Tag Archives: movies

9 Annoying Plot Holes in Thor: The Dark World

Clearly Tom Hiddleston feels the same way about this script as I do.

Clearly Tom Hiddleston feels the same way about this script as I do.

I enjoy the Marvel movies, but I don’t always like them — mostly because their stories are a bit lazy. They have excellent actors, talented directors, exemplary lighting and sound, decent FX, and a crowd-pleasing mix of action and humor… but they also have some of the most frustrating, illogical, and convenient scripts imaginable, which drags the entire viewing experience down a notch for me.

Here are 9 things I couldn’t get past while otherwise enjoying Thor: The Dark World.

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

1. It’s basically just the first Thor movie all over again

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…

After opening with an Odin-narrated flashback that establishes the film’s external threat, we then introduce the film’s interpersonal conflict during an expository scene on Odin’s throne, followed by a CGI-heavy off-world battle where Thor beats up some creatures with a hammer.

After a post-battle dining hall celebration where everyone is having fun except Thor — who leaves all pouty while ignoring Sif’s lovelorn advances — we spend a lot of time on Earth with some bumbling scientists as they stumble upon the MacGuffin around which this movie will revolve. Then Thor shows up, and he and Jane fall in lo– er, they resume their love, which consists mostly of pining looks and a single kiss.

But their love is threatened (as is the existence of the entire universe) by an ancient evil that will be conveniently expunged by the end of this film — but not before Thor disobeys his father, Heimdall fails to see a cloaked enemy that invades Asgard, Odin tells Thor he can’t do what he wants to do, Heimdall is forced to commit treason so Thor can do what he wants to do anyway, Sif and The Warriors Three are forced to… um… also commit treason, Loki is allowed to scheme his way onto the throne, and Thor once again earns the right to the throne, only to turn it down.

(If this sounds really familiar, it’s because Iron Man 2 was basically Iron Man all over again too, so you’re probably trained to expect this from Marvel by now.)

2. Who’s paying Jane to live in London?

In Thor, all of Jane’s scientific machinery was confiscated by SHIELD. Yet for some reason she’s in London when this movie opens, still trying to find Thor (even though he already came and went in New York during the Avengers movie and never bothered to call her). Her intern Darcy complains that she’s not getting paid, yet Darcy herself somehow has an intern. Why do they need another intern? What are they even studying? And who’s paying them? Speaking of…

3. Why is Darcy still working for Jane, anyway?

In the first movie, Darcy is revealed as a political science major, not an actual scientist. (“She was the only applicant.”) She’s clearly not good at her job, and she drives Jane crazy… yet, somehow, she’s still working (for free?) for Jane in London a full two years after the whole New Mexico incident, during which time Darcy at least had the excuse of earning college credits. What’s she doing now, and why?

4. Do these scientists not use the Internet?

Erik Selvig is arrested at Stonehenge for public insanity, which you’d think would be major news. Yet our intrepid scientists repeatedly call Erik’s cell phone because they have no idea where he is. And when they do finally hear about the incident, how do they find out? On television. (Of course they do; because finding out on Twitter wouldn’t be very cinematic.)

5. The geographic odds of the climax happening in London are astounding.

When the Convergence happens, the universe will be destroyed. It takes both Thor and Jane’s team to stop it. So how convenient is it that the epicenter of the Convergence just happens to be a few blocks away from where Jane is living in London? If the epicenter had been anywhere else — hell, if it had been in Manchester — there’s no way Jane would have gotten there in time to use her… whatever the hell those crutches with the AM/FM radios glued to them are.

6. How unreliable are the nurses on Asgard, anyway?

Okay, so they couldn’t get the Aether out of Jane Foster. Fine. The Aether is older than they are; I’ll accept that they can’t cure it.

But remember in the first movie, when Thor and his friends first go to fight the frost giants on Jotunheim? They retreat in part because Fandral gets stabbed through the entire chest by a stalagmite. Yet while they don’t get him back to Asgard for at least fifteen minutes, the next time we see him he’s fine, like it never happened. “Nice health care they must have on Asgard,” you’re thinking, right?

So why is it that Frigga gets stabbed by a sword just once in this movie and she dies?

