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By Melynda Nuss

LOS ANGELES, 31 MAY 2013 — Baz Luhrmann sure knows how to throw a party. His Great Gatsby is full of feathers and jewels, billowing curtains and red flocked wallpaper. His camera swerves and dives like a teenager who has just discovered martinis. Fringe dresses shake, motorcars race. Dancers perform impromptu Busby Berkley numbers. Champagne bottles explode.

One of the things that has made F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel an American classic is its ability to let its readers enjoy the party and moralize about it afterwards.Tom and Daisy Buchanan are miserable people: brutal, careless and entitled. Jordan Baker is hard and cynical, Gatsby self-deluded and possibly criminal. At the end of the book, Nick Carraway returns to the wholesome midwest, where hard work and virtue carry the day. Beauty dies unloved and unmourned. The Jazz Age is over. 

Even so, it is difficult to find anyone who remembers the book that way.   Where other novels condemn wealth all the way through – Sinclair Lewis’s satire Babbitt, published in 1922, just three years before Gatsby, is a good example – The Great Gatsby is a riot of girls coming and going like moths in the moonlight, shirts with stripes and scrolls in coral and apple-green, the racy, adventurous feel of New York on a hot summer night, Daisy Buchanan’s rapturous voice. Fitzgerald’s society might be damned, but it is beautiful. 

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby and Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway
Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures

It is true that Luhrmann’s trashy, tacky adaptation is short on the morals.  Instead of returning to the midwest, Luhrmann and his screenwriter Craig Pearce have him recovering from morbid alcoholism in a sanitorium. As he writes the world outside turns from winter to spring – marking the only time in recorded history that writing has cured alcoholism rather than causing it. While this invention doesn’t do much for the book’s theme or Nick’s character, it does provide a wonderful way of getting Fitzgerald’s words onscreen – often literally, with letters emerging out of the fog like exceptionally articulate alphabet soup. It sounds silly – and to some extent it is. But Luhrmann and Pearce rightly recognize that the strength of the original Gatsby lies in its language – in party guests twinkling hilariously across the lawn, or Gatsby listening to the sound of a tuning fork that had been struck upon a star as Daisy’s white face comes up for a kiss. It is difficult to preserve language like that in a film, but Luhrmann does.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan
Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway and Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan
Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures

Indeed, Luhrmann’s adaptation brings out some interesting points about this American classic. For Americans themselves are tacky. One of the book’s major conflicts is between East Egg and West Egg: between the cool, effortless elegance of old money and the trashy, over-the-top pretensions of the nouveau riches. One might think of Jack Clayton’s 1974 adaptation, which starred Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, as an East Egg adaptation. Done in a crisp palate of cool white linen, the film launched Ralph Lauren’s career as a clothing designer. Luhrmann’s adaptation is decidedly West Egg. It moves too fast.  It tries too hard. But isn’t that Fitzgerald’s America? It is the tasteful East Eggers who move on carelessly, who treat human life as having no dignity, who retreat and let other people clean up the mess they’ve made. The West Eggers may be tasteless and borderline criminal, but their hope and energy are generous and inclusive. At one point Fitzgerald gives his readers a list of the people who came to Gatsby’s house in the summer: East Eggers, West Eggers, and theatrical people, gamblers and heiresses to tobacco fortunes, criminals, show girls, and the head of the American Legion. Everyone came to Gatsby’s house, and they came with a simplicity of heart that was its own ticket of admission. 

The Great Gatsby
Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures

Luhrmann’s film enacts this tacky, overreaching inclusiveness in ways both big and small. The film is slavishly faithful to a classic work of literature – almost to the point of being a scene-by-scene remake – but it includes low-culture, high-tech elements like 3D technology and computer-generated imagery. Its soundtrack includes Gershwin, Beyoncé and André 3000.  Its brand-name stars put in stunning performances – Leonardo di Caprio plays Gatsby with a strange mix of innocence and menace that perfectly suits Fitzgerald’s enigmatic hero, and Carey Mulligan gives an equally complex and conflicted Daisy Buchanan. But fans of the book are equally likely to remember Owl Eyes and Klipspringer the boarder, and anyone could appreciate the way Jason Clarke breathes life into the shell character that is George Wilson. Everyone is invited to this party, and while the juxtapositions might sometimes be jarring, they can also create moments of genius. My favorite was a tiny set piece that occurred as Gatsby and Carraway were driving over the Queensboro Bridge.  In the book, "a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl."  Nick "laughed aloud" as "the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry." In Luhrmann’s hands, the scene becomes a  clever 1920’s parody of a rap video, with elegantly-dressed negroes in an open car, sipping champagne from a fully-stocked ice chest of Moet & Chandon. "Haughty rivalry" indeed!  Step aside, Tom Buchanan. In Gatsby’s tacky world, everyone comes to the party.

The Great Gatsby
Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures

Even so, it would be nice to see some awareness of wealth and its problems. Luhrmann does include some chaotic scenes in the bond market – a suggestion, perhaps, that Gatsby’s world is not on stable footing. But the Valley of Ashes, where the hoi polloi live, is too picturesque. It’s a Walker Evans photo of the Great Depression – poor, perhaps, but clean and respectable. Those eyes on the billboard aren’t the judgement of God. They barely make it into the trailer.

What we get in exchange is new life poured into an old classic. Books get onto the required reading list because they are full of life and passion. Too often the passion is drained out of them by years of object lessons and hastily-written book reports. Luhrmann’s adaptation might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But if a few more students write their book reports with Lana del Rey’s song stuck in their heads, that’s all right with me.

Melynda Nuss is a writer and an Associate Professor of Romantic Literature and Drama at the University of Texas - Pan American.  A regular contributor to Culturekiosque, she last reviewed Lincoln

Headline image: Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby
Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures

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