The Great Gatsby Movie Review

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.

Gatsby Cast

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.

Flashback Scene:

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.

The Great Gatsby: Chapter 9

Gatsby and green lightWell after the denouement of the story, after we discover the fates of Gatsby and Nick, we get a final glimpse of Nick on the beach in front of Gatsby’s house. There seems to be nothing more to say, except perhaps a final reflection on the events of that summer of 1922. It is in that reflection that we are then treated to the most beautiful poetic prose in all of literature–the last three paragraphs of The Great Gatsby:

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailor’s eyes–a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capasity for wonder.

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—-

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

We are all Gatsby to some extent; or, if we are not, then we have buried those dreams so deep within us that we don’t know they exist anymore.

Those who have learned not to expect too much–those who have stopped dreaming–have stopped trying so they are not disappointed when they fail. If they didn’t want it in the first place, then it doesn’t hurt as much.

But what about those of us who, like Gatsby, refuse to give up, even in the face of failure? Should we smile at the contempt in others’ eyes? Should we pretend we don’t see how they pity us? Even as we see the future receding before us, even as we see our hopes and dreams wash away like sandcastles with the tide, should we live the life we have and forget about the life we want?

No. Not this Gatsby.

The Great Gatsby: Chapter 5

Gatsby and DaisyOne of the interesting elements of the novel as a whole is that the plot structure mirrors that of a Shakespearean Tragedy: Chapter 1 is the Exposition; Chapters 2-4 is the Rising Action; Chapter 5 is the Turning Point; Chapters 6-8 is the Falling Action; and Chapter 9 is the Resolution. Like all great tragedies, death incites the Turning Point; however, The Great Gatsby‘s Turning Point is not the death of a person, but the death of Gatsby’s dream. Additionally, it is not a quick death but a slow hiss as the inflated illusory dream meets reality.

Fitzgerald shows this slow hiss as Nick observes Gatsby’s reaction to finally being with Daisy:

Chapter 5

As I went over to say goodbye I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby’s face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness. Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams–not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.

Gatsby was the epitome of the rags-to-riches story; he was able to start with nothing and achieve great wealth through perseverance and opportunity (albeit illegal opportunity). He envisioned who he would one day become, but he made the mistake of placing the success of all of his dreams on the shoulders of a woman who could never carry that kind of weight. After all, she is merely human and could never live up to the perfection Gatsby had imagined.

Please, feel free to share your thoughts or your favorite quotes from this chapter in the comment section below.


The Great Gatsby: Chapter 2

Myrtle WilsonIn Chapter 2, Nick Carraway shows us things we don’t want to see, things we don’t want to talk about. The images and metaphors describe what he sees without telling us how base the people are. He uses symbols that are at times vague, but specific enough to allow the reader to have the final say on what those symbols mean. At the same time, the symbols provide a sense of judgment and create forlorn feelings, foreshadowing events in the book as well as real life.

My favorite descriptions in Chapter 2 revolve around Myrtle Wilson–her looks, her NYC apartment, and her behavior. Nick has such contempt for this woman, but he never states those feelings. Instead, Nick describes what he sees using words that are packed with meaning:

Chapter 2

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, above a spotted dress of dark blue crepe-de-chine, 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. She smiled slowly and walking through her husband as if he were a ghost shook hands with Tom, looking him flush in the eye. Then she wet her lips and without turning around spoke to her husband in a soft coarse voice.

The apartment was on the top floor–a small living room, a small dining room, a small bedroom and a bath. The living room was crowded to the doors with a set of tapestried furniture entirely too large for it so that to move about was to stumble continually over scenes of ladies swinging in the gardens of Versailles. . . . Several old copies of “Town Tattle” lay on the table together with a copy of “Simon Called Peter” and some of the small scandal magazines of Broadway.

. . .

Mrs. Wilson had changed her costume some time before and was now attired in an elaborate afternoon dress of cream colored chiffon which gave out a continual rustle as she swept about the room. With the influence of the dress her personality had also undergone a change. The intense vitality that had been so remarkable in the garage was converted into impressive hauteur. Her laughter, her gestures, her assertions became more violently affected moment by moment and as she expanded the room grew smaller around her until she seemed to be revolving on a noisy, creaking pivot through the smoky air.

Words paint better pictures than the silver screen.

Please, feel free to share your thoughts or your favorite quotes from this chapter in the comment section below.