When I walked out of The Great Gatsby, feeling a little drunk from all of Leo’s deliberately lavish soirées, I was like Nick Carraway when he finally left the East, wanting “no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.” Director Baz Luhrmann did a fine job making me sympathize with the narrator in his adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “great American novel” of the same name. This is a film that was surrounded by controversy well before its release on May 10. The soundtrack was filled with modern artists like Beyoncé, Jay Z, and Jack White, and I would have the choice of viewing the film in 3-D. I was not excited by these facts, but was still anxious to see the latest variation of one of the few books I actually read, let alone enjoyed, in high school.
The reviews have been mixed. Indeed, I saw the film as part of a book-savvy foursome and we were evenly split on the way back to the car. But, I was full of things to discuss with my companions whose patience would be strained in the next few hours. I wanted someone to convince me that Luhrmann’s adaptation merited more than a “meh.” Since then, I re-read the book (how cool am I?), and more and more I find myself defending the film from its critics (which I smugly find to be in an earlier stage of my own rational evolution toward appreciating Luhrmann’s Gatsby).
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone called the film “boring, artificial and god-awful.” His criticism, if we can call it that, is superficial and empty, if that’s not a tautology. He was angry at being given an option to watch the film in 3-D and did not have much patience for the soundtrack.
All I can say is, that movie was made for 3-D. It would be lame and cartoony if it weren’t viewed that way, because let’s not forget that this is all a memory of the narrator, so things are always a little larger-than-life. The orgiastic excesses really only come at you when you’ve got those cheap glasses on.
Regarding the soundtrack, I think it would have been weird to hear scratchy ‘20s jazz in the foreground of Luhrmann’s picture. Considering how desensitized our ears have become, I found the music fitting. I still say it was gimmicky at times—like when Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” plays over Nick’s glimpse into a convertible full of dancing and champagne. I LOLed pretty GDL, right there.
This scene gets me into something that has been missing from other discussions surrounding the film. The question of Luhrmann’s faithfulness to the novel has been covered by Slate’s David Haglund where he points to missing characters such as Nick’s Finnish maid. This is what distracted me from being able to passively enjoy the movie instead of constantly thinking, “I don’t remember that in the book!”
In the book, the narrator marvels at a group of wealthy black people in a limousine, driven by a white chauffeur. He says, “I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.” His other description of the group we might consider (borderline) racist. In the film, these lines are omitted, and Luhrmann puts Jay-Z over a scene we might describe as progressive. This makes Nick’s next line something we can admire rather than wince at: “‘Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,’ I thought; ‘anything at all…’”
Again, when we meet Gatsby’s business associate, Meyer Wolfsheim, based off Arnold Rothstein, who is beautifully played by Michael Stuhlberg on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, Wolfsheim is supposedly some kind of gambler. “Gatsby hesitated, then added coolly: ‘He’s the man who fixed the World’s Series back in 1919.’” In the novel, it is hard to read Carraway’s (or, really, Fitzgerald’s) description of Wolfsheim as anything other than mildly anti-Semitic. Was director Luhrmann to be faithful to this part of the novel? How would that add to the story? In the book we can at least read past these lines and shrug off the ignorance from an earlier time. For example, Luhrmann gave us a Wolfsheim played by Amitabh Bachchan, an Indian actor, rather than the actual ethnicity Nick describes in the novel. As Slate’s Haglund pointed out, “Faithfulness in this case probably would have meant anti-Semitism.”
Even though I crossed my arms well before entering the theater to see Gatsby, I didn’t really give it a fair chance when I saw it. But, maybe that is an inevitable problem for any director who tries to adapt a classic piece of literature for the big screen (especially for viewers who are used to 3-D and grind-worthy music). It is practically impossible to separate this film from its literary inspiration, so, for that reason, I don’t think it is possible to give this film or any other like it above a B+, no matter how I feel about it this week.
My grade: B+
Image from http://thegreatgatsby.warnerbros.com/