Will You Still Love Me When I’m No Longer Endorsed By Critics?: Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby and the Incorruptible Dream

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.

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10 responses to “Will You Still Love Me When I’m No Longer Endorsed By Critics?: Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby and the Incorruptible Dream

  1. I’m stalking your blog, Miranda. Anywho, I completely agree with your analysis of Luhrmann’s adaption. As soon as the credits rolled I knew that I loved the movie, despite the many negative reviews I had read prior to seeing it. Not to mention the immediately negative reaction of many just after it had been announced that Luhrmann would be directing! I heard criticism that Luhrmann betrayed the spirit of the book with his trademark over-the-top style and modern music, and even while sitting in the theater I found myself disagreeing with these criticisms. First, percentage-wise the parties actually take up very little screen time. Second, the modern soundtrack, besides being good stand-alone music in its own right, has lyrics specifically written for the movie.

    Furthermore, I had read the novel for a second time just before seeing the movie, and I was pleasantly surprised at how close the movie follows the book–so many lines were lifted directly from the prose!

    While I disagree with criticisms of Baz’s aesthetic, the one criticism of the film that I do have is that it over-romanticizes Daisy and Gatsby’s relationship. One of my favorite of Luhrmann’s directorial abilities is his ability to handle romance, his ability to create this magical feeling of destiny and love that can win over even cynics like me. While this works great during the majority of the movie (you try not following in love to that Lana Del Rey song), the ending jolted me. Gatsby’s death is a typical tragedy in that it could have been avoided. However, I think the film had too much sympathy for these “careless people”. In the film, when Nick Carraway scrawls “The Great” before the title of his novel, it’s meant to give you a sense of the enormous tragedy of Gatsby’s death, when really he doesn’t deserve the level of sympathy given to him.

    None of that last paragraph probably made sense, but in short I did love the movie with the one criticism that it made the audience root for Gatsby and Daisy too much, when their relationship really isn’t deserving of the Romeo and Juliet level of tragedy that Baz gives it.

    • YES! Blog stalking is always welcome, especially when you agree with me! 😛 In all seriousness though, I’m relieved that I’m not the only one who’s bothered enough by the film’s reception to monologue. I could talk about this for hours!
      I had a similarly pleasant experience with the re-reading of Gatsby- I was about half-way through it when I saw the film, and upon completing it shortly afterwards, I was astonished at how closely the script reflected Fitzgerald’s original words. So much so that I wondered if the guy who wrote the review in NC News&Observer that I had read that morning, who criticized the film as being nothing like the novel, had actually ever read the novel. Skeptical.
      When I first heard that Baz was slotted to direct, the quality of his that made me hold my breath until its release is his ability to create these vast artificial worlds and to simultaneously deconstruct until all that’s left is a grain of profound reality. When paired with Gatsby’s parties and the glorious Eggs, where no one leaves until everyone is disillusioned with the Jazz Age as a whole, where everything is beautiful but nothing is true except Gatsby’s nostalgic illusions, I thought perfect match. However, Luhrman’s capacity to romanticize is equally impressive (I mean, the guy can construct the most famous love story of all time around a bunch of trigger-happy sunburnt thugs in Hawaiian shirts and it still works. Prowess) and dangerous in terms of Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship, Baz appears to fall into the same trap that Gatsby himself does in idealizing to a fault (Side note: LANA DEL REY *drool* THAT SONG IS PERFECTION). Three things about their relationship that worked, in my opinion, were the shirt-tossing scene, the awkward, staged meet and greet at Nick’s cottage in rhat God-awful suit, and Gatsby’s monologue about how he knew it was a mistake for a man like him to fall in love (I can’t. Tell me you did not get shivers. Such an eloquent way of saying, “Hey I know I’m screwed, but wtf/ Let’s do this whole star-crossed lovers thing”). Praise the lord that Baz deigned to capture that pastel rainbow of dress shirts rain down prosperity from the balcony. First of all, it was deliciously fun to watch and one of the only genuinely light-hearted moments not burdened with glorious purpose in their relationship. Second of all, I love how perfectly Daisy throws that light-heartedness out the window by weeping over the most beautiful shirts she’s ever seen. It’s one of my favorite moments from the novel.
      The intense sympathy for Gatsby and the careless people that you speak of, which admittedly vastly outweighs his allotted portion in the novel, stems from two theoretical alterations in the film. The first is Luhrman’s seemingly very slight adjustment to leave Gatsby’s funeral unattended, which made all the difference to Nick’s swan song to the most hopeful man he ever knew. Fitzgerald’s version, in which Gatsby’s father arrives, highlights the inevitably negative side of the dreamer: the discarding of what one already possesses in the pursuit of an ideal that never existed, a quality which attributes loneliness to self-destruction rather than the world’s misunderstanding and under appreciation. The second is that the Joel Egerton and Carey Mulligan did too great a job inhabiting their characters- and it’s impossible to truly hate someone when you see them as they see themselves. Sure, I absolutely loved to hate Tom with his over-masculine rages and racist comments, but his cowardly and pitifully moving performance in the garage as he mourns Myrtle, comforts George with the realization of his own grief and the strangeness of the situation dawns in his slightly teary eyes…the hatred ceases for a moment. Suddenly, the mistake he’s about to make that will cost an innocent man his life is pardoned, justified, in his single moment of remorse and human comprehension. The same goes with Carey’s portrayal of Daisy. In the novel, as she spiels about her unhappy life amongst a stroll in her extensive gardens, the reader is granted a window into Nick’s distrust. But in the film, she makes her famous “beautiful little fool” with a wistful, doe-eyed longing for a world where she might become something more creeping into her whisper. Instead of allotting her cynicism and bitterness to manipulation or self-pity, we begin to imagine that in such a world as she longs for Daisy might be more than a beautiful, little fool. That she merely plays the part she has been cast into as a rich woman in the 1920s. Once again, Baz has successfully allotted blame for these personal character flaws to his favorite tragic scapegoat, circumstance.
      So, in short, I absolutely agree that the sympathy is invoked strongly and equally undeserved. But that in itself is almost astonishing that we believed in their relationship in the moment, even as we knew the inevitable ending, with the intense fervor of Gatsby’s faith.

  2. I loved the green lights and shooting stars. Didn’t find it cheesy, but perfectly demonstrates Gatsby’s yearnings and his “descent” into being “just a man”.

    • Absolutely, green lights all the way. I’m still obsessed with Florence and the Machine’s references in “Over the Love.” It’s one of the most iconic symbols in literature…I don’t see how he could have resisted or even why he should!

  3. The Great Gatsby has long been a favorite of mine. I admit I was shocked when I heard that the movie had really negative reviews. I loved it, I thought it really captured the spirit of the novel. It’s big, and loud, and colorful, and overwhelming, and that’s the point. You have all this spectacle that Baz is flooding you with, and it creates this gorgeous contrast to the melancholy, poignant, subtle undertones going on. I thought Leo DiCaprio was inspired as Gatsby, he sold the whole thing for me. I’m glad I’m not the only literature lover who loved the movie, too!

    • Me too! The contrast between Baz’s vibrant superficiality and the profundity of the subject matter was one of my favorite things about the film. It’s definitely revived and refreshed my love of Fitzgerald. Re-reading The Great Gatsby just wasn’t enough. I’ve moved to a collection of early essays now and still not over all the gorgeous lyricism that Baz captured perfectly! 🙂

  4. This movie was amazing. I loved it, like I have liked most of Luhrman’s work. Sadly, I have not read the book, but I plan to now that I have seen the movie.

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