Why the Critics Are Getting Luhrmann's Great Gatsby so Wrong

           I doubt I’m the only one who had to be told at first that The Great Gatsby was a great book. Reading it the first time, you’re guaranteed to miss at least two-thirds of the nuance—and the impact of the story, its true greatness, lies in the very nuance that’s being lost on you. Take, for instance, the narrator Nick Carraway’s initial assessment of the title character. After explaining that his habit of open-minded forbearance was taken to its limit and beyond by the events of the past fall he’s about to recount, he writes, “Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction—Gatsby who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.” Already we see that Nick’s attitude toward Gatsby is complicated, and even though we can eventually work out that his feelings toward his neighbor are generally positive, at least compared to his feelings for the other characters comprising that famously “rotten crowd,” it’s still hard tell what he really thinks of the man.

When I first saw the previews for the Baz Luhrmann movie featuring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, I was—well, at first, I was excited, thrilled even. Then came the foreboding. This movie, I was sure, was going to do unspeakable violence to all that nuance, make of it a melodrama that would all but inevitably foreclose on any opportunity for the younger, more vulnerable generation to experience a genuine connection with the story through Nick’s morally, linguistically, existentially tangled telling—contenting them instead with a pop culture cartoon. This foreboding was another thing I wasn’t alone in. David Denby ends his uncharacteristically shaky review in The New Yorker,

Will young audiences go for this movie, with its few good scenes and its discordant messiness? Luhrmann may have miscalculated. The millions of kids who have read the book may not be eager for a flimsy phantasmagoria. They may even think, like many of their elders, that “The Great Gatsby” should be left in peace. The book is too intricate, too subtle, too tender for the movies. Fitzgerald’s illusions were not very different from Gatsby’s, but his illusionless book resists destruction even from the most aggressive and powerful despoilers.

Since Denby’s impulse to protect the book from despoiling so perfectly mirrored my own, I had to wonder in the interval between reading his review and seeing the movie myself if he had settled on this sentiment before or after he’d seen it.

            The Great Gatsby is a novel that rewards multiple re-readings like very few others. You don’t simply re-experience it as you might expect; rather, each time feels as if you’re discovering something new, having a richer, more devastating experience than ever before. This investment of time and attention coupled with the sense after each reading of having finally reached some definitive appreciation for the book gives enthusiasts a proprietary attitude toward it. We sneer at tyros who claim to understand its greatness but can’t possibly fathom its deeper profundities the way we do. The main charge so far leveled against Luhrmann by movie critics is that he’s a West Egg tourist—a charge that can only be made convincingly by us natives. This is captured nowhere so well as in the title of Linda Holmes’s review on NPR’s website, “Loving ‘Gatsby’ Too Much and Not Enough.’” (Another frequent criticism focuses on the anachronistic music, as if the critics were afraid we might be tricked into believing Jay-Z harks to the Jazz Age.)

            There’s something fitting about the almost even split among the movie critics sampled on Rotten Tomatoes—and the much larger percentage of lay viewers who liked the movie (48% vs. 84% as of now). This is because, like the novel itself, Luhrmann’s vision of Gatsby is visionary, and, as Denby points out, when the novel was first published it was panned by most critics. The Rotten Tomatoes headline says the consensus among critics is that movie is “a Case of Style over Substance,” and the main blurb concludes, “The pundits say The Great Gatsby never lacks for spectacle, but what’s missing is the heart beneath the glitz.” That wasn’t my experience at all, and I’d wager this pronouncement is going to baffle most people who see the movie.

            Let’s face it, Luhrmann was in a no-win situation. His movie fails to capture Fitzgerald’s novel in all its nuance, but that was inevitable. The question is, does the movie convey something of the essence of the novel? Another important question, though I’m at risk of literary blasphemy merely posing it, is whether the movie contributes anything of value to the story, some added dimension, some more impactful encounter with the characters, a more visceral experience of some of the scenes? Cinema can’t do justice to the line-by-line filigree of literature, but it can offer audiences a more immediate and immersive simulation of actual presence in the scenes. And this is what Luhrmann contributes as reparation for all the paved over ironic niceties of Fitzgerald’s language. Denby, a literature-savvy film critic, is breathtakingly oblivious to this fundamental difference between the two media, writing of one of the parties,

Fitzgerald’s scene at the apartment gives off a feeling of sinister incoherence; Luhrmann’s version is merely a frantic jumble. The picture is filled with an indiscriminant swirling motion, a thrashing impress of “style” (Art Deco turned to digitized glitz), thrown at us with whooshing camera sweeps and surges and rapid changes of perspective exaggerated by 3-D.

Thus Denby reveals that he’s either never been drunk or that it’s been so long since he was that he doesn’t remember. The woman I saw the movie with and I both made jokes along the lines of “I think I was at that party.”

            Here’s where I reveal my own literary snobbishness by suggesting that it’s not Luhrmann and his screenwriter Craig Pearce who miss the point of the novel—or at least one of its points—but The Great Denby himself, and all the other critics of his supposedly native West Egg ilk. No one argues that the movie doesn’t do justice to the theme of America’s false promise of social mobility and the careless depredations of the established rich on the nouveau riche. The charge is that there’s too much glitz, too much chaos, incoherence, fleeting swirling passes of the 3-D lens and, oh yeah, hip-hop music. The other crucial theme—or maybe it’s the same theme—of The Great Gatsby isn’t portrayed in this hectic collage of glittering excess. But that’s because instead of portraying it, Luhrmann simulates it for us. Fitzgerald’s novel isn’t “illusionless,” as Denby insists; it’s all about illusions. It’s all about the stories people tell, those stories which Nick complains are so often “plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppression”—a complaint he voices as soon as the third paragraph of the novel. We’re not meant, either in Fitzgerald’s rendition or Luhrmann’s, to watch as reality plays out in some way that’s intended to seem natural—we’re meant to experience the story as a dream, a fantasy that keeps getting frayed and interrupted before ultimately being dashed by the crashing tide of reality.

            The genius of Luhrmann’s contribution lies in his recognition of The Great Gatsby as a story about the collision of a dream with the real world. The beginning of the movie is chaotic and swirling, a bit like a night of drunkenness at an extravagant party. But then there are scenes that are almost painfully real, like the one featuring the final confrontation between Gatsby and Tom Buchannan, the scene which Denby describes as “the dramatic highlight of this director’s career.” And for all the purported lack of heart in this swirling dreamworld I was struck by how many times I found myself being choked up as I watched it. Nick’s final farewell to Gatsby in the movie actually does Fitzgerald one better (yeah, I said it).

            The bad reviews are nothing but the supercilious preening of literature snobs (I probably would’ve written a similar one myself if I hadn’t read so many before seeing the movie). The movie is of course no substitute for the book. Both Nick and Daisy come across more sympathetically, but though this subtly changes the story it still works in its own way. Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby is a fine, even visionary complement to Fitzgerald’s. Ten years from now there may be another film version, and it will probably strike a completely different tone—but it could still be just as successful, contribute just as much. That’s the thing with these dreams and stories—they’re impossible to nail down with finality. 

Also read T.J. Eckleburg Sees Everything: The Great God-Gap in Gatsby