In my younger and more vulnerable years – when I was 13, specifically – I was put through the all-American rite of passage that is studying F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby at school. From what I can remember, I and the rest of my class got through it with considerably more enthusiasm than A Christmas Carol but considerably less than The Hunger Games, and no one was particularly sorry to see it go. This changed dramatically, however, with the screening of the film after our main exam – for the sorry souls who failed to get their permission slips signed, ‘the film’ meant the 1974 version with Robert Redford, but for the rest of us it meant Baz Luhrmann’s version, only released earlier that year.
From the start, I adored it – the hyper-stylisation, the frantic cinematography, the unbelievable setpieces, all seemed to bring the legendary ‘Jazz Age’ alive in a way the book never did. This enthusiasm, however, did not seem to be shared by the majority of critics, especially by those who considered themselves to be fans of the novel. At the time of writing, the film has a 48 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes; critics’ reviews are littered with descriptors such as “bastardised”, “crude”, “empty”, “all style and glitz”, and “violently bright”. In the memorable words of one reviewer, it was a “moonshine-induced fever dream of a crazed wino who drifted to sleep with a crumpled copy of the book clutched to his chest”. Worst of all, my own grandmother responded to my mention of it with a textbook scoff and a dismissal that made it out to be a portent of the cultural apocalypse.
However, the issue, and the film, is worth taking a closer look at; not only for what it might say about the story, but for what it might say about the presentation and relevance of the past as a whole. The paradox of a novel so critical of wealth being made into a $105 million film is interesting enough, but the result is even more so – for better and for worse, Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ represents a view of the past specifically designed for a mass audience, and every lighting, costume, and music choice reflects this. In this light, then, categorising it as either an empty knockoff or a faithful-in-spirit modernisation would be misguided, and its strengths and weaknesses deserve further examination.
First and foremost, despite what my grandmother would have you believe, the film certainly has its strengths. It meets and exceeds the potential of visuals in showcasing glamour and artifice, dazzling the audience as the camera swerves through champagne-soaked parties and speeds alongside Gatsby’s bright yellow car. In the words of The Atlantic’s Christopher Orr, “Luhrmann turns every dial at his disposal up to 11”; however, while he concludes that the film is far removed from the “wistful spirit” of the novel, I would argue differently. The bombastic, aggressively artificial nature of the film perfectly encapsulates the myth of the 1920s, one which Fitzgerald played a central role in defining. If the film had tried to be more accurate to the time period, it would fail to dazzle the audience with a sense of grandeur and would therefore fail in deconstructing it by default. In the last analysis, it is hard to imagine an effective demonstration of the hollowness of material success without a memorable example of its appeal.
However, as talented as Luhrmann is in building a world of decadence and luxury, he struggles considerably more in tearing it down. For all its extravagance, the film also shows a reluctance to be too subversive; Pat Padua from the DCist may have been closer to the mark in saying that “its boat too often rides along the current, borne safely into mediocrity”. In the film’s attempt to reach and engage as wide an audience as possible, it takes a road much safer than it lets on, passing up several potentially interesting opportunities. This is particularly relevant in its handling of the class themes in the novel – or rather, its lack of doing so. As Steve Chibnall points out, Luhrmann is more focused on Gatsby as a tale of doomed, obsessive love, seeing even the Valley of Ashes through a hyper-stylised haze and paying minimal attention to the implications of Gatsby’s ‘new money’ status. While the romance of the story is certainly appealing, and more in line with Luhrmann’s past projects, it is hard not to feel that he is missing out on a core part of the story’s message by focusing so exclusively on it.
Ultimately, then, Luhrmann’s ‘Great Gatsby’ is a case study in the process of making history accessible and relatable to a modern audience, and whether it is possible to do so without sacrificing its more serious lessons. By moving the work into mass culture and playing up its glamour and visual appeal in an immediately engaging way, Luhrmann rescues the work from the tones of elitism that Fitzgerald’s background has injected into it and which many critics seem to ignore. However, he leaves unexplored many crucial issues about material culture, inequality, and prejudice that need to be examined now more than ever. Now that the novel has entered the public domain, hopefully future adaptations will learn from Luhrmann’s version and balance visual appeal with political significance; after all, while it may be impossible to repeat the past, there is still something to be said for adapting it.
Written by Alden Hill
Chibnall, Steve. “If You Build It, She Will Come: An Appreciation of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013).” The Journal of Literature on Screen Studies 7, no. 1 (2014): 94-97.
Hasan, Zaki. “Zaki’s Review: The Great Gatsby.” Zaki’s Corner, 10 May 2013. http://www.zakiscorner.com/2013/05/zakis-review-great-gatsby.html.
MacLowry, Seth. “The Excess of Baz Luhrmann: Teaching the Great Gatsby in the High School Classroom.” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 14, no. 1 (2015): 127-131.
Orr, Christopher. “A Grating Great Gatsby.” The Atlantic, 10 May 2013. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/05/a-grating-em-great-gatsby-em/275744/.
Scott, A.O. “Shimmying Off the Literary Mantle.” The New York Times, 9 May 2013. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/10/movies/the-great-gatsby-interpreted-by-baz-luhrmann.html.
Seitz, Matt Zoller. “The Great Gatsby.” RogerEbert.com, 8 May 2013. https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-great-gatsby-2013.
Shumway, David R. “Gatsby, the Jazz Age, and Luhrmann Land.” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 14, no. 1 (2015): 132-137.