# of pages written: 7.5
Why didn’t I like Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby? I enjoy Baz Luhrmann movies. I love The Great Gatsby. I like Leonardo DiCaprio. So what happened?
I knew that the movie would be different from the novel. And I thought I was OK with that. I swore I wouldn’t go into the theater with a persnickety “that wasn’t the way it was in the book” mentality. I would sit down and let myself be entertained.
I was prepared for some of the departures from the book, like the device of Nick telling his story from a sanatorium, and the fact that Jordan Baker is pale and dark-haired instead of blond and tan the way Fitzgerald describes her. I didn’t mind any of of that, or, at least, I thought I wouldn’t. The movie would be a spectacular feast for the senses, and I trusted Luhrmann to work his magic with the original material.
Because Luhrman does cast spells. I absolutely adored his modernized Romeo and Juliet in 1996, and I enjoyed his Moulin Rouge in 2001. I understand what drew him to the Gatsby project: a chance to display the excesses of the 1920’s along with the beautiful, tragic melodrama of Fitzgerald’s story. Who better to direct a movie about an over-the-top man than the man who specializes in excess?
And the movie was, in many ways, what I expected. Gorgeous, shining costumes and magical, cartoonish settings. Wild, loud party scenes set to fast, modern music. Beautiful melodrama and excellent performances by DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Isla Fischer. Every scene was packed with marvelous, golden excess. But I was like Daisy at one of Gatsby’s party’s: all that jazz, but still I wasn’t impressed.
At first I thought I was being a picky nay-sayer. After all, I am very attached to the book. But I don’t think that’s what it was. Not really. I didn’t care about the little differences between the book and the movie – Nick’s sanatorium or Jordan’s dark bob. What I didn’t like was the overall difference in tone between the two.
For one thing, I missed Nick’s voice. Even with Tobey Maguire’s narration, the movie fails to capture the humorous-yet-poignant tone of the novel. In the book, Nick’s snarkiness (perhaps a thin disguise for Fitzgerald’s own judgments) comes through in his descriptions of party scenes and, most of all, in his dialogue. For example:
I looked around. Most of the remaining women were now having fights with men said to be their husbands. Even Jordan’s party, the quartet from East Egg, were rent asunder by dissension. One of the men was talking with curious intensity to a young actress, and his wife, after attempting to laugh at the situation in a dignified and indifferent way, broke down entirely and resorted to flank attacks — at intervals she appeared suddenly at his side like an angry diamond, and hissed: “You promised!” into his ear.
The reluctance to go home was not confined to wayward men. The hall was at present occupied by two deplorably sober men and their highly indignant wives. The wives were sympathizing with each other in slightly raised voices.
“Whenever he sees I’m having a good time he wants to go home.”
“Never heard anything so selfish in my life.”
“We’re always the first ones to leave.”
“So are we.”
“Well, we’re almost the last to-night,” said one of the men sheepishly. “The orchestra left half an hour ago.”
In spite of the wives’ agreement that such malevolence was beyond credibility, the dispute ended in a short struggle, and both wives were lifted, kicking, into the night.
Not that Luhrmann doesn’t try to stage these scenes or use Fitzgerald’s dialogue, because he does. Jordan still says her witty lines: “I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.” And Catherine still says of Myrtle and Tom, “neither of them can stand the person they’re married to.” But the dialogue comes in quick bursts instead of the leisurely (often drunken) banter you’ll find in the novel. These quick snatches of conversation don’t have the same rhythm, and without Nick’s overall voice of judgement, they lose much of their clever potency.
The thing that always impressed me about The Great Gatsby novel was not the story itself but Fitzgerald’s smooth, subtle narration. He can make you see and understand a character or a scene with just a few carefully-crafted turns of phrase. Through Nick’s eyes, Gatsby’s wild parties and the Buchanan’s lavish lifestyle are reduced to calm, sophisticated sentences: somber, yet beautiful. For example:
There was dancing now on the canvas in the garden; old men pushing young girls backward in eternal graceless circles, superior couples holding each other tortuously, fashionably, and keeping in the corners — and a great number of single girls dancing individualistically… By midnight the hilarity had increased….numbers people were doing “stunts” all over the garden, while happy, vacuous bursts of laughter rose toward the summer sky… A pair of stage twins, who turned out to be the girls in yellow, did a baby act in costume, and champagne was served in glasses bigger than finger-bowls…
I was enjoying myself now. I had taken two finger-bowls of champagne, and the scene had changed before my eyes into something significant, elemental, and profound.
Luhrmann recreates this scene in his movie: the dancing, the finger-bowls of champagne, even the stage twins in yellow. But Luhrman’s scene flashes bright and is gone, like a sugar pill quickly swallowed. It’s Fitzgerald’swords that linger. They have the power to transform something so shallow as a drunken party into something that seems significant, profound.
Before I saw the movie I assumed that Luhrmann was the right director for a lavish story of excess. But the truth is, Fitzgerald’s novel is subtle book, not a flashy one at all. Maybe the source material would have been better handled by someone more subtle, like Sofia Coppola – her movies are beautifully slow and soft and dreamlike. Although, knowing myself, she would have found some way to disappoint me, too.
I guess, in retrospect, it wasn’t a bad movie. But, as usual, the book is so much better.