The Great Gatsby
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Warner Brothers

Baz Luhrmann is the filmmaker that highbrow critics feel free to despise. Why? Because he plants his flag in their domain and then bombastically re-imagines their sacred texts through popular culture. 

He has done it again with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Instead of recreating the Jazz Age, he gives us hip-hop. And when the highbrow critics saw it, they predictably left theaters shaking their heads and sharpening their scalpels. The film’s score among top critics, as summarized on the website Rotten Tomatoes, is a mere 30 percent. The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern epitomized the disdain: “The Great Gatsby is a tale told idiotically, full of noise and furor, signifying next to nothing.” The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among the minority of positive reviews, advised readers that if they could just forget everything they know about the book, they might find this flamboyant three-ring circus entertaining.

The Great Gatsby is not just any eye-popping 3-D movie. It cost more than $100 million and stars two of Hollywood’s most bankable actors: Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby and Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, the character who narrates Fitzgerald’s book. Luhrmann enlisted rapper/entrepreneur Jay-Z as an executive producer for the film score, much of it written and sung by celebrity artists—Beyoncé, Fergie, Lana Del Rey, and others with fans around the world. The soundtrack set a record for digital sales in its first week. There were also deals with Brooks Brothers, Prada, Tiffany’s, and others to release Gatsby fashion lines when the film launched. 

Despite the bad reviews, the movie-going public went in droves, and in a few weeks the film had earned more than $250 million at box offices globally—a record for Luhrmann, who is no stranger to commercial success. His Romeo and Juliet (1996), also starring DiCaprio, brought a new generation of teenagers into the temple of Shakespeare. Described variously by the top critics as “a classic thrown into the path of a subway train,” “the MTV version,” and a “monumental disaster,” it proceeded to make more money than any other film version of a Shakespeare play.

I suspect many of those flocking to The Great Gatsby have read the novel, which has long been assigned in middle and high school classes as well as in college literature courses, and I do not think they found it necessary to forget everything they knew about F. Scott Fitzgerald to be entertained.

• • •

There is no 20th century American novel more universally worshipped than The Great Gatsby. Considered by many the greatest American novel of the century, it has the blessings of the titans of literary criticism: T.S. Eliot proclaimed it the first American novel to move beyond Henry James; Lionel Trilling opined that it grew in importance with the passing years; Harold Bloom compared its creativity to John Keats’s sublime Odes; and, completing this sample of exalted praise, the French critic Letha Audhuy deconstructed the novel to find the myth and symbols of Eliot’s The Waste Land transposed to an American context. The acclaim speaks both to the artistry and the supposed profundity of the novel.

But reread the novel or poke into the critical writing and you may find less profundity and more ambiguity than advertised. Indeed you may discover that the brilliance of The Great Gatsby has been vastly overblown. After all it is closer to a novella than a novel. Its nine chapters can easily be read in one sitting. None of the characters are fleshed out in its brief pages. 

When it was first published in 1925 to disappointing reviews, Fitzgerald complained that the critics did not understand what it was really about. Unfortunately Fitzgerald never told us. Is the book a satire of American reality or a mythical account of the Roaring Twenties? Is it the American dream or the American nightmare? The British poet and critic Philip Hobsbaum traced the ambiguities of Gatsby to Fitzgerald’s style: “the most anti-social actions, the worst characters, are sweetened out of satire into his fantastic prose.” Indeed there are memorably beautiful passages, but there is also a fair share of sophomoric, purple prose: “In [Gatsby’s] blue gardens men and girls came like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars”; or “Her throat, full of aching, grieving beauty, told only of her unexpected joy”; or “a universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain while the clock ticked on the washstand and the moon soaked with wet light his tangled clothes upon the floor”; or “his mind would never romp again like the mind of God.”

Hobsbaum described The Great Gatsby as “one man’s fantasy,” “minor art,” and, I paraphrase, a morally ambiguous novel infused with moral significance by literary critics and elevated as an American classic years after it was published. I have always read Gatsby not as the American dream but as Fitzgerald’s version of the Faust legend. Gatsby (Faust) makes his pact with the Jewish gangster Wolfsheim (Mephistopheles) and sacrifices his soul to gain wealth and his love Daisy (Gretchen). Like every pact with the devil, it ends badly. And I confess that I have never been able to forgive Fitzgerald the anti-Semitism in his description of the evil primitive Wolfsheim or in the gratuitous references to “kikes.” His novel reeks of cultural and classist biases. I for one did not worry that Luhrmann would damage this sacred text.

