Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby Looks to be Missing the Point

I know it’s a crime against my sex, but I hated Moulin Rouge. Or, more accurately, I hated the first half of Moulin Rouge and then resented the fact that the second half was actually pretty good and wished the whole movie had been more sad drunken singing and less frantic can-can glitter singing. The point is that I’ve never been a big fan of the over-the-top spectacle where everyone raves about the costuming and makeup and cinematography and camerawork, but feels little-to-no connection with the characters or the story. At least with a film like Moulin Rouge, it’s somewhat acceptable to let stereotypical characters in a stereotypical star-crossed lover storyline take a backseat to glitz, but to give the same treatment to The Great Gatsby, Luhrman’s next project, would be to miss the point completely.

When the second trailer for Luhrman’s newly-delayed project premiered last week, I picked up my copy of Gatsby again for a refresher. I really like F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tales of the Jazz Age is spectacularly insane) and was never forced to read his work, so I imagine the reason most people aren’t that crazy about him is because they read Gatsby in high school under the supervision of someone who had a tough time communicating the hollow façade of the American Dream to a group of teenagers, ie. anyone. It’s nice to try to give kids a taste of the classics, but perhaps they should be tailored a little better to themes high school students can actually relate to or understand.

Either way, the real issue (from the trailer, which I am aware is not necessarily indicative of the whole movie) seems to be that Luhrman is in love with the glamour of Gatsby’s lifestyle, but I don’t trust him to capture the hollowness of it – which is the necessary heart of this story. It is clear from the trailer that Luhrman plans to be much more open and explicit about Gatsby and Daisy’s affair, another move that could prove problematic. Part of what I love about the original novella is the idea that you’re never really sure how much Daisy genuinely loved Gatsby, or rather you’re not sure how serious she ever was about leaving her husband. In the same way that you’re never sure how much Tom loved Myrtle. They have their side-affairs because they’re bored, but not necessarily because they want out of their marriage. Having Gatsby and Daisy roll around in bed or twirl beneath floating shirts or make out near trees suggests that the director has every intention of painting this as another tale of star-crossed lovers, rather than the more ambiguous affair that it was. It also breaks from the story’s conceit of having Nick as our eyes and ears, which frankly defeats the purpose of having Nick in the story at all.

I think the trouble with bringing Gatsby to the screen is exactly this: It’s easy to use the material to make a spectacle or a love story, even though the story itself is specifically about revealing some of the nasty realities about both of those concepts. At the very least, the push of Gatsby from its original Christmas release to Summer suggests we’re not dealing with a masterpiece. It’s the kind of movie about which producers like to say It’s for “the fans,” rather than “the critics,” because God knows that critics hate great period pieces based on classic novels.

3 thoughts on “Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby Looks to be Missing the Point

  1. On first go round, I thought Moulin Rouge was unwatchable, but now I find all the heightened artifice … call it excessive … makes it even more moving that it would be otherwise. I thought Baz’ Romeo & Juliet was brilliant too. Now I’ll admit from what I’ve seen in previews, and having read the book, that I agree with you about Gatsby. The full Baz treatment looks like a mistake. But I’m willing to suspend judgment until it comes out, and I like the idea that he’s trying something new. A dutiful film version of the book seems pointless to me. Why do it if you are going to replicate the experience of reading the book?

  2. On the brightside, he did great things with Romeo and Juliet. When I was teaching it was a great way to get lower ability kids to throw themselves into quoting Shakespeare…. maybe it will open The Great Gatsby up to a whole new demographic?

    I’m just excited about the costumes!

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