I read The Great Gatsby for the first time in 10th grade English class. Along with Hemingway and Steinbeck, this book is what made Fitzgerald one of my literary idols as a youth, as I heavily identified with the character and his search for the innocence of the past and a conception of idealism and purity but tragically blind to the corruption of those things he put hope into. The book really influenced a lot of my own world view and principles.
I’ve never watched a film version until this rendition, and so I don’t know how a film of Gatsby would be done properly or how it had been executed in the past, just that no real film version has been received very well. I feel that any translation of Fitzgerald’s prose into film may lose a lot of the meaning and the ideas underneath that Fitzgerald wanted to impart on his audience.
I wouldn’t say I despised Baz Luhrmann’s rendition, but I wouldn’t say that I loved it either. He does some parts very well I thought, capturing the decadence and extravagance of the roaring 20’s, the symbolic imagery of the novel, but what he gains in spectacle, he loses in the intimate lives of the characters themselves. I feel that in this period piece, sometimes all I’m seeing is the period and not the piece itself.
Reflecting back, the movie felt too much like “Moulin Rouge 2”, a narrator who’s somehow a writer recounting the events with a typewriter, a scene where the narrator gets drunk in the same style of the absinthe scene, a scene with a huge party like the cancan scene, a backdrop showing the destitute nature of the poor in New York like bohemian Paris, a scene where a character tells the bad guy that has more of a claim to a woman that the woman doesn’t love him in rage, and heavy reliance on a soundtrack to carry through the movie’s dramatic moments. Technically, these beats are very coincidentally in both stories and thus it is not Luhrmann’s fault that the similarities are there, but they are hit almost in identical fashion. These worked for Moulin Rouge 1 because it was a musical of heavy overdramatic beats, but Gatsby I feel is a bit more nuanced than that.
Overall the important beats and ideas are contained within the movie, but sometimes it feels that the backdrop is prolonged instead of having the characters and the story be in the forefront of the film. I wish they would’ve spent more time on Gatsby and the reveal of his actual character, his idealism and his background, instead of relegating that part to some pithy flashbacks of an old guy on a rainy boat screaming “old sport!” at him. (By the way, I may be off but I don’t remember Gatsby saying old sport so many damn times. He may have, but it just seems kind of ridiculous on screen.)
The main lessons that Nick learns are downplayed, and you never really get the sense of his character’s growth through the film, he kind of just a dispassionate observer that kind of is like, “Oh Gatsby, he was a cool guy that I shed a tear over once.”
The musical choices are not as seamless as they were in Moulin Rouge 1, and some of the hip hop and stuff was jarring (since when would they really pass by a car full of rich black people listening to “H to the Izzo” on the Queensboro bridge drinking Moet?). While the soundtrack could be modernized, some of the songs felt really out of place and took you out of the story rather than immersing you in it.
The movie serves as a decent way to get acquainted with the story of Gatsby if you’ve never read the book before, but it misses some of the key central ideas in the midst of the lavish production.