Saturday, June 08, 2013

Luhrmann's 'Gatsby'

Thoughts for those studying The Great Gatsby, prompted by Baz Luhrmann's new film version:-
  1. On one level, Luhrmann makes perfect sense as a director of this book: the cinematic material of the Jazz Age excesses...
  2. But he is also perfectly wrong. The novel is completely 'interior'. The central figure is not the semi-cipher and semi-cliche of the title, but the narrator, Nick Carraway. And the subject is not the Jazz Age itself, but Nick's thoughts and feelings about the world he encounters.
  3. Luhrmann tries to accommodate this, in the extensive voice-overs (and 'write-overs') by Nick. But the contradiction between the narrative voice in fiction and its poor cousin, the movie voiceover, is exposed in the addition of the framing story of Nick being in some sort of institution and writing (The Great) Gatsby. Nothing in the interior logic of the film itself (let alone the book) justifies this. Nick hasn't been traumatised. And in the book, of course, his voice is balanced and lyrical in its retrospective reflections. Luhrmann has lost his nerve: he is attempting to inject extra 'meaning' into Nick's musings (they don't need that).
  4. This loss of nerve accounts for the patchiness of the film - predictably brilliant in the party scenes and the aerial shots of the Eggs and New York City, but dully predictable in the human interactions of the central story (such as the Plaza Hotel scene). The film lacks the complete coherence and vision of the consistently superb Romeo + Juliet - no nerve was lost there. But the anachronistic music does work well, at least touching on R+J's success.
  5. The central problem: the novel is a book about a way of seeing, about how a man thinks. Film inevitably provides us with one way of seeing, and Nick's voice-overs compete with what we can now see for ourselves (such as Daisy's tediousness).
  6. In her new book, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of 'The Great Gatsby' Sarah Churchwell says that 'suggestiveness' is at the heart of the novel. Nothing is 'suggested' in this film by this director.
  7. Leonardo di Caprio is often a bland actor. Here, he suits the semi-emptiness of his character well.
  8. Tobey Maguire sucks the life out of the film, with a dismally poor voicing of the narrative and some terrible reaction shots (but to be fair - see above - he may have had an impossible job).
  9. A minor point, but why is Jordan Baker in the film at all? Elizabeth Debicki has virtually nothing to do.
  10. Another minor point: in the film we can see for ourselves this white world's dependence on black workers.
  11. No film ever changes or damages its source novel. Back to the text.
For an articulate (and enthusiastic) counter-view, read Darcy Moore's post here (and in the first comment below).

Here, TES contributor Helen Amass writes on 'Teaching activities that make the most of what the critics hated.'

And here are four writers' takes on the film in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Plenty of food for thought.


@Darcy1968 said...

This useful post makes sense but I am not sure it is fair to Luhrmann's Gatsby (although you do give a nod to the challenges of filming this particular novel). It is difficult to imagine a better attempt at adapting the novel as it is a very faithful rendering of the plot, period and characters but still makes it anew for our times. I like your last sentence of the post very much indeed.

My thoughts:

SCC English Department said...

Thanks for your response, Darcy (have put a link to your article in the main body of our post). You're right that it is indeed a faithful rendering - maybe, unlike R+J and despite the music, it's a little too faithful to breathe its own spirit? Perhaps we should give the two posts to our pupils and start their own debate?

Conor Murphy said...

There are many intrinsic problems in adapting a novel as appossed to a play, especially a Shakespearean play. Shakespearean plays are poetic, they are visual, the abundance of poetic imagery is a veritable sweet shop for the creative director. Poetry and film are, in the right hands, brothers in arts. A novel is quite different. Here the director has to find a cinematic equivalent to prose and in the case of The Great Gatsby, a first person narrator. This can not be done easily, it requires a director not only confident in his abilities, but also willing to change the novel to suit the medium. Here that would have required a complete overhaul of the narrated text. More than likely a jettisoning of it, to be replaced by a particular visual representation. This requires a different kind of confidence. Luhrman has the former, but I doubt the producers had the latter. The result then is a half way house with the awkward shadows of Fitzgerald's prose cast behind Lurhman's own visual poetry. You can't have two authors, especially if one is long dead.

SCC English Department said...

Thanks for that, Conor. 'Awkward shadows' ia a good phrase!