• • •

Luhrmann and his co-writer Craig Pearce, who have collaborated since their high school drama club days, spent months working on the screenplay, and it is clear that they thought through every word of the novel. Luhrmann and Pearce wisely recognized that most of Fitzgerald’s poetic prose could not be transformed into dialogue. The few lines they used verbatim are spoken by Nick in reflective voiceovers or float out from the on-screen page on which they are being written.

Luhrmann and Pearce also consulted earlier drafts, Fitzgerald’s short stories, and various archival sources in their search for authenticity. They evidently assumed that the character of Daisy was based on Zelda Fitzgerald, and they had Carey Mulligan, poorly cast in the role, go through Zelda’s correspondence. Mulligan in fact added a line she found in Zelda’s correspondence with Fitzgerald, which was not in the novel. She says to Gatsby, “I wish I could have done everything in the world with you.” This biographical research may have given Mulligan a greater sense of psychological depth than she is able to convey to audiences. She does not look like the love of Gatsby’s life. I certainly had no idea she was also channeling Zelda.

Luhrmann is interested in every aspect of filmmaking, but he is most interested in spectacle.

In a major departure from the book, Luhrmann and Pearce invent a framing story involving the narrator, Nick. In the book and movie, Nick is obviously Fitzgerald’s proxy: he is writing the account. Indeed literary critics debate whether Nick’s moral judgments mirror Fitzgerald’s. Luhrmann and Pearce pushed the idea further and in the screenplay made Nick an alcoholic like Fitzgerald. The film opens with Nick in a posh private sanitarium. The camera pauses briefly at the sign on the gate: “Perkins.” The cognoscenti will recognize the name as homage to the legendary Maxwell Perkins, Fitzgerald’s editor. After his hectic summer at West Egg, Nick is recovering from alcoholism, insomnia, and anxiety. Nick tells his friendly old Doctor Perkins that he doesn’t want to talk about what happened, and the doctor suggests that Nick write it down, since he finds solace in writing. The novel is Nick’s therapy, and it seems to work. At the end of the film we watch him assemble the finished manuscript. Typed on the cover page is the title, a single word: “Gatsby.” In an afterthought he picks up his pen and adds “The Great”—his final judgment of the man. 

Maguire’s Nick has the most lines and camera time. He has to carry the narrative and maintain his sense of innocence and honesty amidst the corruption that engulfs him. He is the literary equivalent of a participant-observer, inside and outside at the same time.

Nick is a Candide; he serves as the moral arbiter of the old-rich Buchanans, the new-rich Gatsby, and everyone else. After a dinner in East Egg with the Buchanans, he knows that Tom, his Yale classmate, is a racist ideologue who is keeping a mistress in New York. He thinks Daisy, his second cousin and Tom’s wife, should grab their two-year-old daughter and run. And he suspects that Daisy’s friend, the golfer Jordan Baker, is a compulsive liar. Nick does his best to calm increasingly troubled waters as Tom’s mistress calls in the middle of dinner. An argument ensues, and the ill-mannered Jordan insists on eavesdropping. Nick realizes, as we do, that here in East Egg the old rich no longer have moral direction or purpose. Daisy is bitter and disillusioned. Nick wants to fight off that cynicism. This is what will align him with Gatsby, who, with all his absurd pretentions, radiates optimism and hope. It is essential that Nick be likeable, and in Maguire’s rendition, he is. 

One can easily imagine that fraught dinner scene at East Egg on a Broadway stage. The Great Gatsby was in fact made into a play in the 1920s. But in the film, the visuals—the billowing curtains, the parades of orchestrated footmen, and the shifting camera shots—are operatic, yielding a spectacle rather than a drama. And this is before Luhrmann really lets go: the partying begins, the music plays, the colors intensify, the fireworks go off, the screen is thronged, the cameras swoop, and the mysterious Gatsby finally appears.

