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The Great Gatsby: What Responsibility Does A Filmmaker Have to the Book?

The Great Gatsby
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Written by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce from the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Warner Bros., 2013

One of the biggest complaints fans of a book or book series have when it comes to the movie adaptation is that something that was their favorite gets cut, or something is changed that seemingly didn’t need to be, in addition to a series of other issues.  The flip side to this coin is that the movie can’t possibly be like the book in every way.   Where this is immediately apparent is in the books that are almost all first-person narration, like The Great Gatsby, and the great white whale of never-filmed adaptations, The Catcher in the Rye.  “Unfilmable” books are like that: descriptions and thoughts more than dialogue or situations.  They don’t lend themselves to movies, which are visually oriented.

Baz Luhrmann attempted an ambitious adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet back in 1996, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.  It was a quintessential 90’s movie, and tremendously bold: it had a perspective, excitingly filmed, taking liberties all the while by setting it in the modern day but still, for the most part, keeping true to the story.  Not everyone loved it, and that’s understandable.  It would lead into Luhrmann’s best picture, Moulin Rouge, perhaps so good because it didn’t have previous material in which to compare it.  Luhrmann has always been good with visuals, way over-the-top, but fits the stories.  The Great Gatsby is filmed with a little of Luhrmann’s panache, but it is too conscious of who it might piss off to take many liberties, and therefore becomes too straightforward and boring to be a total success.

Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is a Yale grad taking on the life of a bond salesman.  He’s moved to a curiously small house in West Egg, Long Island, stuck in the middle of much bigger mansions, including next door to the mysterious Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio).  Gatsby invites Nick to one of his massive, lavish parties and the two strike up a friendship.  Gatsby recognizes Nick’s could-be girlfriend Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki, looking strikingly like Zooey Deschanel) from long ago, knowing that she’s friends with a love he lost long ago, Nick’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan).  Nick finds himself setting up a reunion with Gatsby and Daisy, a romance that was strong 5 years ago but was lost to World War I and Gatsby’s discomfort with being a poor farmer from the Midwest.  Daisy went on to marry the wealthy Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), Nick’s fellow Yale grad who has a little something on the side, Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), who is married to auto mechanic George Wilson (Jason Clarke).

Obviously, with so many illicit romances being struck, conflict arises around Nick, who in the famous opening passage of the book was told by his father not to judge anyone.  And despite referring to himself as the “most honest person he knows” he finds himself having to keep his mouth shut about a lot of secrets.  How this conflict comes to a head is that of classic drama.  But one of the major plot points of the book, and now of this movie, is one of the most contrived “let’s create something small that leads to something huge” moments in literature: a simple switching of cars that proves to be the turning point of the whole story.  I’ve heard a decent explanation for this moment: that Buchanan’s insistence on driving Gatsby’s car, and allowing Gatsby to drive Buchanan’s coupe with Daisy in it is a way for Buchanan to tell Gatsby, “You can drive my car and sleep with my wife but you’re still not one of us.”  But the fact is, because Gatsby doesn’t know what Buchanan knows, I can’t see that lesson being taught here.  And it leads to a series of events that are illogical.

Luhrmann’s straightforward adaptation looks pretty but it ends up being rather dull.  And when trying to adhere to the source material so faithfully, there are moments where Tobey Maguire has to narrate just so that some choice Fitzgerald passages can be read for the movie.  Leonardo DiCaprio is getting quite a bit of good notice for his turn as Gatsby but I felt like he’s out of place in this movie, even though I can’t imagine many other people who could take on this role.  Although we’ve seen DiCaprio in a lot of period pieces over the years with the likes of Gangs of New York, J. Edgar, Django Unchained, The Aviator, and Titanic, his attempt at a 1920’s man of means seems a little awkward, especially when he’s repeating that famous “old sport,” pleasantry from the book.

Many fans of the book will be delighted to see that almost every action from the book is in the movie.  It doesn’t make it a great movie, though.  It definitely needs something more, and finding a way to develop the characters would have helped, even if it meant adding things not explicitly mentioned by the book.  I feel like Nick loses the most here, especially since its his first-person narration that guides the book and lets you in to his psyche.  In the end…it’s OK.

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