You mean to tell me the Asgardian healers can reconstruct Fandral’s entire torso, but they can’t patch a stab wound? Or did that giant stalagmite conveniently miss every organ in Fandral’s body while that thin sword skewered each of Frigga’s?

Mm hmm.

7. “Oh, you’re a host for the Aether? You’ll be fine.”

When the Aether is in Jane, Odin explains that it will kill her if it isn’t removed because it’s feeding on her life force to sustain itself. Yet when Malekith forcibly removes the Aether, Jane collapses… and then she’s fine. Considering the Aether had been sapping her very existence like a soul tapeworm, shouldn’t Jane have been near-death, or completely dead, without it? And yet she’s up and running a few minutes later, like it was no big thing.

Mm hmm.

Just so we’re all on the same page, the hierarchy of “Serious Injuries in Thor Movies” is:

impaled by a stalagmite < having soul eaten by Aether < stabbed with a sword

Right. Got it.

8. Odin is the least perceptive king (or dad) ever.

Let’s skip the logic problem from the first movie, in which Odin rescues Loki as an infant even though he just slaughtered every other frost giant on the planet, and then proceeds to raise this frost giant as his own son, just in case that would come in handy sometime.

If both of your sons have a history of disobeying you, how do you not have someone tailing each of them at all times so they don’t start another war or, you know, try to kill you and take the throne? Especially when you just kidnapped your son’s girlfriend and told him he can never see her again. Yes, because now he’ll listen.

“Sire? I couldn’t help but notice Thor and Heimdall — whom you just fired — were conspiring in a public grog house. Would you like me to follow them?”

“No, I’m sure it’s fine.”

“I could station someone outside Fandral’s house. Or Volstagg’s. Or Sif’s.”

“No, don’t worry about it.”

“Do you at least want to have one of your crows follo–”

“What part of ‘I don’t think my son who always disobeys me is going to try and save his girlfriend this time’ do you not understand, nameless guard?”

9. Did the guy who played Hogun piss someone off during pre-production?

Thor has twelve supporting cast members that you know by name — eight on Asgard (Odin, Frigga, Loki, Heimdall, Sif, Hogun, Fandral, Volstagg), and four on Earth (Jane, Erik, Darcy, Ian). That’s a lot of glorified extras to stand around and ask questions that advance the plot. And yet I find it hard to believe that a producer somewhere took a look at an early draft of this script and decided to make a hard choice.

“Hey, yeah, that is waaaay too many characters. Reduce it by one.”

“Uh… just one?”

“Yeah. That should clear everything up.”

“Okay… which one?”

“Doesn’t matter. They’re all kind of the same. Maybe one of those three guys that no one else can tell apart, but whom we still kind of hope to spin off into their own Netflix series someday?”

“I heard the Asian guy joking that he’d be cool with sitting this one out as long as we still make him an action figure.”

“Yeah, sure, whatever. Do it. Rest of the script looks pretty bulletproof, though.”

My Self-Imposed Cultural Curriculum

A few weeks ago, I decided to go back to school, kind of. Tired of the “straight white male” POV that dominates American pop culture (even though I am one), I wanted to actively seek out books and films authored by voices that don’t fit that mold.

And I asked for your suggestions, because I wanted to know what you thought I should know.

Since then, via blog comments, email, Facebook, and Twitter, I’ve received 21 recommendations for authors and 6 for filmmakers.* Based on those suggestions (plus my own thoughts), I’ve compiled a curriculum for myself to follow between July 1st and November 30th.

Books to Read

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (American female)
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (Japanese male)
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (African-American female)
The Namesake by Jhumpa Laihri (Indian female)
The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk (Turkish male)

Films to See

? by Akira Kurosawa (Japanese male)
Tiny Furniture by Lena Dunham (American female)
Pariah by Dee Rees (African-American female)
? by Abbas Kiarostami (Iranian male)
TBD (TBD)

My Criteria

Author or director cannot be a white American male
Works should be freely available (presumably at the library)
Works should be self-contained (not anthologies or other formats)
Selected works should be equally representative of female and male creators
No two selections from the same nation of origin in either medium

Caveats

My film selections will be somewhat reliant on what’s available at my local library, which is why I didn’t choose a specific Kurosawa or Kiarostami film up front. I also left a blank spot in the film lineup — presumably to be filled by something from Bollywood — but if a completely arbitrary title catches my eye, I’d like to have that freedom.

