The Great Gatsby: Luhrmann vs. Fitzgerald

Would F. Scott have liked all the Jay-Z?

Today, the fourth cinematic adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby (starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, and Joel Edgerton) opens in theaters across the country. (Well, the fifth if you include the 2000 TV movie starring Mira Sorvino and Paul Rudd. Which I don’t.) Directed by Baz Luhrmann—the visionary behind Romeo + Juliet, Strictly Ballroom, and Moulin Rouge!—this Gatsby is grandiose, sparkling, well-acted … but surprisingly ho-hum in places. [My grade: B-] While still often entertaining (unlike the 1974 snooze-fest starring Mia Farrow and Robert Redford), this Gatsby has quite a few changes from the book version. Some of them good; others, not so much.

Here, a roster of some of the liberties Luhrmann took with Fitzgerald’s classic—for better and for worse. (Need a plot refresher? Click here.) Oh, and I shouldn’t have to say this—especially for a book written 85 years ago—but for those who attended one of the five high schools in the U.S. that didn’t assign F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: spoiler alert.

1. Nick narrates from a sanitarium. Stop me if you heard this one before: a depressed, alcoholic, struggling writer tries to cope with the loss of someone close by typing out the story. Nope, I’m not talking about Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, in which Christian wrote and sang about his beloved Satine. It’s the same construction used for Gatsby. Giving purpose to Nick’s narration of the film is understandable; otherwise it’s like a nature show with a detached, God-like voice. But having Nick tell the story, as treatment in a sanitarium, is unnecessarily overdramatic.

2. It’s in 3D.

3. No Henry C. Gatz. Cinematically, it would be hard to introduce an important character at the end of the story. But by meeting Gatsby’s father on the day of Gatsby’s funeral, Nick finally learns something true and unadulterated about the man born James Gatz: that he grew up in an honest, decent farming family, and from an early age was determined to better himself. Without this character, the movie loses the only person who intimately knew and unconditionally loved Gatsby. Leaving us only with the façade.

4. Characters are older. The actors are each about five years older than the characters in the book; which, frankly, doesn’t affect the storyline at all. I only bring this up to point out that Leonardo DiCaprio is a year older (38) than Robert Redford (37) was when he played the part. Feel old?

5. Tom instigates Gatsby’s death. In the book, it is George Wilson’s idea to hunt down and shoot the man who he suspects killed his wife. He only settles on killing Gatsby (and then himself) after he visits Tom’s house. But in the movie, immediately after coming upon the accident wherein Myrtle was killed, Tom tells the grieving Wilson that Gatsby was to blame and that Wilson should do something about it. With this change, Tom is no longer a jealous coward simply trying to protect himself. Now he is a jealous, baneful monster, who actively causes Gatsby’s death. Perhaps a minor change, but it exonerates those characters whose passivity was just as destructive. (Namely Daisy, who was driving the car that struck Myrtle.)

6. Beautiful Myrtle. Sorry, producers. No matter how much bad makeup you throw on Isla Fischer, she will never match the book’s description: “her face… contained no facet or gleam of beauty.”

7. Makes “beautiful shirts” work. Nearly all great books or plays or movies have a line or two that just simply fall flat. (Ahem, “I carried a watermelon.”) But in one particularly excruciating moment in the book, Daisy begins to cry as Gatsby throws his multi-colored shirts on to the bed: ’They are such beautiful shirts,’ she sobbed, her voice muffled in thick folds. But Carey Mulligan, with a slight change to the line and an awareness of another character listening, makes it work.

8. Modern soundtrack. Okay, okay there was obviously no soundtrack to the book. But in usual Luhrmann style, music of the appropriate time period is replaced by something modern. And while I doubt Fitzgerald could have ever envisioned it, something tells me he might have approved of Jay-Z, The xx, and Florence and the Machine.

9. Heavy-handed tone. Luhrmann is not known for subtlety. With quick-cut edits, stomach-turning camerawork, and over-styled scenery he likes to show rather than to imply. For parts of the film this is effective, as in the party scenes that burn bright but fast. They are visually sumptuous (though never reaching the energetic heights of any Moulin Rouge! moments). But the quieter, more dialogue-heavy scenes—some of Fitzgerald’s best—are less successful. Without any splashy sets or flashy music, they merely become the moments where we wait for something else to happen.