Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, the most recent attempt to capture F. Scott Fitzgerald’s roaring account of consecration and corruption on screen, tries too hard to, in the words of Gatsby, “keep going up.” While Fitzgerald enthusiasts will be pleased that the director adheres closely to the plot, and the average movie-goer will get their $8.50 worth of extravagance, by the time the credits roll, a distinct feeling that, as Fitzgerald put it, “what foul dust” preyed on Gatsby may have preyed on the film as well.
Fitzgerald aficionados will doubtless quibble over small details, like the color of Jordan’s hair or the noticeably warmer friendship between Carraway and Buchanan, but all in all they have little to be angry about. As adaptive as Luhrmann’s film is, it is adapted almost entirely within Fitzgerald’s original framework. Owl Eyes is tipsy in the library, just as he should be, and Jordan Baker is every bit the delightful flirt she was on the page.
Luhrmann’s one major invention has to do with the narration, and it is highly successful. The story’s narrator, Nick Carraway, finds himself in a sanatorium diagnosed as morbidly alcoholic and trying to find solace through writing about his experience. Echoes of Fitzgerald abound in these scenes, and it is an interesting comment on where the author places himself in the story. One can make a strong argument that Fitzgerald saw himself as Gatsby, but Luhrmann makes a very convincing case that it could be with Carraway that the author most identified.
In fact, this concept of identifying with the story, of its accessibility, is a major one for Luhrmann. Within all of the hype for the release, the soundtrack to the movie may have gotten the most attention. With the inclusion of Jay-Z as an executive producer, the movie gained currency and a decidedly modern sound. And while some balked at a Ghetto Gatsby, it is important to remember that when this “Great American Novel” was written it was targeted at the younger generation, the flappers and the bootleggers who appreciated loosening moral standards and jazz music. As Luhrmann put it in an interview with XXL Magazine, the point was “to elicit from [today’s] audience the same level of excitement and pop-cultural immediacy toward the world that Fitzgerald did for his audience.”
Luhrmann’s problem, however, is Gatsby’s problem: dependence on the “colossal vitality of his illusion.” Daisy fell short of the image in Gatsby’s head; the film fell short of Luhrmann’s imagination. Relying on long close-ups of famous actors playing famous characters, decadence overflowing its boundaries, and emphasis on theatrical, caricatured performances, Luhrmann pushes too hard to keep things going up and up. In the end, the movie illustrates the problem the book describes, that even with the best intentions, extravagance creates more problems than it hides.