Also, I didn’t consider who’d suggested what in my final selection process, so there are no politics or favorites being played here. I did shy away from nonfiction this time around, but I might try all nonfiction if I do this again in the future.

So, Now What?

Now I have to go to the library sometime in the next week and track down a copy of The Left Hand of Darkness (which was the only book suggested to me twice, by the way) and whatever they have in the way of Kurosawa. I may not read and watch these works in the order I’ve listed them, but I figure I’ll start there and adapt as I go.

And then, in December, I’ll write up my thoughts on each of these works individually, and on what I learned from this process as a whole.

If you’d like to join me on this cultural odyssey, feel free. Maybe we could even do a group discussion in the end.

But please: in the meantime, no spoilers.

* I was surprised I only received 6 suggestions for filmmakers who weren’t white men. Then I realized most people probably can’t name more than 6 white male directors anyway. Compared to books, film has a long way to go to reach anything resembling a balanced artistic representation.

How DC Should Have Built Their Movie Universe

Whether you love or hate the Marvel Comics movies of the past decade, the way they used each character’s solo films to introduce other characters and build toward the inevitability of assembling The Avengers was marketing genius. It was also good, smart, logical storytelling based on character and theme.

So why can’t DC do the same thing?

man-of-steel

With all due respect to Christopher Nolan, Zack Snyder, and the other writers and creators of the recent DC films, Warner Bros. has completely botched the launch of a DC film universe. I could rant at length, but let’s sum it up in one point:

Once you have Superman, you don’t need other heroes.

Marvel-DCThe Marvel movies do a great job of balancing every character’s role within their ever-expanding cinematic universe. They allow us to believe that Hawkeye, who’s essentially a soldier who specializes in archery (for god’s sake), is as legitimate a hero as Thor, who’s a god. If they didn’t grant equal weight to their characters, there’d be no reason tell stories about any of them except the most powerful.

DC missed that lesson when they insisted on launching Man of Steel, a newly dour take on a hero who’s always epitomized honor and idealism. He burst into theaters to the tune of $120 million and a chorus of middling to frustrated reviews that focus on, among other things, the film’s wanton destruction and lack of a moral center.

Because that’s what DC superhero movies have to be in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s globally unstoppable Batman trilogy: grim, gritty, and obligatory.

Paradoxically, it’s Marvel — the comic book company that was launched 30 years after DC as a realistic response to DC’s 1930s-era idealism and innocence — that’s now producing films which are relative joys to watch (The Avengers, Iron Man, Thor) compared to DC’s squalid nightmare of Gotham in Nolan’s Dark Knight films.

In the modern DC universe, fun is dead.

And now that Batman and Superman have had successful film launches, it’s a safe bet that Warner Bros will churn out a Justice League movie as soon as possible, so it can get all of its most commercial properties onscreen at the same time and let the market sort out the sequel opportunities from there…

… except that movie is on pace to be The Least Fun Anyone Has Had at the Movies Ever.

It’s Spider-Man (a Marvel character) whose pages coined the phrase “with great power comes great responsibility,” but it’s the DC universe that treats power as a horrible burden, as though being a superhero is somehow the worst job imaginable.

And so, as we psychologically prepare ourselves for a decade of miserable superheroes with ill-fittingly happy names like Wonder Woman and Aquaman, I’d like to propose a fanciful escape:

Not that anyone asked, but here’s how I think DC (and Warner Bros.) should have handled the rollout of their post-Batman superhero film universe.

1. Reboot the Batman franchise.

batman_gotham

Christopher Nolan dragged Batman to hell and took the whole DC universe with him. A Batman movie that was comparably lighter in tone (we’re talking Tim Burton here, not Joel Schumacher) would allow us to see the hero in his traditional role: a wealthy, charming, paranoid genius who’s an expert fighter, strategist, and mechanic.

But wait… that sounds a lot like Iron Man, doesn’t it? Well, here’s the difference: Iron Man is a walking weapon who fights global battles, but Batman is a localized vigilante who defends his city from evil in the streets. Iron Man is a drone strike; Batman is hand-to-hand combat.

