The not so great Gatsby

In the final pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby (1925), the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway waits alone with Jay Gatsby’s father, Henry C. Gatz from Minnesota (‘a solemn old man, very helpless and dismayed’), for others to join them to leave for the cemetery to bury the murdered Gatsby:

The minister glanced several times at his watch, so I took him aside and asked him to wait for half an hour. But it wasn’t any use. Nobody came.

I’ve read the novel probably eight times. It’s one of a small group of novels I return to time and time again (Brideshead Revisited and The Portrait of a Lady two others) and which continue to grow alongside me. And so, while I don’t consider myself a Fitzgerald scholar, I think that my intimacy with his prose and his purpose permits me to say that this scene and the entry into the narrative of Gatsby’s father are important. In particular, the absence of mourners magnifies the tender sadness at the story’s core – in sharp contrast with the wild, impersonal parties at the Gatsby mansion, filled with people, strangers, that punctuate the novel’s earlier scenes.

It’s a critical scene and it’s completely absent from Baz Luhrmann’s film.

I’ve previously written about the particular challenges involved in the art of adaptation, of what it takes to turn a great book into a great film and how these are ultimately two very different mediums. I believe that it’s important to truncate, alter and even cut scenes from a novel in order to create a film. A film can never be the same as a book and there isn’t any point expecting it to be. But I do believe that a film must reveal a book’s emotional heart – it has to feel like the book, to conjure its tone, its mood, its soul, if you will.

Last year I also wrote about the genuine excitement I was feeling about seeing Luhrmann’s Gatsby.

But it’s a sign of genuine discontent, isn’t it, if I walked out of the film and the best thing I could say to my companions was how gorgeous the costumes and jewelry are.

And I’ve decided, finally, that The Great Gatsby is a soulful, heartbreaking novel that simply doesn’t translate well into film.

I appreciate that Luhrmann, like all filmmakers, had to make choices. He cut some things (like the aforementioned appearance of Gatsby’s father and Nick dumping Jordan Baker) and elongated others (like the party scenes) to make his version of The Great Gatsby.

But in the process what he has given us is a poppy, cartoonish, fairy tale that assaults us with more colour and sound than an opera, and which, honestly, is all a bit exhausting, and, contrary to what you’d think, a bit lifeless.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby and Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan
Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby and Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan

It might sound like I’m contradicting my documented conviction that books and films are very different beasts. I still believe this. But I also believe that what Luhrmann’s film suffers from most is an absence of sensitivity to the novel’s soul. Luhrmann had to make choices, but I have to say that not all of them were wise. Cutting the scene in which Nick and Gatsby’s father wait for the appearance of funeral mourners that never come is, in my opinion, a mistake. Yes, this would have extended an already long film even further. May I offer some solutions? Shorten the party scenes, just a bit. Remove the completely false and unnecessary contrivance that has Tobey Maguire’s Nick in a sanitarium drying out and writing the novel before our eyes. But don’t cut scenes that actually give the story weight, resonance and feeling; scenes that would have balanced the glut of glitter and diamonds that dominates the film’s first half.

Ultimately all this excess is a real shame for the actors who all do the best they can when not choked by art direction. Leonardo DiCaprio glows as Gatsby. It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that he seems to have a better grasp of the material than his director does. In one of the many reviews I’ve recently read, a critic noted that Luhrmann would have done well to stand back and just let his actors take the lead – he does this, for the most part, in the pivotal and powerful Plaza Hotel room scene – as they have a chance to shine when his camera stands still.

One of the rare quiet moments in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby
One of the rare quiet moments in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby

Of course, most people have said to me, what did you expect – it’s Baz Luhrmann!

I’m more convinced now than ever that his is an excessive hand that suits comedy (this is why Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom remains a great film) but completely obliterates the quiet moments that abound in Fitzgerald’s novel. Gatsby’s appearance in the novel isn’t heralded with fireworks and the Manhattan style bombast of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue that Luhrmann employs here. And when the lovely Carey Mulligan’s Daisy tearfully delivers one of the novel’s most famous lines – ‘It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such – such beautiful shirts before’ – Fitzgerald doesn’t have his narrator step in to explain the line’s significance the way Luhrmann’s chosen to do. There’s too much telling, not enough showing. Because of this style, incompatible with the source material I think, there’s also not enough space for the audience to decide how and what they feel about events and characters. And while a film and book remain different beasts, a great film knows to leave something to the audience’s imagination – otherwise, we might as well not even be there.

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