Reviewed: Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby
Gatsby on Film
In the weeks leading up to the release of the new 3-D Great Gatsby film, director Baz Luhrmann talked a lot about how an early draft of Fitzgerald's great American novel called Trimalchio helped influence his adaptation. Cambridge University Press is the only publisher of that original version, which Luhrmann cited as an inspiration in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and the New York Times. He also consulted the volume's editor, James L.W. West III, for advice on the film.
In honor of the final Fitzgerald Friday, four Cambridge staff members went to see the movie we’d been hearing so much about. Did it measure up to the book? How did the influence of an early draft change the story we know? Here are our thoughts on the writing, the casting, the soundtrack, the eyes (!) and everything else…
Rachel: So after a lot of hype, a lot of soundtrack-streaming, a lot of re-reading, and a lot of Gatsby avatars (ours are next to our names—apparently if this were the 1920s, we’d all kind of look the same…), we’ve finally seen the movie! What are your thoughts?
Frances: I liked it, but I think the director and the production got in the way of the movie. When the actors just acted, like in that climactic hotel scene, they were great.
Marie: I was disappointed. I don’t like the told-from-an-asylum angle. It also made Nick seem weirdly in love/borderline obsessed with Gatsby which is not the impression that I got from reading Trimalchio or The Great Gatsby.
Amy: I thought all the glitz and whimsy and music were great and COULD have worked with the movie. My problem was more with the writing, the interpretation of the novel.
Rachel: I agree with Marie. After rereading both the books, I didn’t get the impression that The Great Gatsby was about Nick at all, and that’s the way this movie made it seem. Fitzgerald didn’t create a Nick who was as invested in these people at Tobey Maguire’s character seemed to be.
Frances: I vaguely recall my English class on this, we discussed how there is an element of obsession in Nick Carraway. But the way Tobey played it, it was just monotone and creepy.
Frances: Amy, what was wrong with the writing?
Amy: It wasn’t measured with the revulsion that exists in the novel. I thought the screenplay wrongly made it a GRAND ROMANCE, but they aren’t Romeo and Juliet, they’re sad, lost, fading egomaniacs.
Rachel: It’s a different kind of tragedy than one of lost love.
Amy: Yes, exactly. And all the typewriter stuff, the music at times, the closed in face shots.
Marie: The scene in the hotel when Gatsby loses it brought it back from that grand romance aspect. Like this whole time he’s thinking that it is a grand romance and Tom brings him back down to earth for all of us to see.
Amy: They seemed to be trying to underscore a pithiness that DOES exist in the novel, but it’s wrongly interpreted to the point that it loses all meaning.
Frances: That’s funny, I did get the sense that this is a failed first love, not Romeo+Juliet. With Gatsby pushing Daisy and Daisy pulling back, the two were already bad news for each other. They were in love with the ideal of each other. And the number of times you heard Lana Del Rey’s voice made it seem even sadder.
Marie: I like that Lana Del Rey song but I think it was inserted into the movie one too many times!
Amy: Well, I did think that one scene in the garden when they’re kissing against the tree and you can hear Lana singing inside—I thought that was GORGEOUS and had everything I love about Baz Lurhmann’s movies, I adored it
Marie: The soundtrack worked and didn’t work. I think it was really cool how Jack White’s “Love is Blindness” was blaring over the scene of Myrtle getting hit by the car.
Amy: But it didn’t really have so much to do with Gatsby.
Rachel: Let’s talk for a second though about Myrtle getting hit by the car.
Amy: Can we talk about the abuse of slow motion?
Marie: They actually did a pretty good job with the car accident. It stayed pretty close to the book.
Amy: But the flying glass. And THE EYES.
Amy: Like, just in case you missed them before THE EYES!
Rachel: I think there is something important in the fact that the crash is only told second hand in the novel–Nick does not witness, and neither do we (the readers). I thought that flashback to the actual collision was so unnecessary and became even worse with repetition.
Amy: Exactly! It was perverse to the point of being laughable. (The eyes!)