And if any hero feels the burden of duty, it’s Batman. He’s a hero whose entire life is a reaction to feeling helpless as he watched his parents get killed by a street thief. His quest to never feel helpless in the face of evil again isn’t just a great motivation for a single hero — it’s also the perfect rationale to launch the rest of DC universe onscreen toward the inevitable assembly of The Justice League.

Here’s how:

2. The Flash

the_flash

Barry Allen was a police scientist (they have those?) who was sprayed with chemicals during a lightning strike (hey, it happens) and developed the power of super speed. The Flash is known as The Fastest Man Alive, and that’s a bottomless well of storytelling possibilities, because there’s literally nothing the Flash can’t do if he has enough time… but who does? And it’s the choices The Flash has to make — how to use his powers for the most amount of good — that makes for good drama.

Plus, The Flash’s sheer exuberance at his newfound potential makes him the opposite of Batman in terms of tone. Where Batman sees his heroism as a gravely serious duty, The Flash sees his powers as a lifelong adventure. Introducing them as counterpoints to each other would create the kind of “buddy movie” juxtaposition that good multi-hero stories require. (Think of it as DC’s “World’s Finest” comics, only with The Flash taking Superman’s place in the lineup.)

In cinema reality terms, there’s no way The Flash could operate in the public eye without Batman being aware of him. Hell, retcon Barry Allen into a Gotham police officer prior to his accident so he has a direct tie to Commissioner Gordon and Batman’s larger narrative. (I know The Flash defended Central City in the comic books, but let’s bend a bit for the sake of cinematic narrative.)

The other reason to introduce The Flash so early in the Justice League buildup? His rogue’s gallery is nearly as good as Batman’s, which gives each hero a litany of villains to help define them. I’d establish the Weather Wizard as the Flash’s arch-nemesis here, since a villain who can control the weather within a structurally flawed metropolis like Gotham would create rescue-focused action scenes aplenty.

And if nearby Metropolis newsman Clark Kent just happens to be on hand to report on the story… well, that would make sense, right?

Then, once The Flash and Batman coexist onscreen, let’s go global.

3. Hawkman and Hawkgirl

hawkman-hawkgirl

In the comics, Hawkman’s origin has changed over the years, but it usually boils down to something like this: an archaeologist discovers an artifact that imbues him with the Egyptian warrior spirit of Hawkman, because we eventually find out that this archaeologist is actually the latest incarnation of the original Hawkman. And Hawkman and Hawkgirl are soul mates who have loved each other throughout the centuries, as they’re reincarnated time after time to rediscover each other in times of great trouble.

This would be the perfect opportunity to introduce distinctly non-American heroes. (A Middle Eastern Hawkman and an Indian, Japanese, or Chinese Hawkgirl would be thematically consistent with the characters’ origins and a nod to our newly global cinemascape.) And they’d also be the first heroes in this new universe with the power of flight, which gives them an ability that Batman and The Flash, for all their upside, can’t match.

Also, by launching Hawkman and Hawkgirl early in the Justice League buildup, they could be established as far more pivotal characters than they’re usually allowed to be in the comic books, where they’re surrounded by far more powerful heroes. They’re also one of the few romantic duos in superhero comics, and their bond of love is a much-needed human linchpin in a narrative that might otherwise seem built around men fighting for supremacy. And if Batman / Bruce Wayne is an emotionally unavailable playboy and The Flash is a ladies’ man who’s looking to settle down, the Hawks represent the emotional stability that the other, more powerful heroes lack.

Which brings us to…

4. Green Lantern

green-lantern

No, not the Ryan Reynolds version. Let’s relegate that to the dustbin the same way Marvel keeps insisting that previous versions of Hulk movies never actually happened. Instead…

Let’s have a retcon twist on the John Stewart version of Green Lantern: instead of a Green Lantern who’s a rich black architect, let’s introduce a Green Lantern who’s a streetwise black kid. Green Lantern’s whole conceit is that the Guardians of the Universe gave him a ring to protect Earth, and this ring manifests whatever the wearer can think of as a sheer projection of his will. Call me crazy, but a kid surviving on the streets of Baltimore or D.C. — or Metropolis — is exhibiting an impressive amount of willpower already, which would undoubtedly put him on the Guardians’ radar. And giving a kid who’s previously been focusing only only protecting himself the power to suddenly protect the world would be a source of endless character growth.

