How Great is This Gatsby?

A review of Baz Luhrmann’s new film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

Ad Finem Fidelis…faithful to the end. Well, not exactly. These words are inscribed on Gatsby’s mansion gate and are laden with irony in relation to this film.

When a film is made of a great book, I am willing to tolerate a fair amount of artistic license, character elimination, and innovation, but messing with the principal themes of the book is verboten. To Kill a Mockingbird lost some characters and some scenes, and The Lord of the Rings took some liberties with the plot, but I consider these films to be faithful to the main themes of the Lee and Tolkien stories.

We have become so inured to action, glitz, and sensory assault that making a big budget film without a healthy dose of sensory stimuli is practically unthinkable. When such directorial innovations are confined to, say, a sledding Radagast the Brown in The Hobbit, I groan and move on, but I draw the line when stimulation defines the film, as it does with this new Gatsby, especially as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story has so much to offer.

Having said this, there are aspects of this film that are appealing and compelling, so stay tuned.

Everyone who has read The Great Gatsby, or who has seen earlier films, knows about the title character’s obsession with Daisy, and the way this obsession has changed, even defined, his life.

So far, so good. There’s a lot more to the story than this. The book explores the illusion that the purely human can satisfy our deepest yearnings, along with the assumption that brilliance and sophistication automatically produce wisdom. The book’s Gatsby may be a sphinxlike character for much of the story, but he isn’t a one-dimensional man. Fitzgerald depicted a Gatsby who used extravagance as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.  There is no equivocation in Gatsby’s decision to take the blame for something he didn’t do…ad finem fidelis. Despite his nefarious pursuits and opulent lifestyle, Fitzgerald’s Gatsby was capable of introspection.

It was reported that the director and some of the actors relied on an early version of Gatsby, a grittier and darker version, titled Trimalchio, as inspiration for this film. I haven’t read this version, but as this film is called The Great Gatsby it ought to be evaluated in relation to that story.

For me, the acting, though it has its moments, rarely soars. Leonardo DiCaprio is an adequate, but uninspired, Gatsby. He looks like the self-assured Gatsby of the book, but, ultimately, he isn’t convincing. His awkwardness and his affection for Nick ring true, and his “Good Sports” don’t come across as contrived, but a war hero? Indomitable? Someone a criminal kingpin invests with millions? Not quite.  Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway seems little more than an amanuensis for the story, and not an alter-Fitzgerald (more later). Of the other actors, only Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson, Tom Buchanan’s mistress, seems truly alive in her character.

Many of the characters in the book—Tom Buchanan, Daisy Buchanan, Jordan Baker, Buchanan’s mistress, and Meyer Wolfshiem among them—represented a “type,” but in this film that “type” is exaggerated to the level of caricature. Fitzgerald conveyed the abandon of Tom Buchanan’s New York City party, but here it is supercharged, as if all of the characters had imbibed pints of espresso before the celebration. I imagined a dark version of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves when I watched certain scenes. High-octane motorcar scenes to prepare the audience for a seminal event in the story are overcooked. We get it!

The music, old and new, is frenetic, on a par with the visual element.

One brief scene is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, affording the audience a voyeuristic peak into rooms in a New York City high-rise, but even this scene seems forced and rushed.

Baz Luhrmann depicts the Soviet vision of America, a deterministic world that dictates either the luxuries of the Island or the miserable margin between the City and the Island. Certainly, Fitzgerald’s Gatsby depicted rampant hedonism and corruption, but this film would have benefited from a dose of subtlety, less in-your-face allegory, and more space for audience reflection. More importantly, is it the margin or Island that defines the person, or is it his character, perspective, and values? This film is unconcerned with these deeper questions.

The screenplay, insofar as it puts words in the characters’ mouths, often succumbs to aphorisms designed to convey sophisticated cynicism. The film’s big scenes have a CGI look and feel: too big, too sterile, too perfect.

What did I appreciate about this film? Several scenes rise above the rest: the tea party at Nick’s cottage, where we witness the restrained pathos of Daisy and Gatsby’s reunion, and the confrontation scene in the City, where we finally get a sense of the internal conflict within Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom Buchanan. In both these scenes, the audience has the opportunity to see inside the characters. More of this would have been welcome.  The sympathy, almost friendship, between Nick and Gatsby is reasonably true to the story, especially late in the film. The Doctor Eckleburg display that looms over the working-class stretch from the Island to the City captures the zeitgeist of the book. My wish list includes more serious dialogue punctuated by strategic silence, as depicted in the tea party scene. Think of how many great movies, Casablanca and Vertigo among them, are rife with conversations that take their time, and with actors who knew how to use silence and facial/body expression to good effect.

The innovation that Luhrmann uses to convey the story to the audience is a significant departure from the book. This innovation rankled me, but was redeemed in that some of Fitzgerald’s brilliant narrative could be credibly conveyed to the audience.  A small detail: from whence does the profundity that Nick Carraway exhibits in his sanitarium composition come? There is nothing in the film that foreshadows this Fitzgeraldian talent. 

Daisy and Gatsby do not know one another; they know a creation of their imaginations that bears little resemblance to the actual person. Augustine’s prayer—“My heart is restless, and it shall not rest until it rests in Thee”—might be the overarching theme of The Great Gatsby, but this film is a product of a culture that cannot grasp this reality. Gatsby’s beau ideal does not fall apart because Daisy is weak and feckless, or because he embroils himself in shady ventures, or because he comes unglued at a critical moment. Gatsby’s ideal is bound to collapse because no human person, no matter how beautiful, strong, or good, can fill the void that exists in man for the Divine. Most who reject this existential yearning end in discouragement or cynicism. Gatsby, to his credit, never succumbs to these disorders, but his yearning for fulfillment in a person is doomed to fail. Gatsby believes, and the viewer is led to believe along with him, that he is very close to fulfilling his dream, but the truth is he is never close. Fitzgerald’s story conveys this truth, though indirectly, but this is beyond the makers of this film.

A corollary to this theme of the consequences of placing our hope in another person is the illusion of control. If our heart cannot “rest until it rests in Thee,” then controlling events, even controlling our own lives, is illusory. It is only too human to battle this inclination. All of Gatsby’s machinations are about control. On the surface, they work to near-perfection, but, just like Gatsby’s parties, are always on the verge of chaos.

Lacking any transcendent perspective, Gatsby (book and film) must equate his value as a person to what he has, to the power he wields, and to what others think of him, especially what Daisy thinks of him, all dead ends.

How much of this did Fitzgerald himself “get”? Based on the author’s life, some would say he didn’t get it at all, but the historical facts of a person’s life don’t always correspond to deeply held beliefs, and the battle he wages with conflicting desires. Insofar as he describes the dire consequences of Gatsby’s beau ideal and illusions, Fitzgerald is spot on.  

Sound and fury signifying what? If you see this film, make a point of reading, or re-reading, the book. Though lacking the auditory and visual intensity of the film, the book has depth and breadth this film can’t match, speaking to disordered human desire and where it takes us; true then, and true now.

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About Thomas M. Doran 82 Articles
Thomas M. Doran is the author of the Tolkien-inspired Toward the Gleam (Ignatius Press, 2011), The Lucifer Ego, and Kataklusmos (2020). He has worked on hundreds of environmental and infrastructure projects, was president of Tetra Tech/MPS, was an adjunct professor of engineering at Lawrence Technological University, and is a member of the College of Fellows of The Engineering Society of Detroit.