It’s difficult to explain the trauma, anxiety, frustration, the sickening feeling of disgust, boredom and moral outrage I felt while watching Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby. It’s not the worst film I’ve ever seen, by far, but it elicited such feelings because it was a missed opportunity that denigrated something great. It was a prolonged pop video that valued style over substance, yet a one-note garish and lurid style at that. Defenders of the film might say that is the point, the Jazz Age was about superficiality, excess, grotesque consumption. For me that is the point: Baz Luhrmann has missed something vital about the book. The book seems weak on character and on plot; it’s the power of the novel that superficial weak characters are shown to have deep hinterlands, even if we only glimpse them. The Great Gatsby would be a finely written, goodish book if not for some of the needle-like insights scattered throughout, and the last five pages that move from psychological acuity to profound, epic prose and vision. The film caught none of this.
The film has many weaknesses: the character’s are miscast for one thing. Leonardo Di Caprio could make an excellent Gatsby – he is the film’s good feature – yet even his performance cannot rescue a film this damned by actors who do not fit their roles and bring such a narrow emotional range to their parts. Carey Mulligan’s Daisy is neither sexy, coquettish, fragile, or cynical enough. Tobey McGuire’s Nick is a familiar Tobey McGuire: looking as if he has wondered on to a film set and someone has handed him some lines which he will now speak. There’s a disturbing lack of connection between his performance and a real human being. Tom Buchanan played by Joel Edgerton is the second best, yet his role is of a caricature: a morality play villain who nearly twirls his moustache as he formulates his evil plan.
The setting is ludicrously, garish and the background characters ridiculously over-blown and caricatured. One minute the setting is like a perfume advert, the next it is like Bugsy Malone. The CGI destroys the sense of reality of the film and makes everything seem so tiresomely meaningful. We don’t cut to Gatsby’s home; we zoom across the waters at breakneck speed and at the height of a low-flying bird until we reach the pier that juts from Gatsby’s back garden onto the water. Nick Carraway’s monotone voice drifts across footage of Nick imposed on the city flats as Nick’s consciousness opens up to the variety of life. You expect him to start singing.
However, it is the film’s direction that absolutely destroys the nervous system! Instead of allowing a character to speak their dialogue, we are distracted with continual changing shots and angles and noises so that characterisation is lost. When Baz Luhrmann approached Romeo and Juliet in this way, it was novel, inventive and freshened-up a drama that was likely to be over-wrought and made stale by actors respecting the lines too much (the new Romeo and Juliet seems to be heading in this direction). When this happens once it is inventive. When it happens again and again it shows a director who seems unable to portray character, and a director that cannot portray character is not really a film director. Plot and characterisation are the essence of a good film. You have to be able to do them to make a good film. And this is my real issue with the entire movie: The Great Gatsby deserves a good film.
Anyone doing the SQA Higher English exam hopefully knows that The Great Gatsby is a deep and provocative comment on America and the American Dream. So much of Fitzgerald’s observations were either true at the time, or have become true. His observations about the rise of fascism, the emptiness of a life of continued, conspicuous consumption, the psychological pressures of poverty and the corruption of the economic system had relevance then and, as a society that has seen the largest speculative bubble in history explode as we have, has relevance to us today. It is a serious book. Fitzgerald was a serious man; he read Karl Marx before he wrote Gatsby. That’s a heavy book. It contributed to one of the most memorable pieces of allegorical writing in literature – the valley of ashes. He poured himself into The Great Gatsby and its failure devastated him: he was left to hand out copies as gifts in his latter years as a habitual alcoholic.
I think this is what annoys me most. In the years since I have read the novel, I have had time to reflect on the novel’s greatness. At first it’s easy to wonder ‘what all the fuss is about’ as someone once said to me, but I have slowly understood the reason for the ‘fuss’. Like Herman Melville, the writer who wrote the only other contender for the great American novel, F Scott Fitzgerald only had one great book in him. In writing The Great Gatsby he seemed to reach within and beyond himself in a way that he never did again, and what he pulled out was profound, visionary and tragic. Melville lived long enough to return with the magnificent Billy Budd and other short stories. But for Fitzgerald it was over. His life and this single piece of work re-written fifteen times deserve a more serious treatment than it has been given in this…boring film.