Baz Lurhmann’s film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has been panned by critics for focusing too much on cinematic flare (now in 3D!) over the heart of the story. The novel is possibly my favorite, so I went into the film skeptical, thinking these critics were probably right. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised. While Lurhmann’s Gatsby does not follow the slower pacing of the book (that approach has been tried anyway), it masterfully captures the madness of the era (even casting the narrative in an admittedly somewhat contrived therapy setting), hitting precisely the heart of the time, and I argue, much of what makes Gatsby a perennial classic.
The 3D, however seemingly odd of a choice for such a story, makes sense as the film develops. Cinematic 3D, while impressive, does not really capture the fullness of our world -- it is more like 2.5D, incorporating multiple planes of two-dimensional images. This gives the film a surreal quality, rather than making it more real -- perfect for a story about extravagant, fantasy lifestyles and illusory hopes. The film embodies Gatsby’s “huge incoherent failure of a house,” as Nick puts it, and all it represents. The first party at Gatsby’s isn’t just flashy -- the visuals actually emulate the drunkenness and excitement. There is too much to see; the viewer cannot possibly take in the whole.
It is ironic to me that Lurhmann has been criticized for focusing on the visuals over the heart of the story. Gatsby, in fact, shrouds his identity in the midst of his dazzling parties, and the truth about the man remains unknown to all but Nick, even in his death. The viewer ought to have to struggle to see through to the man behind the show:
By midnight the hilarity had increased. A celebrated tenor had sung in Italian, and a notorious contralto had sung in jazz, and between the 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 ... did a baby act in costume, and champagne was served in glasses bigger than finger-bowls. The moon had risen higher, and floating in the Sound was a triangle of silver scales, trembling a little to the stiff, tinny drip of the banjoes on the lawn.
The absurdity of Gatsby’s parties is further underlined by the fact that, of course, alcohol was banned by the Eighteenth Amendment at the time. Everyone there broke the law in at least that respect if not more. They were all already compromised from the start. An irrational law had contributed to an irrational culture -- as Luhrmann’s Carraway puts it, prohibition had “backfired.” Madness became the norm: prohibition spurred more drunkenness; legislating temperance spurred intemperate living; a partly feminist law spurred more womanizing (especially clear in the film); a movement for greater social conscience dulled that of the individual; religious zeal increased godlessness. The truth of the matter, that the whole culture on the way of death had seemingly forgotten, is spoken only in the wasteland of its recklessness, the valley of ashes -- so desolately portrayed by Luhrmann -- in the words of the only man anyone realizes is mad. “God sees everything,” says Wilson, staring at the ever-watchful eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg, brooding over the careless death of his wife.
The valley of ashes, through which anyone must pass on their commute to New York from East or West Egg, is the empty, dying heart beneath all the misguided striving of an age of insanity. And it is only there that the eyes of God cannot be wholly ignored. It is the harvest of such a wasteful, illusory culture, “a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of ash-gray men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.” It is the realm of death itself, the depths of Hades toward which disordered hopes lead, revealing to us, if only we can take it in, the truth that we are but “dust and ashes” before the eyes of God.
And it is upon the culture of this age that Gatsby builds his fortune. According to Nick, “Gatsby ... represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.” Yet only Gatsby was immune to his contempt for his time out East. He goes on:
If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the “creative temperament” -- it was an extraordinary gift of 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.
The paradox, the mystery, is that in the midst of so many “careless people” -- as Nick describes Tom and Daisy -- there should yet be someone whose fault, his “extraordinary gift of hope,” was the opposite: he cared about something all too much.
This does not really redeem Gatsby on the whole -- Luhrmann excellently features the more questionable side to his character. Gatsby is constantly on the phone with different cities on “business,” once interrupting his first “date” with Daisy, overheard cryptically saying that some unnamed person is “no use to us if Detroit is his idea of a small town”; he has goons to punish delinquent business partners; he “did a favor for the commissioner” by which he is now overlooked by the eyes of the law.
Everyone wondered, “on the courage of Gatsby’s liquor,” at Gatsby’s real self, always suspecting the worst. Had he really been a soldier? Was he a German spy? A second cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm? Did his wealth come from bootlegging? Had he ever “killed a man”? DiCaprio’s performance perfectly evokes such questions. Nick sums up the contradiction: “The lawn and drive had been crowded with the faces of those who guessed at his corruption -- and he had stood on those steps, concealing his incorruptible dream, as he waved them good-by.”
Gatsby’s “incorruptible dream” is Daisy, not as she is, not in the life she had chosen (however miserable), but as herself an essential piece of an incorruptible ideal fixed in his mind, the diamond for which the whole setting had been fashioned, yet truly a dream, pure in itself, but utterly unreal. His love for her is eros gone horribly wrong, interrupting and abandoning his aspirations for greatness, after which “his mind would never romp again like the mind of God.” The object of his disordered love, she had become for him a disordered, yet undying, hope.
The world of Gatsby, too, is such an unreality, the “unquiet darkness” that remains after striving for and failing to reach the impossible. “You can’t repeat the past,” Nick cautions Gatsby. “‘Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’” Luhrmann’s reincarnation of Gatsby, set in the Jazz age yet fueled by hip-hop and dressed in glamorous visuals, makes present this surreal story for America today. And in the end, isn’t that precisely what Fitzgerald’s novel was about all along? Is it Gatsby or America -- or humanity itself -- that longingly stares by night at the green light of an elusive, illusory hope?
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 sailors' 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 capacity 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....
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic 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.
Luhrmann’s Gatsby may not be the most perfect adaptation (as if such were possible), but it is well done. Through the “orgiastic future” of its presentation, it is “borne back ... into the past” by its attention to the underlying themes of the narrative, and it does, for me, the best a movie based on a novel can do: it brings out seemingly new ways of viewing the story and its characters that were actually there all along. It is another reason to revisit the original, and the best reason to go see the film.