It was one of the most hotly anticipated cinematic releases of the year, taking on the mammoth task of adapting one of most well-loved classics of the twentieth century. But was it successful? This month we continue looking at adaptations of books with Tim Halliday’s opinion on The Great Gatsby…
Undoubtedly one of the biggest adaptations of 2013, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby was awaited with both great anticipation and anxiety from lovers of the book. Fitzgerald’s crowning novel is an ode to the Jazz Age in America, and ultimately exposed the hollow, empty nature of the substanceless ‘American Dream’ based largely on greed. Perhaps the progressive writer could be compared to the eccentric director Luhrmann, who cites Italian opera as a key influence on his work, and whose film Moulin Rouge had can-can dancers bouncing along to Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. Whilst Luhrmann’s flamboyant style successfully captures the excitement of the Jazz Age, he fails to portray the death of the American Dream as Fitzgerald did so masterfully.
In some ways, Luhrmann’s adaptation was well executed. Leonardo DiCaprio pulls off Gatsby’s enigmatic smile with ease, and was an excellent choice for the part, whilst Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway was appropriately awkward. The soundtrack was a stroke of genius, and the inclusion of modern artists such as Jay-Z, The XX and Lana del Rey translates the buzz of the Jazz Age for a modern viewer in the way that contemporary music would not have. Critics who scorned the use of rap and hip-hop in such an iconic work of American literature seemed to forget that Jazz is founded on precisely this kind of musical innovation.
However, in other ways Luhrmann falls short. Nick Carraway is the novel’s narrator and serves to provide an outsider’s look into the extravagant world of what Fitzgerald might term ‘Flappers and Philosophers’. Through his eyes, the reader gains a sense of the unnecessary excess, shallowness and unhappiness of the age. Luhrmann is less successful in this respect, focusing instead on the visuals of the parties, although admittedly this provided entertaining viewing, it failed to convey a key part of the novel. What’s more, in typical Hollywood fashion, Luhrmann overplays the love story of this film. Daisy Buchanan, whom Jay Gatsby describes as having ‘a voice full of money’, is the both the ultimate symbol of wealth and power in the novel and a shallow, callous character. The relationship between Gatsby and Daisy was poorly represented in the film, where Daisy was far too sympathetic and viewers were left sighing about their tragic lost love, whilst in the book Gatsby arguably never loved Daisy, only what she represented.
It might be a cliché, but it truly is impossible to state whether a film adaptation is better than a novel, because they are two entirely different things. Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby brings the Jazz Age to life in an entertaining way that perhaps the novel might not for a modern audience. However, ultimately he fails to accurately represent the underlying message of the novel and it is for this reason that his adaptation is unlikely to endure as long as Fitzgerald’s novel.
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