In every external way, Baz Luhrmann has made the fourth big-screen film of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The title remains the same. The central characters from the novel appear. The novel’s major plot points are all there.
But the essence of Fitzgerald’s novel, its subtlety, seems to have been lost in the translation.
Fitzgerald’s novel is a masterpiece of indirection and elusiveness. Its story is told not directly, but through a narrator, Nick Carraway, who is not a protagonist but a bystander. The events he recounts span nearly a decade, but we are present for just three months of action; everything else takes place off stage. We do not see Gatsby arrive on Long Island and we do not see his death or even hear the gunshot that kills him.
The narrative scrim that Fitzgerald places between the events and the reader is not just a plot device but an essential part of the book’s enduring appeal, its mystery and unknowability.
Luhrmann fills in the blanks, and then some. “In the melodramatic mode,” writes Prof. Peter Brooks, an academic scholar of melodrama, “everything must be stated, overstated, given a clear articulation.”
For example, as if a voiceover narrator for a drama might, without dramatic and visual referents, confuse the audience, Luhrmann opens the movie with Carraway committing his recollections to paper. We see him typing, and even see typewritten words supered on-screen as we hear them spoken.
An impromptu party at an extra-marital hideaway apartment, attended in the book by a half-dozen people, becomes in Luhrmann’s telling a jam-packed bacchanalian orgy. When the narration refers figuratively to Gatsby reaching out to Daisy’s home across the bay, Luhrmann shows him lifting his hand and extending his arm—literally reaching out. Later, when Gatsby points to the sky to tell Carraway his aspiration in life, a shooting star appears on cue. Nothing is immune from this kind of excess. Gatsby’s mansion, described in the book as an “imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy” becomes a gigantic castle that King Ludwig II of Bavaria might have envied.
Excess is, of course, Baz Luhrmann’s trademark and having purchased the rights to The Great Gatsby he is entitled to employ it as he likes. He used it to make Romeo and Juliet; if Shakespeare is not immune, Fitzgerald certainly isn’t. But by turning a delicately cut, highly polished diamond of a story into an overblown, overwrought and oversaturated extravaganza, he has discarded what makes Gatsby Gatsby and turned a great drama into an over-produced melodrama.
Luhrmann’s cascade of excess even obscures his most important contribution to the genre of Gatsby films, his recognition of the story’s contemporary relevance. The 1949 version, (available on YouTube) which starred Alan Ladd, and the 1974 version starring Robert Redford, both treated Gatsby as a period piece. The Ladd film devoted a three-minute opening montage to setting its story twenty years in the past, “another time, another life, another world: jazz prohibition, flaming youth…” its patina of nostalgia implying that these things were a product of that time, not ours.
But it is precisely the power of The Great Gatsby that it is as relevant to our time as it was to its own. Economic empires still rise and fall precipitously. We still flit to the flame of sudden and extravagant wealth as predictably today as our counterparts did ninety years ago, and disperse as rapidly when it is extinguished. That is why studios and directors keep telling the story and it is why we keep listening.
Luhrmann linked his interest in the saga of Gatsby to the collapse of our most recent Ozymandian rise and fall, the sub-prime mortgage bubble, when acquired the rights to Gatsby in 2008, as the recession was deepening. “If you wanted to show a mirror to people that says, ‘You’ve been drunk on money,’ they’re not going to want to see it,” Luhrmann told the Hollywood Reporter at the time. “But if you reflected that mirror on another time they’d be willing to.”
Throughout the movie, Luhrmann signals the similarities between Gatsby’s era and ours. The movie’s furnishings, cars and costumes are true to the ‘twenties. But it begins and ends with unmistakable references to Wall Street greed. And the soundtrack skillfully interweaves yesterday’s music—The Sheik of Araby, Ain’t We Got Fun, Three O’Clock in the Morning and Rhapsody in Blue—with today’s sounds, performed by today’s artists: BeyoncÃ©, Jack White, Lana Del Ray and Jay-Z, one of Gatsby’s executive producers.
It’s an important insight, imaginatively staged. But like almost everything else in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, it is drowned in the tsunami of sound, color and digital effects that washes a great story out to sea.