Rachel: The eyes were a bit too literal for me.
Amy: As was the green light.
Frances: Well if it wasn’t the EYES it was GREEN LIGHT!
Marie: “Perverse to the point of being laughable” could be a good description of Nick for the whole movie!
Amy: I think that all of the nuance and lyricism of those symbols and the book in general were beaten out of the movie.
Frances: Did you guys think Leo had chemistry with Daisy/Carey?
Marie: The chemistry between Gatsby and Daisy in the movie is just what I imagined in the book, though.
Amy: Let’s be real, Leo was doing his best Big Edie. He was winning The Snatch Game.
Marie: Gatsby is pathetically in love with her and Daisy is also pathetically in love with herself.
Frances: That scene that introduced her, her fluttering and doing something weird with Jordan.
Marie: Oh man, with the sheets?
Rachel: The look of titillation on Nick’s face! Very creepy.
Marie: Did you get the impression that Nick was also weirdly in love with Daisy? More so than in the book(s)?
Frances: THAT creeped me out. Nick and Daisy’s interaction. Although I guess cousins marrying cousins was still all right in the 20s, look at the Roosevelts.
Marie: In the books, Nick becomes infatuated with Jordan.
Rachel: Jordan was irrelevant in the movie.
Frances: I appreciated Jordan’s expressions. But she wasn’t used much. I was surprised the tidbit about her cheating didn’t come up. That was a big deal for Nick in the book, no?
Rachel: It was. I think it kind of summed up all of those people for him.
Marie: They could’ve played Jordan up a bit more. She was good and it would’ve taken the heat off of Nick’s obsessions. But I also think that if he wasn’t so obsessed with Gatsby and Daisy, he probably wouldn’t be in the asylum. And let me just say that his doctor seemed to give him a lot of leeway. Why did he get to hang out in his office with that typewriter so much?!
Rachel: It gave Nick a greater power, having physically written the story.
Marie: It was probably a device to explain WHY Nick would tell the story, but it was unnecessary.
Frances: We are ganging up on Nick, deservedly, but let me just say I did laugh at his more emo scenes, like when he walked out in the rain or banged the pots in his cottage
Rachel: I still think the most disturbing scene was Nick sleeping on the stairs next to the casket
Amy: Yeah, that was totally bizarre
Frances: I got that impression from the book. That he kind of felt weirdly proud to be the only one who was there for Gatsby
Rachel: I didn’t see it as proud in the book, more like responsible, since there was no one else to be responsible for him
Marie: There should’ve been more time spent on Nick’s efforts to get people to come, more time spent on Gatsby’s actual life. I didn’t like the reporters crowding around Gatsby’s casket, fighting for a picture of him. I felt bad that no one went to his funeral in the book. I felt bad that Nick was responsible and had to take care of Gatsby’s dad, but in the movie I was like THIS IS A CIRCUS!
Frances: It’s a bit of both, but you’re right, Luhrmann just went for the ‘circus/bonanza’ aspect.
Rachel: “Circus” is exactly how I would describe the whole movie. None of the elegance of the book, none of the subtlety.
Marie: That being said, I loved the party scenes. That’s where Luhrmann’s eye was needed. They were beautiful and extravagant and colorful and I wanted to be there. The costumes were also great. The movie was really visually pleasing which is another reason why it was so disappointing that the story didn’t match up with it.
Rachel: So final verdicts? Thumbs up? Thumbs down? Both?
Amy: Thumbs firmly down
Frances: Visually stunning but it doesn’t live up to the subtlety of the book. Also, Jay-Z please stop putting all your songs in the soundtrack. And all of your wife’s songs
Marie: I’m really torn. The movie didn’t meet my expectations and it was really disappointing, BUT I really liked Leo’s performance. I’m suck in the middle! What about you, Rachel?
Rachel: I’m with Amy. Thumbs down for me, too extravagant, missed the point
*These are the opinions of the individuals who saw the film, and not the opinions of Cambridge University Press.