In our new DC universe, the ring’s arrival could also serve a double meaning. Until now, the villains in our previous movies were fairly pedestrian foes like thieves and mad scientists, operating on a local, national, or global scale. But Green Lantern has a cosmic origin, which implies an entire galaxy of sentient creatures that could come calling on Earth — for better or worse. (In other words, shades of “all the unknown unknowns”… including the eventual emergence of Superman.)

And once we’ve established a cosmic scale, let’s take it a step further and get mythological.

5. Wonder Woman

wonder-woman

She’s a statue who was turned into a woman by a god on an island of Amazons. This isn’t exactly an origin story that jibes with tech and science heroes like Batman and The Flash, but it does allow for the expansion of our DC film universe beyond the spiritual (Hawkman) and intergalactic (Green Lantern) to establish that this same world is broad enough to encompass the existence of actual gods.

The problem with Wonder Woman as a character is that Superman’s existence renders her somewhat redundant. How many invulnerable paragons of truth and justice do we need running around Earth anyway? Thus, introduce her first — not just as “a strong woman,” but “the strongest hero we’ve seen yet.” Give Wonder Woman the place in DC’s pantheon that she’s always been afforded without ever truly making it her own: Earth’s mightiest hero.

And if her rival in this film is a fellow mythical creature like Circe, it allows our pre-existing heroes to gauge their powers against those of gods and find themselves lacking, which makes Wonder Woman’s existence a necessity for combating the threats that are beyond the others’ control. Plus, a temporary romantic triangle between Batman, The Flash and Wonder Woman would be fascinating… at least until…

6. Aquaman

“Wait, Aquaman???”

Yes. Motherfucking Aquaman.

aquaman

Poor Arthur Curry has been the punchline of every superhero satire since… basically forever. He wears orange and green, swims really fast, talks to fish, and he can’t be out of water for more than an hour? HOW USEFUL, right? In the ’90s, Peter David did his best to make the character “gritty” as a way to get people to take him seriously, but — as with most attempts at seriousness — it robbed the character of his joy. (And his hand.)

Introducing Aquaman this late in the Justice League buildup would automatically imply that he’s a force to be reckoned with, as he should be. He’s the King of Atlantis, which means he’s the ruler of all the water on Earth while the rest of us are fighting over scraps of land. And with water expected to become a resource worth warring over in our own lifetimes, Aquaman just might have something to say about all these land creatures trying to invade his territory.

To that end, if Aquaman were to use his speed, strength, and command of all sea creatures to cause a few natural disasters that destroy some Wayne Foundation deep sea oil rigs (notice how we’re graduating up from the Weather Wizard plotline from a few movies ago?), he might initially be seen as a villain that the other heroes would need to stop… or, realizing his power, a creature they’d need to reason with. (Or, if you’re Wonder Woman, someone finally worth falling in love with — like her, he’s a king in one context who’s nearly helpless in another, and who must occasionally depend on “lesser creatures” in order to survive.)

Not only would Aquaman’s introduction be a cinematic tour de force effects-wise, but it would also be the final plot point required to setup the arrival of You Know Who.

How so?

Thus far, all the films to this point have introduced heroes who each represent specific skills and values:

  • Batman (intellect, responsibility)
  • The Flash (speed, potential)
  • Hawkman & Hawkwoman (spirit, love)
  • Green Lantern (protection, willpower)
  • Wonder Woman (justice, equality)
  • Aquaman (leadership, honor)

They also each continually expand the scope of the DC Universe:

  • Batman (the city)
  • The Flash (science)
  • Hawkman & Hawkwoman (time, globalism)
  • Green Lantern (the universe)
  • Wonder Woman (mythology)
  • Aquaman (nature, war)

What’s left?

7. Superman

superman

He’s an alien who was sent here from a dying world to become a beacon of inspiration for our people. It doesn’t get any bigger than Superman, which is why he needs to be introduced last in the lineup of central DC heroes. His very existence negates the need for almost every other hero, aside from the things they do well that he cannot.