• • •

What can one say about Leonardo DiCaprio? Is there a more ambitious actor in Hollywood or a more perfectly handsome one? One of the reasons Titanic (1997) was so successful at the box office is that teenage girls went back to see him three or four times. But DiCaprio is not satisfied with being a heartthrob. He played the repressed homosexual J. Edgar Hoover. He took on the obsessive compulsive genius Howard Hughes. As a very young actor he played the autistic brother of Gilbert Grape. Perhaps his most unforgettable and least noted role was as the French poet Rimbaud (Total Eclipse, 1995) who at age sixteen seduces the established poet Verlaine, taking him away from his young wife and baby and the financial security of her bourgeois family. DiCaprio’s Rimbaud was the man-woman sociopath who let everything hang out. Perhaps it is because of that performance that I always see something epicene in DiCaprio.

But his entrance into The Great Gatsby is a triumph of masculine charisma. It is in the midst of one of his great parties, where Nick is hoping to meet him. We hear his voice off camera. Then, to a display of fireworks and the mounting strains of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, the great Gatsby appears. DiCaprio seems the perfect embodiment of Fitzgerald’s man with the smile that one sees only a few times in a lifetime. 

Luhrmann is interested in every aspect of filmmaking, but he is most interested in spectacle. And in his spectacular movie, a manic bacchanal, a frenzy of visual images, any other actor but DiCaprio would be lost. What saves him is not his acting but his luminous screen presence.

Other casting decisions are intriguing. Luhrmann made the film in Australia and used several local actors, including Joel Edgerton, who plays a believably sinister and domineering Tom, and Isla Fisher, who plays his vulgar and impulsive mistress, Myrtle Wilson. She is the hit-and-run victim whose affair with Tom and eventual death and are blamed on Gatsby. The Australian actor Jason Clarke, who was last seen as the leader of the CIA torture team in Zero Dark Thirty (2012), has been given the role of Myrtle’s husband, the pathetic cuckold, abused and manipulated by Tom. It is a small part but crucial, and he carries it off brilliantly. For the role of Wolfsheim, who fixed the 1919 World Series and set up Gatsby in bootlegging and bond fraud, Luhrmann cast the famous Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan. It is a cameo appearance by the father figure of Bollywood, whose regal appearance negates all of Fitzgerald’s anti-Semitism. Whether consciously or not, Luhrmann’s artistic choices dissolve most of the cultural and classist bias that pervades the novel. 

The dramatic high point of the film, as in the novel, takes place when Tom confronts Gatsby in the Plaza Hotel. In this scene Gatsby’s love for Daisy is revealed as a kind of madness that defeats him. Although there is nothing explicitly erotic in the book or in the film, we know that they have been having an affair and Daisy is ready to leave Tom and run off with Gatsby. But that is not enough for Gatsby. He needs to believe that Daisy has loved only him, as he has her. Not content with winning Daisy, he hopes to redo the past: he insists that Daisy tell Tom that she never loved him. That mad hope is too much for Daisy. She balks, then falters, and, seizing on Gatsby’s “madness,” Tom regains his bullying control of his wife.

In this scene most of the words are Fitzgerald’s, and drama conquers spectacle until the very climax. Luhrmann has imagined a tableau vivant confrontation between Gatsby and Tom. In this choreographed moment—perhaps with some improvisation—the actors’ heads come together like two stags about to fight, but there is no physical violence, and they separate with a red-faced Gatsby defeated. It is one of the few moments in this long film that seems a mistake.

In Nick’s estimation, Gatsby at the end of the novel is more sinned against than sinner: “They’re a rotten crowd . . . you’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” And so it is in this film. However, in the film more than in the novel, it is clear that Nick has become Gatsby’s friend. Mad hope and a dream of love, even a pact with the devil, are more admirable to Nick than the cynicism that breeds moral callousness. 

In judging Luhrmann’s work, it is worth remembering that Hollywood tried several times before to bring Gatsby to the screen and failed. Many thought it could not be done. Luhrmann’s bombastic, anachronistic style may well have made it happen: a Great Gatsby for the 21st century. For those who think this is a sacrilege there is still the book, and, as Luhrmann points out, copies are now selling on Amazon as never before.

Editors' Note: This article appeared in the July/August 2013 print edition.