When I first read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in my sophomore high school English class, I fell in love with it, somewhere among the seductive syntax of this sentence: “A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags.” Upon entering the prose a second time, through Baz Luhrman’s ostentatious spectacle, I experienced a similar infatuation with Daisy’s initial appearance: a single hand and a glittering ring hovering in the sheer elegance of those curtains.
Since viewing the film, I’ve read many reviews and discussed the pros and cons with many literarily inclined friends. The accumulation of intensely negative responses has me almost convinced that my love and enjoyment of the movie is an unwitting betrayal of my dear expatriates and my very reputation as a serious reader. Upon further reflection though, I stand by my initial fascination and fortunately, I haven’t heard Fitzgerald rolling in his grave quite yet.
Just as Fitzgerald wrote to one of his Princeton friends upon the publication of his masterpiece, “of all the reviews…not one knew what the book was about,” it seems to me that in their fruitless scramble for minute theatrical accuracy, most critics have overlooked the central ideology behind the vivid, incoherent chaos of Luhrman’s vision.
As a veteran lover of all things Fitzgerald, I walked into the theater with my very own inflexible version of the classic (Why the hell is our generation so obsessed with frame narratives? Was R&B so prevalent in the Jazz Age? Why is every memory tinted in gold?), but after the last credit had rolled and I had re-read the text through Baz Luhrman’s kaleidoscope glasses, I had gained a few new insights into Gatsby’s timeless and incorruptible dream.
The New Yorker’s David Denby rejected any and all attempts at transferring the story to film, declaring that “The book is too intricate, too subtle, too tender for the movies,” but as audacious as it may be for me to disagree with an expert, what’s more suited to the screen than literature’s best actor, Jay Gatsby? DiCaprio’s Gatsby expressed perfectly the subtle genius of reflected identity and the power that a smile of immediate understanding holds in diverting the questioning gaze of others inward. Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of Daisy captured the mingling of naivety, constructed indifference, and a pure lack of self-awareness which when combine, transform her into the simultaneously seductive and repulsive heroine she portrays.
Baz finds the pulse of truth in the midst of his synthetic visual cacophony. Unlike his earlier works Romeo & Juliet and Moulin Rouge, which present love as a universal antidote to life’s emptiness, this adaptation portrays love as yet another illusory symptom. The cure becomes instead the illusion itself. There’s little hope in this particular vision, despite Nick’s numerous assertions to the contrary as he gazes broodily out the sanitarium window. While there were many gaps between Luhrman’s version and my own beloved interpretations (as there will always inevitably be), I could perceive the loving precision of his choices and all the gears turning to bring the glittering palimpsest of superficiality to dazzling realization. Beyond the gallons of champagne and the elaborate marble facades, there lies resounding and astonishing compassion: compassion for the futile hope of Gatsby’s dream and compassion for the weakness and corruption of humanity. Enough compassion to fill the void left by careless people.