“The Great Gatsby” is an emphatically faithful adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel not so much in plot, but in spirit. Writer/director Baz Luhrmann remains true to the text in terms that make its source material instantly recognizable: the 1920s setting, the cast of characters, the arch of the melancholy story. But it’s only by Luhrmann’s infusing the proceedings with contemporary touches such as fast editing, a Jay-Z toting soundtrack, and a modern (yet essentially timeless) sense of shallow debauchery that the film succeeds as an adaptation.
With that in mind, Luhrmann’s portrayal of ’20s New York, with its nouveau riche in West Egg and old money bastards in East Egg, renders the setting as one that’s not just relatable intellectually, but much more importantly, viscerally. Audiences would doubtlessly understand the thrill of a fast car ride or the scope of one of Gatsby’s lavish parties even if these were depicted with the utmost fidelity to the novel, but by framing such moments with regard for audience expectations of what thrills in cinema today, Luhrmann makes the material not just palatable, but exciting. Several moments are downright exhilarating, such as when Gatsby threads his blindingly bright yellow car at insane speeds through traffic without a care for safety, and the lurid, drunken night that narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) spends with Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and Tom’s mistress Myrtle (Isla Fisher). In addition, Gatsby’s celebrations pulsate with a dangerous energy—social embraces of wealth and pleasure that could enthrall an entire city—even if they are aimed squarely at one woman.
If Luhrmann captures the essence of glorious but hedonistic impulse perfectly, he does nearly as well with the ultimately sorrowful romantic pursuits of the eponymous Jay Gatsby, played in a bit of semi-controversial casting by Leonard DiCaprio. The actor proves ideal for the character precisely because he seems slightly ill-fitted for the role; he’s not an imposing, masculine, grand figure, but an insecure man of vast resources trying his best to be one, which is the essence of the original Gatsby. Even as his optimism inspires Nick, Gatsby proves to be very much a poseur, albeit a sympathetic one, a man stricken with incurable drive and optimism that leads him to an unfortunate end. Few actors, through either iconography or talent, could realize the balance between Gatsby’s look, attitude, and vulnerability as DiCaprio manages to. Here’s a character whose most admirable traits prove to be his Achilles’ heel, undoing him as he can’t accept the grim truth about others.
The rest of the cast also succeed. Maguire’s gentle Everyman persona works well at capturing Nick’s growing astonishment and then discontent. Carey Mulligan’s Daisy manages to be a vessel for the kind of beauty and surface appeal that so captivates Gatsby. Just as Gatsby’s wealth masks his longing and noble spirit, Daisy’s conceals vapidity and indifference to others, and Mulligan captures that superficial beauty that brings the film’s central figure to his knees. Edgerton doesn’t always seem appropriately patrician, playing the blue-blooded Tom as somewhat of a hot engine, but his malevolence is roiling slightly beneath the surface.
Luhrmann makes apt use of the novel’s memorable imagery, which is among literature’s best use of words to conjure visualizations out of dreamscapes. Of particular note is the green light at the end of the Buchanans’ dock, a symbol of Gatsby’s yearning, and the valley of ashes, a near-apocalyptic landscape where the follies of the rich have their deadliest consequences.
Luhrmann’s primary misstep is an invented framework, one that places Nick into a mental institution, where the story unfurls as his confession to a psychiatrist. This narrative device overplays Luhrmann’s auteurial hand, telegraphing tragedy to the audience on a level that’s perhaps not earned. Gatsby’s fall might have robbed Nick of his optimism, but did it strip him of sanity, driving him to alcoholism? I think few would argue it did.
But when “The Great Gatsby” is interpreting Fitzgerald’s work more closely, even with contemporary touches, the film is stellar and with broad appeal. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that younger audiences have turned the movie into a hit, one that has thrived at the box office across from more lucrative, brain-dead adaptations such as “Iron Man 3” and “Star Trek Into Darkness.” After all, “The Great Gatsby” comes from writings a scant 40 years or so older than both of those (albeit with no updates), while also benefiting from having been taught to approximately every other American high school student. Certainly, people of all ages have read and cherished the text, but ask yourself, who is more likely to have the book fresh in their memories: an individual aged 18 or 50?
Luhrmann understands what makes “The Great Gatsby” a great text, with its innate sadness over lost optimism, the perpetual yearning of those noble in spirit. By modernizing the tone, the filmmaker crystallizes the novel’s appeal for the iPod generation.