Batman is smarter than Superman. The Flash is faster than Superman. Hawkman is wiser than Superman. Green Lantern is more imaginative, Wonder Woman is more empathetic, Aquaman is a better leader.

But Superman is stronger and harder to kill than any of them.

And that means the kinds of battles Superman can fight — and the scope of threats his existence can unleash on Earth — are larger and more dangerous than anything else we’ve seen.

Once you have Superman, you have a range of perspective that puts every other hero into his / her context. You can still have Batman fighting to save his city, or Aquaman fighting to save the planet, because you always have Superman fighting to save the idea of freedom.

And it’s from that core ideal that Batman would create…

8. The Justice League

JLA

Batman is the person this cinematic DC universe would revolve around. He might seem like he’s proactively forming the Justice League to fight threats to the world on any scale, but he’d also be doing it so he could keep tabs on all his superpowered peers… in case one of them snaps. He’d be their founder and their potential nullifier, should anything go wrong.

And once all those pieces have been united, each character could carry on in his or her own solo film storylines, with the inevitable team-ups and crossovers in-between Justice League movies. From here, DC could introduce secondary characters like Green Arrow, Black Canary, Zatanna, The Atom, Firestorm, Metamorpho… the possibilities really would be endless.

And everything would exist within a hierarchy of context and meaning.

Alas, we won’t ever have that experience now that Man of Steel has redefined Superman as a glum destroyer of people and property before almost every other hero we’ve mentioned has appeared onscreen.

But hey… when DC decides to reboot their whole cinematic universe again in 15 years…

I’m Going Back to School… Kind Of

multiculturalism

When I was in art school, I really enjoyed my experience — mostly because I like to learn, but also because I excel when I know what the rules are and what’s required to obtain the “A.”

In the years since I graduated, I’ve done what most of us do when we reach “the real world” — I stopped learning in any structured way. Yes, I still read, watch, and learn about the topics I’m most interested in — or the topics my friends or girlfriends are passionate about — but most of that is accidental or incidental; it’s not intentional, because I didn’t have a structured goal.

But now I do.

Lately, I’ve been wrestling with the lack of diversity in mass media. Most of the stories we experience here in America are stories about white men, created by white men, for presumed audiences of white men. And hey, I’m a white man, so I appreciate all the attention… but I’m also a bit burned out on the endless retread of the “straight white male as epic hero” storyline.

I’m sure there are plenty of college courses I could take on this subject… but I can’t really fit a time-specific course into my schedule right now.

So instead, I’m giving myself a challenge, and I’m structuring it like a curriculum because I think that’s what I’ll be able to stick to.

Here’s what I want to do:

From July 1 through November 30 of this year, I want to:

  • read at least 5 books that were NOT written by a straight white male
  • watch at least 5 films that were NOT directed by a straight white male

And then, in December, I want to summarize my initial reactions to these stories — and this experience — in an essay, which I’ll post here on my blog.*

The catch?

I want you to help suggest the books and movies.

Please list your suggestions in the comments below, and why you’d suggest them. (It doesn’t have to be any profound reason; maybe it just happens to be your favorite book or movie.)

Then, based on your suggestions, my instincts, and a little of my own research, I’ll announce my self-imposed curriculum in July. (Apologies in advance, since I doubt I can include everything that’ll be suggested, but I’ll try to select things without any conscious bias. Also, I can only read in English, so please don’t suggest any books that aren’t available in an English translation.)

And hey: if there’s something you think you’d enjoy learning about in a similarly structured self-imposed curriculum, be my guest. Let me know and I’ll try to lend my own suggestions.

Let’s all get smarter together, shall we?

* NOTE: It’s not like I don’t already try to read and watch media created by a diverse group of artists, so I don’t want this to come across like some newfound burst of cultural tourism. What I’m actually interested in are the similarities and differences between the “traditional” straight white male stories that populate most of our mass media and the stories told by people who don’t fit that type. Maybe I’ll learn that the differences are surprisingly negligible, or maybe I’ll learn that different creators rely on different patterns just like the traditionalist media I’m questioning. Who knows? But the sooner I start consciously exploring, the sooner I’ll start to learn… whatever it is I’m about to learn.

Flickr photo by rwdownes.

Why Gatsby Can’t Be Great on Film

The Great Gatsby 2013

“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.