The new interpretation of “The Great Gatsby” was highly anticipated by English nerds like me everywhere. The appeal was much broader than that, however. All of the former and current high school students who were assigned the novel as a reading were drawn in by a flashy new star studded movie. I was beyond excited to find the theater full of young people when I went to see the movie for the first time. Getting young people truly excited about literature is a feat sometimes.
The box offices reflected this popularity against the many projections that the movie wouldn’t have a large appeal. What is the draw of this classic, then? What has made it a staple in American literature and now on the silver screen?
“The Great Gatsby” was not a hit right away. Some people don’t realize that F. Scott Fitzgerald was pretty unrecognized during his lifetime. “The Great Gatsby” was a flop. Nobody gave it any credit, but today we nearly worship the book as a masterpiece for capturing America in the 1920’s.
Baz Lurhmann’s interpretation of the book is elaborate, overdone and luxurious. It’s loud and wild and heart wrenching. It is this same essence that we find in Fitzgerald’s work. The crazy filming style and mix of old and new that has characterized Lurhmann’s movies (like his “Romeo and Juliet” interpretation) was perfect for this story, exemplifying the era described in Fitzgerald’s novel.
A couple of big changes happened, however. Lurhmann used a framing device (of Nick Carraway writing his story down in a mental institution) to set up the narration. It had mixed results, allowing him to use a lot of the beautifully poetic language from the book. Because the aesthetic beauty of Fitzgerald’s writing is my favorite part of “The Great Gatsby,” I appreciated that aspect of the movie. A couple of changes were made to his words, especially at the famous last paragraph, which was a little disappointing. Does a scriptwriter really think he/she is better that Fitzgerald? Well, that is not the case.
The framing device also allowed us to see the large emotional impact that Gatsby had on Carraway. The idea that he ended up in some sort of institution as a result of his mental trauma, however, is completely outside of the original text. It does highlight unreliability in Carraway’s character, but it also changes the story a little more than some purists like.
Also, a huge difference in this portrayal was inconsistencies with the time period. This was most noticeable in the soundtrack with a large amount of rap via Jay-Z. An interesting modern parallel can be drawn from the use of rap suggesting that rap culture captures the same sort of opulent American dream that Gatsby and the other characters were chasing throughout the novel. It’s a bit clunky in places, however. The sudden shock of hearing rap music and seeing modern party scenes with 1920s language and dress was too much for some.
There is no doubt that Lurhmann captured something wild, which is probably close to what modern day readers imagine in their heads. Though some found these inconsistencies to be negatively jarring, I found them just shocking enough to capture the feel of the novel, even if they were incorrect.
Characterization, however, was great. Every character was just likeable enough to keep watching while retaining the truly unlikeable characteristics each one has. Even Gatsby’s affected accent adds to the sense that he is only pretending to be sophisticated. What was that accent supposed to be anyways? At moments it was hard to look at Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Mcguire and not see them as actors playing characters because of their prominent previous roles, but it’s unlikely that unknown actors could have handled the roles.
Overall this was by far the best representation of “The Great Gatsby” that’s ever been created. Was it perfect? No, but I’ve never met a book movie that was. Some of the director’s experimentation could be seen as too much, although it only added to the movie for me in terms of essence rather than literality. I left the theater a little teary and very excited about the original literature, and that’s what book movies should do.