There’s been an underground stream of discontent invading the internet concerning Baz Luhrman’s upcoming film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Tobey Maguire. However, though I normally wouldn’t pin my hopes to a trailer, I think Baz might just be brilliant.
I first read The Great Gatsby as part of an A Level English Lit. module, ‘Twentieth Century American Literature’. That year opened up the doors to Heller, Steinbeck and J. D. Salinger amongst others, but the two authors who really stole my heart were Capote and Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, with his stark critiques of consumerism and stunningly painted backdrops of the French Riviera, 1920s Hollywood or Gatsby’s fabulous parties, was the writer I wanted – and still wish – to be.
The Great Gatsby was initially not as commercially successful as Fitzgerald had hoped. Years later, critics acknowledged that the book had not achieved the acclaim it deserved because, published in 1925, it was trying to fly in a failing world. By the 1930s, it was almost unapproachable by the average reader who, facing the Great Depression, did not want to be reminded of the rampant success and consumerism of the ’20s. That is really what this book is: a portrait of wealth, success, of dreams lived and fairytales coming true. Yet, for Gatsby, all of this is not enough to stop everything from falling apart. The moral of the story is that money cannot fix life.
That is where Luhrman comes in. I haven’t seen all of the movie adaptations of Gatsby but I found the 1974 Jack Clayton production with Robert Redford as Gatsby hugely disappointing. It was too stale, too cliche – too good. And by that I don’t mean ‘Man, that was a good film’, I mean ‘Man, don’t be such a goody-two-shoes!’ Gatsby was not a ‘nice’ guy: he threw illegal parties, with illegal booze and outrageous women breaking down the social status quo at every turn. What’s more, he did it all for another man’s wife! He was a drunken, dangerous, downright crazy guy, who was at once charming, fun and bitterly relatable.
The problem is, how does one portray this to a 21st century audience, where sex is casual, drink is legal, and pop music has evolved out of the radio and into our pockets? Answer: adapt to current trends. Hire Jay-Z, Beyonce and Florence and the Machine to do the music; take the costumes up a risque notch; make the cars with a little more chrome and a little less putter. Take the idea of the ’20s and turn it into something people can visually understand now – and don’t be mistaken, that was one wild decade.
In addition to this revitalised vision, Luhrman’s casting appears solid. In my opinion, one can never go wrong with Leonardo DiCaprio: since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape he just becomes his character. Tobey Maguire, with his charming sexual ambiguity and nerdy expressions of innocent surprise, will make an excellent Nick Carraway. What’s more, key visual motifs of the book already appear in the trailer: the throwing of Gatsby’s shirts; the bespecled eyes which gaze out from the poster on the way to town; the green light at the end of the dock – the colour green in general, in fact! Green as a metaphor for money.
This theme of money is where my excitement reaches new levels, because Gatsby is about a man who acquires everything financially and materialistically that he could ever want, but it still doesn’t make him happy. Fitzgerald’s greatest moral legacy, to me, is that consumerism doesn’t work. And what better time to bring out a film with that message?
As one commenter on YouTube said (and I couldn’t have put it better myself):
I don’t care what anyone says about this movie not being “true” to the original book. The message of the original book was a criticism of the modern-day materialism, which was back in the 1920s. Nearly a century later, maybe it’s good that we fill this movie with modern music, actors, ideals — our society is still a materialistic one, yet we still ache to look to the “golden age” of the 20s, thinking it was somehow better or different.
Perhaps nothing has changed, and that’s the point.