The Great Gatsby: Dating the Timeless
By Priscilla Lynn Gonzalez
Taking place in America’s crazed and beautiful Jazz Age, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby critiques selfish naivety, desperation, excess and decadence and the idealistic “American Dream.” The cautionary tale is told by Nick Carraway, new neighbor to Jay Gatsby, our mysterious millionaire protagonist. Shortly after his arrival, Nick is invited to have dinner with his cousin, Daisy Buchanan, her wealthy brute of a husband, Tom, and their friend, Jordan Baker. It is through Jordan that Nick learns about Tom’s mistress, Myrtle, and the motive for Jay Gatsby’s elaborateness: to capture the attention of his long lost love, Daisy, and be reunited with her. With Jordan and Nick’s help, Daisy and Jay rekindle their love. Unfortunately, their happiness is cut short when Tom finds out about their affair and Jay is wrongfully accused of murdering Myrtle.
My feelings were completely torn when I first saw the previews for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. Although I knew it would be an accurate portrayal with an amazing cast, I couldn’t picture myself falling in love with Jay Gatsby while 3D images of confetti surrounded me and executive producer Jay-Z rapped in the background. Moreover, I was afraid Fitzgerald’s characters and symbolism wouldn’t shine through but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The same characters that conjured up such strong emotions in me years ago were suddenly brought to life. Fitzgerald paints an incredibly cool yet humble Jay Gatsby, but Leonardo DiCaprio takes it one step further by revealing a realistic vulnerability.
Tobey Maguire puts away his Spiderman suit and portrays Nick Carraways’s disgust with American society with ease and his loyalty to Jay is completely heartfelt. Carey Mulligan depicts the vain and naive Daisy Buchanan so adorably it’s difficult to hate her even when she’s breaking our protagonist’s heart. Lastly, Joel Edgerton’s embodiment of Tom Buchanan made it difficult to picture him as anything but a womanizing polo player who would probably be great friends with The Situation. The overarching theme of love and the decline and rise of American greed and idealism is ever present thanks to Luhrmann’s use of Fitzgerald’s memorable symbols – the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, the Valley of Ashes, and the eyes of Doctor TJ Eckleburg.
Although The Great Gatsby is an amazing adaptation of the novel, there were few instances that dated the film and took away from the novel’s narrative. First and foremost was Luhrmann’s use of over-the-top special effects. The scenery mimicked Disney and Pixar films so much that I swore a cartoon princess with seven dwarves would make a cameo somewhere. The film’s second miss was the narrative’s pacing. Luhrmann rushes to give the audience so much back story in the first forty minutes that it ultimately hurt the story’s unfolding. The inconsistent and bipolar soundtrack was another malfunction that took away from the film’s aesthetics. The completely unnecessary scene where Jay and Nick drive past African Americans drinking in a convertible blasting Jay-Z left me more confused than most calculus classes.
Another disappointment was Jordan Baker’s character (played very suavely by Elizabeth Debicki). In the novel, Fitzgerald depicts her as Nick’s source of information and love interest. She is flirtatious, arrogant and fits perfectly in the “rotten crowd.” However, Luhrmann shrank her role to an apathetic golfer that gossips. The character was overall extremely underutilized and hardly portrayed as the catalyst she is in the novel.
Alas, Luhrmann’s final sin was his depiction of Jay Gatsby’s funeral services. In the novel, despite Nick’s numerous phone calls, Nick, Gatsby’s father and a few servants are the only attendants. Jay’s father’s presence gave me the smallest amount of closure I could ask for. However, as if the tale doesn’t end tragically enough, Luhrmann makes Carraway the only funeral attendant thus taking away Gatsby’s only means of redemption from his desperate determination to have Daisy.
Looking back on The Great Gatsby’s six film adaptations, ranging from 1926 to 2013, none were really able to capture the timeless essence Fitzgerald paints on every page. Luhrmann’s heavy use of current trends and technology, like the hip hop film score and special effects, dated the story. While it did appeal to and draw in the current generation, I don’t know if it will appeal to generations to come. It is impossible to completely succeed at adapting a timeless literary classic to film but Luhrmann made an exceptional attempt. The Great Gatsby earned a solid “B” in my book.