My literary romance with The Great Gatsby dates back a decade when I was studying literature as an undergraduate. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lyrical prose wooed me. And his control of language and syntax continues to knock my socks off with each reading. His articulation of the seductive qualities of the American Experience is unmatched. The plot is meticulous. Characters deeply imagined.
No other book calls me back like Gatsby.
I can’t imagine my life as a reader, writer, or American without this condensed masterpiece.
So imagine my thrill and horror when I heard Baz Luhrmann was making my Gatsby into a movie. I love Luhrmann’s interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, but honestly, I don’t feel a deep connection with what many call one of Shakespeare’s inferior tragedies.
This is Gatsby we’re talking about!
I planned to see the film on opening day. But that day came and went without a visit to the theater. I was stalling. What if it was such a Baz Luhrmann film — so over-the-damn-top, so strange and artificial — that I wouldn’t be able to recognize the story I’ve played in the cinema of my mind for years? What if somehow, his interpretation spoiled the novel for me? What then? The world sometimes feels so devoid of greatness, what if I lost the magic of Gatsby?
Since I refer to the novel ad noseum in my literature and creative writing classes, students began asking me what I thought of the film. At the behest of my students and my desire to join the larger discussion of the world of East and West Egg, I went to a Sunday matinee.
First, Mr. Luhrmann, may I thank you for leaving much of our beloved Gatsby in tact.
Most reviews of the film have focused on what Luhrmann did wrong, so I’ll focus on what he did right. And there’s a lot to laud here.
Visually, this movie must be seen on the big screen. The mansions, the parties, the cars, the juxtaposition between the Eggs, the Valley of Ashes, and Manhattan — they’re all fully realized in this film. I didn’t find them gratuitously enlarged just for the sake of masturbatory film making like I feared. Gatsby’s parties are grotesque and hyperbolic in the novel as a way to get the attention of Daisy across the Sound. For a kid who grew up in a small house in rural Vermont, my imagination welcomed Luhrmann’s representation of Jazz Age, pre-Depression gluttony.
Where the hell did Joel Edgerton come from? His work as Tom Buchanan was brilliant. His mustache was sculpted and douchey. The physicality of Edgerton’s performance was spot on with Fitzgerald’s Buchanan. Edgerton enters the film riding a polo horse, jumps off the horse, runs upon landing, and jostles Nick Carroway around like a paper doll as he speaks his first lines. In a letter to Maxwell Perkins dated December 20, 1924, only months before the novel was published, Fitzgerald writes, “I suppose [Tom Buchanan’s] the best character I’ve ever done.” Fitzgerald even discussed the idea of letting Buchanan dominate the book. What Fitzgerald saw in the vitality of this character, we see on the screen as Edgerton’s performance nearly allows him to dominate the film.
In the same letter mentioned above, Fitzgerald tells Perkins, “But Gatsby sticks in my heart.” And after watching Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in Baz Luhrmann’s film, Gatsby will stick deeply in our twenty-first century hearts. DiCaprio was brilliant as Gatsby. Yeah. I said it. Brilliant! I’ve always ached for Gatsby as he works to obtain his dream of a life with Daisy Buchanan, filled with infinite hope. But my connection to Gatsby has been mainly intellectual. DiCaprio made me feel Gatsby at a guttural level. I teared up as Leo spoke the words I’ve read over and over: “‘Can’t repeat the past,’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!” Gatsby is the ever-desperate man played out to the fullest degree possible. He’s an endless well of hope and humanity’s short-sightedness, and DiCaprio breathes life into this paradox.
I’ll leave it at that. The film is true to the book’s vision. It does have its faults. But Fitzgerald’s lyricism can be heard throughout the film, and that’s something I most feared would be marred by Luhrmann’s manic movie-making style. It wasn’t. I’m grateful.
The new film blows the anemic Robert Redford Gatsby out of this hemisphere. If anything, this movie has taken my love affair with Fitzgerald’s story to a new level.