Sunday, 9 June 2013

The Great Gatsy: Fitzgerald meets Luhrmann

F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby now sells more copies every month than it did in the author's entire troubled lifetime. Deservedly so, since the book is a small masterpiece.

I say 'small' masterpiece not to denigrate it but because it's a short novel, a novella actually — around 50,000 words, or half the length of your average novel today.

It is also lean in its prose. Saving the occasional purple lurch, Fitzgerald writes sparsely and economically, with precision and elegance. Elegance in the sense of an elegant mathematical equation, which achieves its goal directly and minimally, without extra detail or unnecessary effort.

Balance this against the director responsible for the latest screen adaptation — Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge).

Luhrmann, whatever his virtues — and I've often enjoyed his films — is a film maker who likes to pour on the syrup, and then add a layer of custard and cream. And possibly several scoops of tutti-frutti ice cream.

So, not surprisingly, the early section of the film is a classic example of Luhrmann extravagance. But despite this it turns out to be an admirable adaptation of the book. Partly because Fitzgerald's original is strong enough to be impervious to camp excess.

But also, in fairness, because Luhrmann and his longtime screenwriting partner Craig Pearce have taken great pains to be faithful to the novel. (Besides his movies with Luhrmann, Craig Pearce also worked on the superior screenplay for The Death and Life of Charlie St Cloud, from Ben Sherwood's novel).

The result is a startlingly effective Gatsby, despite its flaws. Perhaps this isn't surprising since Romeo + Juliet was also a refreshingly smart adaptation of a classic text.

Both these films share the crucial virtues of a sharp script and superb casting.

Leonardo DiCaprio is perfect as Gatsby, Fitzgerald's "elegant young roughneck." I can't imagine a better performance. He understands the character completely, and inhabits him with total conviction. 

Daisy, the object of Gatsby's doomed love, is played by Carey Mulligan. I wasn't sure of her in the early part of the film, but as soon as she is put together on screen with DiCaprio the effect is electric. When Daisy looks at Gatsby, emotion just wells up in her and the whole movie comes to life.

The early part of the film is probably its biggest problem. Luhrmann and Pearce have devised a framing story in which Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) , the narrator, is in a nut house. He relates the film to a shrink who encourages him to turn it into a book. And thus he writes the story of Gatsby.

It's easy to see the attraction of this device, but frankly its creaky and just encumbers the movie.

There's also the problem that Gatsby doesn't turn up on screen for a long time. Again, the appeal of doing this is easy to understand. It really builds the character up and makes for a big impact when he does arrive.

But it also means that the early section of the movie just flounders. It's a vacuum which Luhrmann fills by doing his big production number schtick, which some might unkindly describe as Ken Russell without the genius. It's unsatisfactory stuff and despite Luhrmann's generally great use of music, Bryan Ferry's wonderful retro-jazz version of 'Love is the Drug' gets thrown away.

There are also some annoying anachronisms in the film. Did people really indulge in air-kissing in the 1920s? They certainly didn't call anyone a "scumbag", not for about another 50 years. (They did, however, talk about tabloid journalism, which surprised me — I'm glad I checked before I castigated the screenwriters on this.)

Enough nitpicking, as soon as Gatsby turns up, we're off to the races. And the film does a marvellous job of depicting his tormented love affair with the married Daisy.

Despite its imperfections, it's hard to imagine a more faithful or effective adaptation of the Fitzgerald novel.

Ultimately Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is a beautiful painting — perhaps even a masterpiece — in a distractingly ornate and over-decorated frame.

 (The book cover is from Wikipedia. Daisy poster detail is from Indie Wire. The whole poster is from First Showing, as is the DiCaprio poster. The 'profile' posters of Mulligan and DiCaprio and the Maguire poster are from Bad Ass Digest. The still of Gatsby and Daisy together is from Contact Music.  Gatsby with champagne glass and fireworks is from The Boar.)


  1. This review is a true joy to read. I am so glad that you wrote this.
    I haven't seen this movie yet, although I have read the novel.
    Thanks for making my day brighter with this review.
    Best regards.

  2. As I mentioned, the movie has its defects. But I've seen it a few times (!) now and re-read the book and I'm increasing impressed with the film makers' fidelity to the source material.