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.

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Fitzgerald’s legacy: more than the movie

An artist’s legacy leads not only to devotion, but to more art.

F. Scott Fitzgerald* died over 70 years ago, but fans still pour over his writing and other artists still build and create off of his ideas. This is Fitzgerald’s legacy, and it’s still alive and kicking.

Since the release of Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, more and more fans have made the pilgrimage to Rockville, Md. to visit the grave Fitzgerald shares with his wife Zelda. In fact, according Rev. Monsignor Robert Amey of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the number of visitors to the site has nearly tripled in the last couple of weeks.

St. Mary’s Cemetary, the couple’s final resting place, is surrounded by strip malls and busy streets, and it’s easy to pass up, according to the Washington Post article.

English: Black-and-white photographic portrait...

English: Black-and-white photographic portrait of writer F. Scott Fitzgerald and wife Zelda at Dellwood, one month before daughter Scottie’s birth. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But visitors still come to pay their respects and read the inscription on the large stone, the famous last line of The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Some leave notes or even liquor, which I’m sure Fitzgerald appreciates. 

And many artists still incorporate Fitzgerald’s work into their own. One of my favorite examples is Benjamin Gibbard’s song “Bigger than Love,” based on selections from a collection of love letters written by Fitzgerald and Zelda.

Featured on his 2012 album “Former Lives,” the song covers different phases of the couple’s marriage while subtly hinting at its troubled undertones. Gibbard did not add his own commentary to bring the relationship to life. He needed only to let the bits of the letters speak for themselves.

Now a new generation of readers is discovering the story. It sits atop a permanent pedestal in the American literature canon and currently holds the second-highest spot on Amazon’s Best Sellers. 

We can expect to see this generation go on to carry out Fitzgerald’s legacy–to let his writing affect them, thrill them and rouse them to create more works for future generations.

*Note: My review of the movie is the last Fitzgerald post I’ll write. (Probably.)

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