Almost 90 years after the publication of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most popular novel, The Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann, the Australian film director who draws as much attention as the biggest Hollywood stars, has put it right back in the center of the artistic debate with a cinematographic version of the all-time classic that is both drastically irreverent and deliberately faithful to the original at the same time.
Such seemingly contradictory interpretation could perhaps only have come from the hand of Luhrmann’s panache and his fondness of an extravagant show. No stranger to the challenges of fitting new clothes on a traditional favorite, Luhrmann achieved notoriety in Hollywood in the ’90s with his idiosyncratic adaptation of Romeo and Juliet to the big screen, with Leonardo DiCaprio starring as the young fickle lover, and Claire Danes featuring as the somewhat more prudent but ultimately doomed object of his desire.
While Danes has hit the heights of pop cult exploring the neuroses of a character, and indeed a country, obsessed with the threat of terrorism, DiCaprio has built his persona around the trough that separates the cool from the gentlemanly, the beautiful from the brave. Luhrmann, meanwhile, has gone from strength to strength at throwing a party, outdoing his efforts in Moulin Rouge with his debauched depiction of Gatsby’s bacchanalia, which at times appears to be the focal point of his interest in The Great Gatsby.
Ironically, while Luhrmann uses many of the original foundations eked out by Fitzgerald to build his own script, with long sections of the novel being read by the protagonist’s voiceover, it is precisely the purists who have most vehemently criticized his adaptation. Because a film is far more than its script; indeed, a film is far more visual than its script, and Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby extrapolates Fitzgerald’s story from its context and places it in a setting that is no closer to New York in the jazz age than his (or Shakespeare’s, for that matter) Romeo and Juliet is to fair Verona in the time of the Scaligers. That is why, despite the costumes and the cars and the music (or precisely because of them), the whole feel of the film is deeply contemporary, evocative more of the excessive post-match parties we saw condemned/glorified (it’s a thin line between the two) in Any Given Sunday than of the post-war, pre-Depression buoyancy of the 1920s.
In The Great Gatsby, like previously in Romeo and Juliet, Luhrmann faces the double hurdle of overcoming preconceptions not only about a literary classic but also about authoritative film versions, the established classics, which often will put to question the point of producing (or even watching) a remake: Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet; Redford’s Gatsby. This comes with the territory, of course, together with intense public scrutiny (and attention) and likely higher attendance records. Luhrmann’s answer is to highlight the current relevance of these timeless works through the unadulterated delivery of the words, made to fit into a different, contemporary, context: gang life not in fair Verona but in the vast richness of Hollywood reveries in the case of Romeo and Juliet, and equally imaginative fantasies about the lifestyle of the rich and the famous in the naughty noughties in the case of The Great Gatsby. Luhrmann’s films, then, are not about the realities of a different time but about the fantasies of our own time, which are often not as original or unique as we might imagine.
But what is it that at this late stage of the game we still like about The Great Gatsby? Why do we dream Gatsby’s dream, and why de we even care enough to read a column about it in the Saturday supplement? Written in 1925, The Great Gatsby is Fitzgerald’s third and shortest novel, though perhaps not his most poignant. Put to the test, Gatsby’s story is not even that interesting: granted, he is a relatively young, self-made man who, come the summer of 1922, has achieved tremendous economic success. But Gatsby is dull at best when it comes to conversation; he is egocentric and, come think about it, slightly deranged; his taste is questionable and his credentials non-existent. Gatsby is the talk of town in Long Island because he can afford anything at all, and because he chooses to share his fortune to the merriment of others, of all others. But it is almost a given that whatever Gatsby got, he didn’t get it through hard work. Indeed, this very certainty feeds his myth, because everybody loves a gangster (at least everyone in America does), especially if it is a sophisticated one. And whatever can be said about Gatsby, he possesses charm. Charm, and a beautiful smile which is far more vividly brought to life in Robert Redford’s hallmark face than in Leonardo DiCaprio’s. Be that as it may, Gatsby is admittedly shady and probably a crook; he’s a liar and an eccentric megalomaniac. In other words, Gatsby is certainly not the sort of person you would want to have as your best friend, and yet, three generations after Fitzgerald first created him, we are still obsessed with his story.
It’s hard to tell. If Gatsby sat next to you in your couch and told you about this radiant girl with lax morals whom he saw once five years ago and whom he couldn’t get out of his mind you’d tell him to shut up and pour him enough bourbon for him to forget even his name, let alone hers. But Gatsby isn’t real; he’s not flesh and blood, and you cannot kick him out of any of his habits. Gatsby is an illusion, a fantasy, something far short of the ideal, but something desired nonetheless. Let me say that again: Gatsby is an illusion, the not-so-great, and perhaps even not-so-American, dream that entices us, even despite ourselves. The illusion is Gatsby, not what he seeks. Gatsby is both near and far, eminently flawed and unimaginably successful (who goes from being a penniless officer to becoming rich beyond measure in the space of five years?!), charming and unscrupulous, the Ying and the Ying, anything and everything all at once. Gatsby appeals to us in the same way that we say we wish we could do something we have absolutely no intention of even attempting. Indeed, Gatsby feeds our fantasies, and that’s why he will never grow old. No wonder, then, Baz Luhrmann chose him as the object of his latest fetish!