Just as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby shows the highs and lows of New York life in the 1920s, Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of the novel shows the highs and lows of modern Hollywood filmmaking.
The premise of the film is roughly the same as the book. Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a self-made millionaire who lives at West Egg, the township outside Manhattan where new-money people reside. Across the bay at East Egg is where the old-money people live, such as Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and Daisy (Carey Mulligan), Tom’s wife and Gatsby’s lost love. The film is narrated by Gatsby’s neighbor, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who had graduated from Yale alongside his cousin Daisy, Tom and Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki). Everything we know is narrated by Carraway, told from a sanatorium on the advice of a psychiatrist, as he is treated for alcoholism years after the end of the story.
Director Baz Luhrmann has a history of repaving the past with modern aspects of film, often exploiting the timeless power of love stories. These include Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet, which were both criticized for seeming “to defy esthetic gravity” or for being “neither a complete success nor a miserable disaster, but something in between.”
According to an article by IndieWire, “The more that Hollywood leans on the past, the more that the most improbable blockbuster of the 21st century emerges also emerges as one of its most fascinating and relevant – no other movie so thoroughly exemplifies the ethos of modern Hollywood, and no other movie so thoroughly rebukes it.”
Luhrmann uses technology, music and the “sheer emptiness of raw spectacle” to translate the spirit of the Jazz Age for an audience raised on modern music and art styles.
Rotten Tomatoes states: “While certainly ambitious – and every bit as visually dazzling as one might expect – Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby emphasizes visual splendor at the expense of its source material’s vibrant heart.”
Luhrmann is often criticized for presenting each scene in the film as too bright, too loud and overindulgent, trying to grab the viewer’s attention in every frame. The swooping cameras and party scenes emphasize the directorial playfulness Luhrmann loves. A story about excess requires an excess of camera styles and shots, editing, acting, sound and so on.
There is also a feeling of unease and tension throughout the entire story. The audience knows it ends in doom and tragedy, so the glitz and glamour of Gatsby’s parties, and sad attempts to win over Daisy’s heart with extravagant flowers, still have an emptiness attached to them. The eeriness of the green light across the bay doesn’t help this unrest.
Kathryn Schulz from Vulture wrote a piece titled “Why I Despise The Great Gatsby,” claiming Fitzgerald constructed Daisy and Gatsby’s relationship solely out of nostalgia and narrative expedience, without a single part of “love, sex, desire, any kind of palpable connection.”
However, every single one of these concerns emphasize the entire point of the story, because that’s the ’20s F. Scott Fitzgerald was so cynical about. It was the fairy tale life this generation was pretending to live in.
Just as the ’20s were a false fairy tale, The Great Gatsby also isn’t a love story. There isn’t supposed to be a deep level of emotional connection, because the 1920s were all a show, which is exactly the theme Luhrmann attempts to get across.
The casting decisions were of extreme importance, as the characterization of roles within the film largely represent the rich hedonists of the Jazz Age.
Jay Gatsby needed to be played by a famous face, so who better than Leonardo DiCaprio, with previous work in Titanic, Inception, Catch Me If You Can and The Departed? Luhrmann never wants the viewer to lose sight of how a famous face, such as DiCaprio, is playing Gatsby, just like how Gatsby is constantly playing himself.
Nick Carraway is played by Tobey Maguire, whose past in Pleasantville gives him the appearance of a young, innocent boy, who, as in the ‘90s film, “quickly embraces the ‘perfect’ nature of the town,” or, in this case, in Gatsby. He is the perfect “everyman” character, which is why he’s so good as Peter Parker in Spider-Man. Maguire doesn’t have the same magic of being an extension of Fitzgerald himself as Nick does in the novel, but he properly builds trust with the audience passively throughout the film.
Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan isn’t exactly menacing, but Tom is a flat character who has three primary definitions, all of which Edgerton flourished: arrogance, brashness and manipulation of those weaker than him.
The other castings were amazing as well, but these three were among the most spot on.
Many film adaptations of novels don’t take the writing that made the book so popular into deep consideration, but Luhrmann made sure to insert dialogue straight from the book. As the narrator, Nick had some of the best and most important lines, such as “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” and “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes us.” In fact, the latter was actually demonstrated with words painted on the screen, to further capture the intensity of this final sequence.
Alongside words comes a sound, and the music of The Great Gatsby is one of the greatest controversies about the film. These tracks include “Young and Beautiful” by Lana Del Rey, “Bang Bang” by will.i.am, and “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” by Fergie. The 14 tracks are a mix of originals and covers, but are all done in a modern style, despite the film taking place in the 1920s Jazz Age.
“In our age, the energy of jazz is caught in the energy of hip-hop,” Luhrmann said in an interview with Rolling Stone. The Great Gatsby was being recreated for younger audiences, but many claim, “just as Tarantino took one step too far in his own modern music approach to Django Unchained, the same is true of Luhrmann and Jay-Z’s soundtrack here.”
Lana Del Rey was made to sound like she’s from the ‘20s, rather than bringing Louis Armstrong, King Oliver or Duke Ellington up-to-date for today’s audiences. Hearing possibly familiar, modern songs risked taking audiences out of the film.
The world Fitzgerald created in his novel paints a picture of its own, so no film adaptation, whether Elliott Nugent’s 1949 version, Christopher Scott Cherot’s 2002 version, or Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 version, can live up to the image already created. However, whether or not the reimagining of a classic story is enough to make a film be “good,” having a visual representation of the story is necessary. Nothing will be as good as Fitzgerald’s novel, but the 2013 film could be a lot worse.