Luhrmann’s Gatsby: Well-woven and not altogether disappointing

I’m a bit of a literary purist, so I can’t help but be disappointed by some of the details of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. However, I’m not totally disappointed by the film as a whole. It could have been a lot worse, but Luhrmann could have been more true to the story.

I understand why Luhrmann made the changes he did, but at times I felt he was spoon-feeding information to those who’ve never read the novel.

The cover of the first edition of The Great Ga...

The cover of the first edition of The Great Gatsby (1925) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the film, Tom tells Wilson that Gatsby owned the car that killed Myrtle, whereas in the book Wilson finds out through his own detective work and kills Gatsby assuming him to be the man Myrtle was seeing. I assume Luhrmann made that change to help viewers understand how Wilson came to suspect and murder Gatsby, but it takes away quite a bit of the drama surrounding the murders. It also places some guilt on Tom’s shoulders, making him at least partially responsible for Gatsby’s murder; that element simply does not exist in the book and holds no place in the story.

Equally disappointing were the changes made to Gatsby’s funeral. Nick tells the audience directly in his narration how many people he had called to invite to the funeral, but I wished Luhrmann would have showed the calls and the refusals to attend in order to create a greater emotional impact. Contrary to what the film showed, one person did show up at the funeral: his father. His appearance illustrated that Gatsby could not escape his unexceptional roots and the poverty of his past, and leaving it out left a loose end that could have been tied up.

Despite what Luhrmann left out, he did seamlessly blend some of the other significant points of the novel into the film. He exceeded my expectations with Myrtle’s death. Fitzgerald describes each gory detail in the novel, and Luhrmann echoed that drama by showing us the gore. Again, and again, and again. I’d worried that Luhrmann would soften the scene or completely chicken out, showing no more than a dead limb or flash of light. But he showed the injuries and emotions described in the book to the utmost detail.

Luhrmann also showed no hesitation to introduce the audience to Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. I’d suspected that Luhrmann would skip all the religious symbolism to avoid offending anyone, but he made it clear that the billboard’s presence mirrored that of God.

As for the music, the more modern music matched the tempo and intensity of the party scenes. Surprisingly, it was the instrumental music which outright offended me. At certain points, such as when Gatsby and Daisy met at Nick’s, the music was too cutesy and intrusive. The actors held their own, and the music was not necessary to portray their emotions.

Luhrmann crafted the film with the intention of pleasing all audiences. He knew that most had not read the novel (at least not since high school or college) but acknowledged the picky Gatsby fans like me. He included certain specific details (such as the dancing twins in yellow dresses) for die-hards, but also made the essential plot elements easy to understand for the others.


Can Luhrmann repeat the past?

Baz Luhrmann faces a challenge in his adaptation of The Great Gatsby. The film could very easily fall into place with so other movies today which are built around visual spectacle or fashionable actors but neglect plot or character development.

True, there is a great deal of spectacle in to novel–beyond extravagant parties, fancy cars and beautiful people–but that spectacle serves a very specific purpose.

Gatsby throws those outrageous parties and surrounds himself with unbelievable wealth essentially to attract Daisy so he can relive his naive, fantastical illusions of his past.

I hope that Luhrmann doesn’t just recreate that spectacle to attract an audience, but uses them to serve the greater purpose of the plot. And based on his 1996 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, I believe he can and will.

I admit it. To the chagrin of many of my English major friends, I love Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. It seems that nearly every time I mention the movie to any literature lover, they grumble about how it’s too overdone and the use of the original dialogue in its modern setting is frivolous.

But all that, too, serves a purpose.

To adapt any novel, some tweaking is necessary. Perhaps he created the drama of the costumes, setting and other imagery to illustrate how young love (remember, Juliet was barely a teenager in the story) can be so emotionally charged that it becomes a little ridiculous and maybe even dangerous. Perhaps he picked a modern-day California city as a setting to remind the audience of those enduring themes–something which, in my opinion, the sleepy 1968 version failed to do.

And perhaps he’s making a similar attempt with Gatsby, with its hip soundtrack executive-produced by Jay-Z and its retro yet fashionable costumes.

As long as Luhrmann keeps his theatrical elements in check, he’ll deliver this story’s classic truths effectively. And if he does so artistically, he will captivate and convince his audience to soak them up.

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