Most of us meet Jay Gatsby in high school. Sophomore year, junior year, the exact date doesn't matter. After ages knowing of the book's existence, hearing it muttered about and wondering just what's so great about Gatsby in the first place, we read F. Scott Fitzgerald's contribution to the canon of figments known collectively as 'Great American Novels' and we fall under the spell of its tragic opulence. Guided by a teacher skilled in repetition, we unpack metaphors and translate images: the green light, the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg, the Valley of Ashes. We become teenagers versed in disillusionment, of failures wrought by the pursuit of some mythic American Dream. We capitalize this idea, of course, when we write our essays, because it is a concept worthy of being a proper noun. The book ends, we love it because we understand it the most, because we can relate to it the most, because we are teenagers reading the story of a boy who pulls himself up from his bootstraps and builds a Shangri-la of extravagance simply to impress a girl he loves and to fit in with her people. We are teenagers and this, my friends, is romantic. We love the idea of change, of transformation, of obsessive love, escapism, alcoholism, coastal mansions, swimming pools present but unused, narrators who observe, lonely, and notice everything as they sit on the fringe.
This is what The Great Gatsby offers us, and this is what we tend to forget. As we distance ourselves from those lessons and we don't revisit West Egg, Fitzgerald's novel becomes warped and worn by memory. As with all things, it becomes reduced to fragments. Perhaps we remember that Gatsby is vaguely criminal, that the eyes are all-seeing, or simply whether or not we liked the book much to begin with. Of all the books on the required reading list, The Great Gatsby seems to be the one most beloved. Classrooms of kids seem attached to this book, and upon re-reading it I've come to the conclusion that the exact reason many loved it then is the exact reason past adaptations have failed and why Baz Luhrmann's film is currently undergoing a brutal evisceration at the hands of so very many: it's a deceptively simple, empty, straight-forward book.
Pick up The Great Gatsby again. You'll tear through it in only a couple hours, I assure you. The beauty of Fitzgerald's Lost Generation prose is pulled entirely from Nick Carraway's over-attentive narration. It's through Carraway that we receive the wry observations and curious turns of phrase that transform the novel into some sort of plain spoken poetry. These are, however, largely gifted to us in asides on the larger scheme of things and not used to add specificity to the characters, or even to himself. Carraway is a shadow figure. We learn briefly about him and then learn through him as he seems to take on a too-heavy fascination with the man obsessively in love with his cousin, Daisy Buchanan.
Daisy is drawn as an airy figure, a flighty girl with a charming demeanor who says silly things and makes each person in her presence feel special though Nick can tell, of course, she is deeply troubled. Gatsby is drawn in whole as a composite of compulsions and lies, a friendly ghost. It is Gatsby's unfinished business which haunts the novel, and we learn of him only what he tells us and what Nick Carraway can deduce from his isolation. The problem with all of this, of course, is that the novel splits the role of protagonist between Nick and Gatsby, but Nick's role is that of narrator, first and foremost. A good film, according to conventional wisdom, cannot rely on a voiceover as extensive as The Great Gatsby's, and so - in a way- the simple beauty of the novel is unfilmable. There's not a damn substantial thing about it, really, just an empty, stupid love story about empty, silly ghosts.
Still, the book is great, and while the critical majority may be quick to dismiss it as some sort of garish sacrilege, I'd argue that Baz Luhrmann's adaptation possesses its own greatness as well. Though in many ways this version of The Great Gatsby seems to have been made as a non-musical companion piece to Moulin Rouge, there's something comparatively restrained about its excesses that places a strange damper on the film's relative volume.
Though many have brutally pummeled Luhrmann's handling of the material, his choices seem to uncover the strange two-act musical theatricality of Gatsby's content: we open on a moment of transition, fall victim to many neat introductions and scene closures (hear about the job, meet the girl, trip to Manhattan, party with the mistress...), hang on for an invisible intermission into the rollicking affair, and amp up the emotions and fireworks until the finale. Luhrmann understands this structure, he understands old Hollywood romance, he understands tragedy. What he does with Fitzgerald is transition the content so that it becomes a non-musical musical. We can feel songs coming on, but never get the satisfaction of that release. Instead, everything is suppressed beneath the surface. There's no real joy, no pain, no palpable rage. Unlike Moulin Rouge, this film doesn't swoon, soar, or dip towards the overtly campy. Though it can be charming, everything is painted up with a false veneer. These characters can't sing. They're incapable of it. So, instead, they speak their ambitions in awkward, throwaway lines (it should be noted, the dialogue is remarkably faithful to the novel) and keep up appearances.
...but, I mean, here's the long and short of it: The Great Gatsby is a movie about a man who is all style over substance, who tries to throw the most decadent, lavish, absurd parties he can, and who - even in his quietest moments - is incapable of letting go of the dream, of dropping the illusion, and of just being real. The film gets this right. It offers us a dizzying cocktail of desire and upper crust lust. Nothing is truly subtle about Gatsby or about the metaphors of Fitzgerald's story, so who better to tell it than the man who gave you Nicole Kidman belting out love songs on a bedazzled elephant? The truly odd thing, as mentioned, is that Luhrmann seems to be consciously making the parties tiresome. We're meant to be awed by them, but not to want to stay at them, to understand that we do not belong.
If Luhrmann's adaptation of the novel's ideas seems off, it's because the story has always been off. Everyone is empty, everyone is sad, and when each of your characters suffers from a sort of palpable anhedonia, it seems only right that there should be - always- something between the sentiment expressed and the sentiment felt. Luhrmann is clearly attempting to draw out the madness of the scene and to visually communicate many of the working theories behind the characters. He finds a way to alter the framework, and that way is to put Nick Carraway in a sort of sanatorium, floundering and hopeless after the tarnishing of that Jazz Age silver spoon. Let's be real: this isn't exactly implausible.