Gatsby on Screen

May 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

Baz Luhrmann’s treatment of The Great Gatsby requires a bit more letting go than we tend to grant most screen adaptations. This is not just due to Luhrmann’s reputation as a hyper-electrifier, prone to deploying all the effects tools he’s given to play with. Gatsby is a richly polished novel, delicately written in so many places that it is easy to damage, and already worked over so ritually that we feel more urgent to protect our angles to it.

Luhrmann can’t be accused of deviating too much from the text, because so much of the film is the text. We literally hear Tobey Maguire, as Nick Carraway, recite lines from the novel to us, and key words are scrolled over the picture in cursive to punctuate the important parts. The one big conceit we’re asked to forgive is that Nick, not F. Scott Fitzgerald, is writing these words—on the advice of the psychiatrist to whom his testimony comprises the narration we hear. Nick Carraway, our bewildered observer, has apparently been driven to drink, and being the wingman and sole defender of his wealthy monomaniac neighbor has made him that way.

Luhrmann has tried to make a movie that is as elegant and opulent as the story it tries to tell, but rarely lets the camera hold still enough for us to bask in that opulence. There are pearls swinging around dancing necks; delicate fingers pinching martini glasses. From our helicopter vantage point the party floor at Gatsby’s mansion looks a little like a mosh pit. Part of this is the 3-D angle (why that was deemed necessary is anyone’s guess; when Gatsby’s shirts are tossed around they are meant to land on top of us); the rest smacks of a threatened boredom with the inner narrative. But while the effects are showoffy, it is hard to call them contrived when the movie is about a man doing all he can to show off.

And there are the symbols. We are already hypersensitive to them, so having them weighed on us is embarrassing. Gatsby reaches his arm out for the green light across the bay, nearly plucking it like an unripe apple off a tree. We practically choke on the ash rising up from the heaps whenever we pass them coming to or from West Egg. T. J. Eckleburg’s blue eyes pierce through his lenses and the rotted wood so intently we expect them to blink. It is as though Luhrmann is trying very hard to prove to us that he read the assignment and checked off all the avenues of comprehension on which he might be tested before presenting his diorama to the class.

We are asked to overlook a few of the slicker details. The character of Klipspringer, in the novel a boarder occasionally roused out of slumber to entertain guests on the piano, here is for some reason chained to a built-in, two-story pipe organ that seems to be giving him an electric shock. At The Atlantic, Esther Zuckerman notes that the scene in which Gatsby and Nick cross the Queensboro Bridge didn’t include the funeral procession that passed them:

The friends looked out at us with the tragic eyes and short upper lips of south-eastern Europe and I was glad that the sight of Gatsby’s splendid car was included in their somber holiday.

While the Jay-Z soundtrack pumps along, African-American servants stare like gargoyles out of the woodwork, or play serenading trumpets on window ledges over the steaming streets.

Then there are the actors, against whom I came in with a bias. Tobey Maguire will always look and sound like a fourteen-year-old to me; Leonardo DiCaprio, his face compressed and rubberized over the years since he was that homeless kid in Growing Pains, just doesn’t pull off millionaire polish well; and this Carey Mulligan, with her big, frightened eyes, eliminates any chance of complexity in the character of Daisy. At times, this Great Gatsby feels like a very expensive school play.

And yet, there are so many worse things one could do to a story. No morals were upstaged, no fates rerouted. (I could never understand why Gatsby let Tom take his car for the ride to the city—or for that matter, why Tom let Gatsby take Daisy.) Seeing the film made me want to pull out my beat-up Scriber paperback—with Matthew Bruccoli’s annotations, purchased for a summer reading assignment in high school—and read the novel again, take a fresh inventory of its lyrics and images. We have been presented the excuse as a gift.

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