First, before I get into the movie review, I want to make a small statement about my expectations of film adaptations: I don’t ever imagine that a movie can encompass the depth and breadth of any novel; it’s virtually impossible to include all elements an author puts into a novel. What I look for in an adaptation is an honest and intelligent interpretation of the words on the page; the screen writer and director need to understand the essence of the novel and why it has captured the attention of readers. I’m okay with things being taken out or reformulated as long as the heart of the novel is not changed.
The Great Gatsby the Movie:
As a movie, The Great Gatsby was beautiful–visually stunning and heart wrenching. The music was fantastic; the characters told a gripping story that captivated me. If I only saw the movie and hadn’t read (and taught for many years) the novel, I would think that the movie stayed true to Fitzgerald’s vision.
The Movie vs. the Novel:
However, I have read the novel–many times–and it is one of my favorites; so much so, that I wrote nine posts–one for each of the chapters about why I love this novel. How does the movie fare from that perspective? I still loved it for many reasons, but I was also disappointed with a few things that Baz Luhrmann (screen writer and director) and Craig Pearce (screen writer) didn’t keep in mind when casting, directing, and filming the movie.
First, it was a beautiful rendition, visually, and kept the drama active enough, so it did not sleep-walk through the plot, like the previous attempts to portray the novel. The basic plot of the story was accurate, and, for the most part, the heart of the story stayed true to the novel.
Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby:
I attribute this “heart” to Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Gatsby. I knew if any actor could do it, it would be DiCaprio. He captured Gatsby’s tragic optimism beautifully. In DiCaprio we saw that “there was something gorgeous” in Gatsby, “some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life . . . an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again” (Chapter 1). DiCaprio was flawless in depicting this.
I also love how Luhrmann kept Gatsby a mystery until the moment Nick realizes that he has been talking to Gatsby; this little detail kept the essence of Gatsby as a myth or magician, who was merely putting on a big show for all his guests, true to the novel. The elaborateness of the ruse culminates when the camera finally turns to Gatsby; DiCaprio captures Gatsby perfectly when he flashes his brilliant smile, yet somehow pulls off the falseness behind the eyes Nick describes in the novel: “He smiled understandingly . . . It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. . . . Precisely at that point it vanished–and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd” (Chapter 3). I didn’t think it was possible, but DiCaprio played it perfectly.
One of the most brilliant parts of the movie is the Gatsby/Daisy flashback scene: It shows how Gatsby and Daisy fell in love five years earlier. With so much of the novel being about Fitzgerald’s diction and imagery, it is hard, even with the best cinematography and directorial vision in the world, to capture the beauty of Fitzgerald’s words in pictures. But Baz Luhrmann did it. Luhrmann chose to show the flashback with cloud-like images while Nick tells the story; Gatsby, as the God of his own story, floats in the sky as he encounters Daisy: “His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.” At that moment, when Gatsby gives up immortality for Daisy, he descends from the clouds and we are returned to the present. Brilliant.
The Green Light:
The other element that captured the essence of Gatsby and his tragic optimism was the green light, symbolic of Daisy, but also the American Dream. The green light wasn’t just a light in the distance, but a magical light that was concurrently captivating and blinding. The image of Gatsby, “stretch[ing] out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and . . . trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward–and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock” (Chapter 1) is used multiple times throughout the movie, capturing Gatsby’s longing without revealing too much too soon. Luhrmann placed the appropriate emphasis on the light, and DiCaprio portrayed the longing sympathetically with the right amount of obsession. A difficult task, but played out beautifully.
Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway:
Surprisingly, I really liked the framing of Nick in an institution, dealing with the after effects of his summer in New York. It worked, not only because the novel does present elements of Nick’s inability to cope with those events, but because it allowed the viewers to hear Nick’s beautiful words as he tells the story of Gatsby. Tobey Maguire played that tortured soul well, but I was not as happy with how Luhrmann and Pearce wrote Nick’s character. They gave him clarity throughout the story that wasn’t present in the novel. Nick’s mental breakdown is acceptable because he watched and accepted everyone’s bad choices and believed himself to be above it all even to the very end, but did nothing to stop the lies and betrayal–his own included. A person who stands by and doesn’t protect innocent people–and only protects himself–would and should have a dissociative breakdown. But the movie presents him as the only person who tries to do the right thing. Although he does redeem himself by the end of the novel, throughout the majority of the novel, Nick doesn’t do the right thing.
Add to that the almost non-existent relationship with Jordan Baker, a crucial relationship to show her dishonesty in life, and Nick’s dishonesty in relationships, Luhrmann’s Nick Carraway did not fulfill the role of the central character.
Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson:
This was my biggest concern before seeing the movie. Isla Fisher is too beautiful to be Myrtle: “Then I heard footsteps on a stairs and in a moment the thickish figure of a woman blocked out the light from the office door. She was in the middle thirties, and faintly stout, but she carried her surplus flesh sensuously as some women can. Her face . . . contained no facet or gleam of beauty but there was an immediately perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continually smouldering” (Chapter 2). Fisher is thin and beautiful; she is definitely not the woman I pictured when reading the novel. If Myrtle’s looks were inconsequential to the overall plot and theme of the novel, then I wouldn’t have minded that much. Fisher presented a despicable, white-trash Myrtle, which plays out well on screen, but it does nothing for furthering the contemptible character of Tom Buchanan. Tom cheating on Daisy with a beautiful, uninhibited woman could make sense; but Tom cheating on Daisy with an overweight, crude woman shows Tom as the asshole he is.
The New York flat Tom kept for Myrtle was also not what I expected, but it’s gaudy, carnival-esque atmosphere still worked. What didn’t work was Catherine, Myrtle’s sister, throwing herself at Nick. That didn’t happen in the novel, but in a different way, it showed the debauchery of the people Nick encountered that day.
Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan:
Joel Edgerton played Tom Buchanan well. We hated him from the moment he showed up on screen. The only disadvantage to Edgerton’s portrayal is his size. Tom is constantly referred to as a “hulking” man who uses his size to intimidate people. Even though he didn’t have that size attribute, Edgerton filled those shoes with his affect and voice.
Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan:
Of all the characters, I was anxious to see Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of Daisy Buchanan. She is the woman Gatsby has been dreaming about for five years. Mulligan had big shoes to fill, and she succeeded, sort of. Mulligan showed Daisy as a beautiful, flirtatious, and tortured woman, who could not be true to herself, let alone to Gatsby. Mulligan even spoke in beautiful melodic tones in the way Nick described her: “I looked back at my cousin who began to ask me questions in her low, thrilling voice. It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again. Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth–but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour” (Chapter 1). No easy feat, to be sure, but Mulligan succeeded.
But where Carey Mulligan fell flat for me, which I’m sure is not her fault, is when they were at the hotel and Tom tears Gatsby apart. Actually, the whole scene was disappointing for me. It moved quickly and dramatically, but in the novel Gatsby never loses his temper, proving that Daisy cares more about the appearances of what Gatsby represents than her actual love for Gatsby. She would rather stay with an unfaithful, controlling and brutish Tom, than be with a loving, patient Gatsby.
However, in the movie, the implication is that Daisy leaves Gatsby because of his explosive reaction to Tom exposing the truth about Gatsby’s illegal activities.
Throughout the novel, Daisy’s alluring voice and flirtatious promises of her undying love for Gatsby are what lead Gatsby to his destruction; she is the siren who forces him to crash into the rocky terrain.
Fitzgerald presents Daisy as a woman who is unworthy of Gatsby’s love and undying devotion; and, just like what Daisy symbolizes, the American Dream–with all its false promises–is unworthy of our love and devotion. Like Gatsby, Americans work their entire lives, hoping to grasp the dream that constantly alludes the majority of us for various reasons. If we actually examine the wealth and power, if we are honest, we see that the glitz and the glamour are empty and unworthy of our obsession, like Daisy.
Unfortunately, the movie spins that around and seems to imply that Gatsby is unworthy of Daisy. Is the movie then presenting Americans as unworthy of attaining the dream? An interesting thought, but not what the novel presents. This is the one element that destroyed the essence of the adaptation for me. All other elements I could forgive and move forward with, but not this one critical point. For all their money, for all their power, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy–they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made” (Chapter 9). Even though Nick says these words in the movie, it doesn’t make up for the fact that Luhrmann didn’t show it through Daisy’s actions.
A few other omissions that could have easily been added is Owl Eyes being one of the only party-goers that actually understood and appreciated Gatsby at the end of the novel, and Mr. Gatz showing up for Gatsby’s funeral. Even though they are not crucial elements to the essence of the novel, they would have been an easy and necessary element to round out Gatsby’s tragic story.
As much as I loved the movie, the two elements that will frustrate me for years to come will be the way my students will perceive Nick and Daisy because of Luhrmann’s depiction. Even after reading and teaching this novel to my juniors for weeks; even after stopping to discuss and interpret the images that Fitzgerald presents us with, I still have students asking, “Why do you hate Nick and Daisy, Mrs. Hawkins? The movie shows them to be good people who did the best they could with the circumstances.”
Grrr! All that hard work for nothing.