.
*I’ve never seen Strictly Ballroom, but his other three features fit this description.