“Great costumes, great set design, great performances, boring movie.” Does that sound like what everyone you know is saying about Baz Luhrmann‘s The Great Gatsby?
Yeah… me too.
Oddly, it also resembles the reviews of the disastrous 1974 version of the movie.
And I think I figured out why.
[Warning: mild spoilers ahead, even though most of us have read the book.]
Can’t Repeat the Past? Why of Course You Can!
When I first heard that Baz Luhrmann was adapting The Great Gatsby (in 3-D, no less), it struck me as a bad idea. Luhrmann excels at operatic emotion and visual opulence, and while Gatsby is a story about opulent people, the story itself is about quiet, subtle, excruciatingly small things that explode internally. All the great moments in the novel are either emotional exchanges between two people or dramatic reveals of shrouded pasts and obscured intentions. For all its gaudy excess, Gatsby isn’t a Moulin Rouge type of spectacle, which made me worry that Luhrmann might be the wrong voice for Gatsby.
But then I saw the trailer, and all my fears seemed unfounded.
Look at the energy!
Look at the style!
Look at the action!
Never mind that I was having trouble remembering there being much action in the book itself. The sheer grandeur of the trailer had convinced me that Luhrmann just might have everything right.
And the frustrating part is, he almost did.
Where I think Luhrmann went wrong was in making the exact same mistake Zack Snyder did with Watchmen: by remaining too faithful to the source material, he created a moving book, rather than a film that lived as its own creature.
In Stories, Form Follows Function
It’s a hard trick, adapting a story everyone knows in such a way that it becomes “of the moment” while still being true to its essence. If you stray too far from the source and the movie fails, you’ll be pilloried for ruining a classic. But if you’re a slave to the original, then your own work can only live in the source’s shadow.
Sound tough? It gets worse.
The real reason most books fail as films is because what makes a book work is the exact opposite of what makes a movie work.
There’s a lot about Robert McKee‘s screenwriting advice in his now-classic Story that I disagree with, but one of his basic tenets is almost bulletproof. To paraphrase McKee:
- If a conflict is primarily internal, it’s a novel.
- If a conflict is interpersonal and dialogue-driven, it’s a stage play.
- If a conflict is external and action-driven, it’s a screenplay.
As with any rule, there are exceptions, and no one says you can’t make a great dialogue-driven film or write a bestselling adventure novel. But, generally speaking, the nature of your story’s conflict determines its ideal form.
The Great Gatsby is a story about an idea, told primarily as an internal monologue by a character who bore witness to the unfolding events of a conflict he had no direct hand in. In other words, it’s nearly the textbook example of what a novel is supposed to be.
Unfortunately, Gatsby‘s status as a (and perhaps the) great American novel is the very thing that prevents it from becoming a great American film. Or, to put it another way, it’s not that Luhrmann was the wrong voice for Gatsby-as-movie; it’s that Luhrmann decided that silencing his own voice would best serve the material, when what the material actually deserves is to be retold in a voice as singular as Fitzgerald’s own.
God Sees Everything
As I was watching Luhrmann’s film, I could pinpoint the exact moment when I stopped caring about what was happening. It occurs when Nick excuses himself from tea so Gatsby and Daisy can talk, alone. It’s a necessary scene, and the entire story unfolds as a result of it.
But it’s also a scene where Nick — meaning us — isn’t actually present for the action.
Nick also isn’t present for most of Gatsby and Daisy’s gallivanting during the subsequent weeks, or Tom’s various affairs, or Gatbsy’s firing of his staff and his rapid unspooling into a barely functional, paranoid obsessive.
No, Nick is just the witness to the moments between these events. In the book this works because Nick has the benefit of hindsight, and he can posthumously contextualize what happened, and why, how it impacted everyone else, and muse about what everyone thought and felt, and tell us why any of it mattered.
Thus, in the book, Nick is “God” in the same way that any narrator becomes the eyes through which we see (or don’t see) the story. We have to trust him (or not) because his is the only perspective we have. But onscreen, we have our own eyes to rely on, and that shift in context requires that the story be told in a functionally different manner than retrospect and hearsay.
The problem is, Luhrmann didn’t trust himself — or us — enough to fill in the blanks with action instead of anecdotes. And he must certainly have felt he’d be doing Fitzgerald a disservice if he allowed us to come to our own conclusions about the characters and their motives without the aid of Nick’s lumbering voiceover that tells us exactly what to think and feel — sometimes unnaturally, as when Nick tells us Gatsby was a man with “an extraordinary gift for hope,” while his actions in the film make him look more like a dangerously unhinged and chemically imbalanced stalker.
And if we can’t believe our own eyes, whose should we trust? Luhrmann’s… or Fitzgerald’s?
That’s a Great Expression of Yours, Isn’t It?
Lurhmann’s adherence to period language and his stubborn reverence to Fitzgerald’s prose doesn’t help draw a modern audience into the story. From a taste and tone standpoint, Luhrman having Tobey Maguire narrate Fitzgerald-as-Carraway’s written words aloud as though they possess mystical importance is cringe-inducing, but having DiCaprio end every sentence with “old sport” is even worse because it’s unintentionally hilarious. After the thirtieth or fortieth mention, the phrase makes Gatsby seem entirely unworthy of being taken seriously.
And there’s also one nagging stylistic choice I found distracting for all the wrong reasons: while the book (which was written in 1925) barely mentions non-white characters, Luhrmann’s insistence on including African-American extras as background characters in as many scenes as possible feels obligatory at best and, at worst, strategically calculated. (Notice the first scene in the trailer? A Jay-Z-fueled soundtrack throbbing over footage of zoot suit-wearing Harlem high-rollers speeding over the Queensboro bridge in a 1920s convertible may make for attention-getting trailer fodder, but it also feels like the studio thought the only way they could get “urban” audiences to come see a story about sad white people from 1922 would be to oversell the story’s “diversity.”)
And yet, while the big knock on Luhrmann’s Gatsby is that it’s boring, I think the subsequent accusations that the original story is now outdated and irrelevant is mistaken. The success of Mad Men proves that modern audiences can still be captivated by the melodramatic antics of white alcoholic narcissists from bygone days. Those antics just need to be retold in a form that serves their function, and in a manner that rewards the audience rather than the author.
And that means the greatest compliment the next director who adapts The Great Gatsby can pay to the genius of F. Scott Fitzgerald would be to use his book as an inspiration, a reference, or simply as a guide along the way to creating a film that shows us what the book made us feel.
Just don’t use his novel as a screenplay. Trust me; he’d have told you the same thing.