Adapting The Great Gatsby, one of the greatest American novels ever written, and my personal favorite book, is no easy task. There have been multiple adaptations of the book in the past and they all seem to fail to capture what made the novel such a moving and memorable story. Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation is no exception and fails as well in this regard, but with that being said it is likely the best Gatsby movie we have ever gotten or are likely to get. If you are looking for an adaptation on the level of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The Great Gatsby is probably more on par with the Harry Potter films; passable but not a classic like it’s source material.
When the film started I was very worried, things did not look good. It begins with a framing story involving the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway (Tobey McGuire), telling the story of his friend Gatsby to a doctor after Nick has become an alcoholic and an insomniac, among other things. Aside from this being a rather stupid way to frame a movie, it contrasts the character of Nick as he is presented in the novel and rest of the film. The film then becomes reminiscent of Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, an odd slideshow of colors and costumes with quick strange dialog and cuts. Perhaps worst of all is the soundtrack; the beginning of the film is filled with rap songs. The modern rap against the Jazz Age setting is disjointing to say the least. I found myself recalling the 1974 Great Gatsby imaging if it too had used the popular songs of the era if it was released, namely disco.
Luckily, like Moulin Rouge, Great Gatsby eventually moved away from the bright showiness at the beginning of the film and was redeemed by its dark and serious ending. The moment I began to feel the film may yet save itself was when the titular Gatsby emerged for the first time. While the reveal of Gatsby itself was rather ridiculous, once we actually see Leonardo DiCaprio the movie begins to steady itself, and that is no coincidence. Gatsby is undoubtedly one of the most complex characters in modern literature, and finding an actor to embody that role is no small task. Even Robert Redford, one of the greatest and most iconic actors of all time, utterly failed to do the character justice. DiCaprio on the other hand manages to bring Fitzgerald’s character to life giving him at various points; subtle humor, rage, desperation, envy and most of all hope. His performance is by far the best thing about the film; it may indeed be the best performance of an already spectacular career.
Of course DiCaprio’s performance isn’t the only great one in the film; the entire cast is incredible. Tobey McGuire speaks the beautiful words from Fitzgerald’s book so naturally it’s as if he came up with them himself. Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, and even Jason Clarke all give extraordinary performances. Aside from the cast, the most impressive thing about the film is, unsurprisingly, the visuals. The over the top imagery, which was a distraction in the beginning of the film, becomes one of its greatest qualities later on. The symbolic and iconic images from the novel including; the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg, Gatsby’s yellow car, and of course the green light across the bay, are painted beautifully on screen. Naturally one of the most talked about visuals is the 3D imagery, and while some films substantially benefit from 3D, here it is nonsensical. The only really noticeable use of the 3D are the occasional words literally floating around during the scenes that show Nick writing, which really only act as a distraction and an aggravation. Save yourself the three to four dollars and see the film in 2D.
Like every adaptation of a novel, some things are changed or omitted, but the only ones that really bother me are the previously mentioned framing story with Nick, and Jordan Baker’s (Elizabeth Debicki) total lack of character. Even these things become minor issues as the movie goes on. Everything which was a major problem at the begging of the film is taken care of before the credits roll. The silliness is replaced by a sense of importance, the chaotic shots and dialogue slow down and the last rap song plays at about the halfway point (although other modern music persists throughout the film).
The Great Gatsby is not the definitive version of an American masterpiece that so many have been waiting for, but it will do. The powerful themes and messages are certainly there, however they are often overshadowed by the lavish nature of the movie. The film is still an important work of art however, and the story is just as amazing on the big screen as it was in paperback. If we can judge the film on its own merits, without comparing it to the novel, we can see it as it was meant to be seen, a tragic story about the American dream. Perhaps the main thing the film has going against it is how familiar and how powerful the source material is; after all no one criticizes Spielberg’s Jurassic Park for essentially throwing half of the things from the book out the window. The Great Gatsby is a flawed but beautiful film filled with amazing performances and important themes and one any literature or cinema fan should not miss.