The Great Gatsby and Cinematic Disillusionment

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages you’ve had.’”

Solid, yet ironic, advice from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway, but I’m fairly certain Baz Lurhmann has had a few more advantages than I have at this point. So, today, I’m playing the part of scathing movie critic.

After months of anticipation, I can whole-heartedly say that Baz Lurhmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—my favorite piece of literature that I’ve yet to lay my eyes on— fell flat. I tried avidly to walk out the movie theater with some sort of affinity for the film, but I’d be lying if I said I did. I felt nothing and that’s where the problem lies.

The Great Gatsby is a masterful piece of writing that communicates the sense of national disillusionment in 1920s America, ill-fated relationships and a doomed American Dream, all through exquisite composition. I honestly don’t believe all the words in the dictionary can evoke just how brilliant this novel is.

However, it’s evident that Baz was unable to grasp Fitzgerald’s intentions behind the novel whatsoever. The corruption and carelessness of this era and the pointless hope of the nouveau riche was vastly overlooked. Instead, we witnessed overdramatic character portrayals and disproportionate scenes of glamour. I couldn’t help but wince at the director’s attempts to be “artsy” and “different.” The movie screamed for attention through vibrant colors and admittedly eye-catching scenes, but with desperation and vapidity. Interpretation is subjective, but there is no way you should leave any rendition of this story without being overcome by tragedy, grasping for a distinction between perception and reality, and downtrodden by the overwhelming sense of national failure.

I suppose he assumed people weren’t intelligent enough to figure out the story on their own. Lurhmann’s rendition begins in a psychiatric facility. We can’t settle for the fact that Nick is just writing about his experiences, as Fitzgerald originally conveyed (vaguely, in order to hint at the narrator’s unreliability as an impartial storyteller, despite his convictions). No, Baz had to go and make him crazy. His life was so traumatic, he’s now in a mental home, angrily typing his woes and battling alcohol addiction— rather insulting, in my opinion.

In addition to embellishing what was already a perfectly written introduction, the director chose to omit several important facets of the novel. I understand time constraints with movies, but how can you miss the scene involving Daisy and Tom’s little girl, Jordan and Nick’s love affair, and the discovery that all of Gatsby’s books are, in fact, real? These crucial moments were exchanged for other unnecessarily elongated scenes.

Although true to plenty of the author’s loaded sentences, Baz continues his assumption that we’re too stupid to get implicit implications by spoon-feeding his actors lines, as if communicating bullet points from a Spark Notes study guide. “East Egg” the narrator remarks, “is old money.” Thanks for stating the obvious. Time could have been better spent conveying the intricately implied corruption and forthcoming destruction of the American Dream instead of spelling everything out for the viewer.

It’s a shame; I was excited to see this movie. The trailers enticed me and promised a profound interpretation of a profound story. It could have been great. I did enjoy some of the modern music choices in certain scenes. But techno beats at a roaring ‘20s party— not the best choice. Music plays a major role in Fitzgerald’s novels, The Great Gatsby being no exception. This was yet another crucial component of the original storyline that the director overlooked. Unlike Tarantino, who masterfully intertwines the use of oversized font messaging to transition from scene to scene, Lurhmann abused his right for graphic enhancements. The famous, final few words of the novel— the most incredible sentence that captures an entire, dwindling generation in surprisingly simple diction— were largely portrayed across the screen in the last scene, as if the audience should sing along. Just tacky.

The only exceptional part of the film: Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Jay Gatsby (and stunning ability to pull off a pastel pink suit). He nailed it. It’s a pity that little else held up around him.

As I sat in a packed theatre, full of high school students seeking extra credit for seeing the movie adaptation of what they only see as their next homework assignment, my heart ached. It’s like Gatsby, reaching for that green light, that fragment of hope for complete happiness and a better tomorrow—this movie had the potential to be groundbreaking. It just missed the mark.

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