There is a saying that “All that glitters is not gold.” Such is the case with Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, a film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic which is filled with sparkling special effects and art direction, but unfortunately hollow when it comes to depicting its story in a truly meaningful way. From his previous works, I suppose it was expected that Luhrmann would present the narrative with over-the-top visual pizzazz. There is no mistaking, that his latest effort is a dazzling one, but it often fails to mine the true potential of Fitzgerald’s tale.
Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a favorite book of mine; I love the poetic, colorful language, the initial mystery surrounding the title character, the joyous parties, the bittersweet nostalgia. The novel is written, in many ways, like a film and for this reason, I have often thought that it could be well-translated to the silver screen. I have yet to see the older adaptation starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, but after experiencing Luhrmann’s version, I’m beginning to doubt the possibility of a great Gatsby film.
Screenwriters Luhrmann and Pierce might understand the source material well enough, but their screenplay is too reliant on Fitzgerald’s literary devices. Yes, quotations from the original novel can certainly strengthen a script. The main problem with this adaptation’s approach is its use of voice-over narration. While the co-writers may be telling the story the way that Fitzgerald did, film and literature are two separate arts which depict events in different ways. Constant narration and verbal description of the character’s emotions are literary devices. Films are better suited to utilize images, accompanied by minimal dialogue. There are a few moments when Luhrmann & Co. seem to forget the difference between the two forms; the most laughable example is when a character’s face is twisted in obvious fury and the narrator proceeds to explain that his expression is one of anger.
Even with the excessive visuals and narration, The Great Gatsby occasionally drags along, a relatively short novel stretched over a 143 minute runtime. This might have been easily solved by cutting down the voice-overs and party scenes, but I suspect more issues would still persist. Only a few of the performances are particularly note-worthy, though the casting is one of the film’s major strengths. Leonardo DiCaprio embodies the title role with apparent ease. He never strikes a false note, shifting from confident millionaire host to vulnerable, nervous lover more than once. Joel Edgerton turns in the film’s other great performance as Tom Buchanan, excellently portraying the character’s physical intensity described in Fitzgerald’s book.
Even though most of what I have written is negative, I was entertained and wouldn’t discourage fans of the novel from seeing it. I might even make a point of seeing it again before it leaves theaters. For those who have experienced the deeper, richer, and better form of the story, Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby might be an interesting attempt at displaying the author’s descriptive visual language in an eye-popping CGI spectacle. Unfortunately, I suspect that many who are new to the story will see little more than another Anna Karenina-like soap opera. As much as this film tries to capture the greatness of the original masterpiece, movies like this are fuel for arguing that books are usually better than their screen adaptations.