Dumbing Down The Great Gatsby: Will Baz Luhrmann's Spectacle Miss the Point?
In one of The Great Gatsby‘s most famous passages, a nervous Gatsby gives Daisy a tour of his mansion, desperate to impress the girl who abandoned him for his poverty. In his closet, he begins throwing “shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher— shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue.” Daisy begins to weep. She has never seen “such—such beautiful shirts before.”
Baz Luhrmann has decided to make his Gatsby adaptation a lavish 3D extravaganza, and his shirt scene will feature—if the preview is to be believed—a slow-motion shower of finely-tailored button-downs raining down on a twirling Daisy. This could capture Gatsby’s manic striving if Luhrmann did not so clearly identify, not with Nick or with Fitzgerald, but with Daisy in her dazzled shirt ecstasy—oh, such beautiful shirts…IN 3-D!!! Baz Luhrmann read this tragic, comic, perfectly ironic moment in literature as the perfect opportunity for an aerial bonanza of coral, a cross-promotional deal with Brooks Brothers in the making. Because Baz Luhrmann is, quite simply, too dumb for The Great Gatsby.
I used to love Baz Luhrmann. I also used to love hallucinagens. And I see that there’s a place for his druggy, hypercolored visual stylings. The musical numbers in Moulin Rouge? Fun. The surreal camp of Strictly Ballroom? Fantastic. The parties in The Great Gatsby? Yes, sure. I have no doubt that Luhrmann can capture the gauche excess and boozy hysteria of Gatsby’s parties. Luhrmann’s ragers boast gilded costumes from Prada, elaborate song and dance numbers, fireworks choreographed to “Rhapsody in Blue.” The movie is scored by Jay-Z, and great fanfare has been given to each of the soundtrack’s carefully-curated tracks—Beyonce and Andre 3000! Lana Del Rey! The XX! There will be glamorous 3-D flappers! If The Great Gatsby was all about wild parties and anachronistic music choices, I think Baz Luhmann would be great. But it’s not.
The Great Gatsby is part satire, part tragedy, and a successful film adaptation would require depth, irony, and nuance. Luhrmann, though, is all adolescent emotion—overblown, simplistic, self-indulgent—and in matters of textual analysis, he is functionally illiterate. Even the novel’s parties, which have always dazzled readers and tempted filmmakers with their cinematic quality, are actually jewels of sharp social criticism. Gatsby throws them as another act of striving, an attempt to make Daisy and her world his, even though he does not, cannot, really belong—he never even participates in his parties. Fitzgerald gives every party a current of social anxiety—no one has authentic conversations or connections with one another, and Gatsby simply watches these stagings while he waits for Daisy to be drawn to the spectacle. Of the hundreds of people who attend the parties, drinking his bootlegged champagne, dancing to his famed musicians, flirting with famous actresses, less than a handful even remember or appreciate him enough to come to the generous host’s funeral.
It also seems that Luhrmann, like many a first-time Gatsby reader (I was one of them), will cast Daisy as a sympathetic romantic heroine; to see her through Gatsby’s eyes. But Daisy is awful! She and her husband, Tom, are “careless people…they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money of their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” The tragedy of Gatsby and Daisy, which Luhrmann is branding an epic love story, is not that they can’t be together; it’s that he’s enraptured by a shallow, cowardly, amoral cipher. At best, Daisy is vacuous and callow; at worst she is a shrewd, remorseless murderer. Carey Mulligan is a great actress, but it would be difficult to play this object of love as the life-ruiner she is when the director is so invested in creating another of his mawkish, sentimentalized love stories.
Gatsby’s tragedy is that he is completely engulfed in an impossible fantasy; he is obsessed with recreating himself. This is the American Dream that Fitzgerald takes on: the idea that with enough money and will, one can simply undo the past. And the novel is beautiful in how it allows the audience to yearn with Gatsby and the “colossal vitality of his illusion.” At the same time, Fitzgerald reveals his own tortured relationship with wealth, with status, with the fine line between romance and delusion. But Luhrmann has said that he thinks that the story “is aspirational. Gatsby’s a sign, a symbol, for us all. To Nick Carroway, he’s saying, “I’m going to make money on Wall Street,” and then it’s, “No, I want to make my mark; I have a cause.”
Baz Luhrmann will follow 1974’s failed Gatsby adaptation in, as Vincent Canby said, “seeing almost everything and comprehending practically nothing.” Luhrmann and his 3-D glasses will doubtlessly show us freshly squeezed orange juice and bootlegged liquor, the cream Rolls and pink suit, the breast “hanging like a flap” and the eyes of T.J. Eckleberg, the green light at the end of the dock (oooooh, that green light is so close to you and your 3-D glasses you can almost reach it! GET IT?) It will show us everything but comprehend nothing. Luhrmann cannot deliver Fitzgerald’s devastating moral judgment of the rich at their rotten, careless core, because he loves them, and those beautiful silk shirts, too much.
Baz Luhrmann getting his stupid all over The Great American Novel bothers me because I know that his will be the first, or only, version many people experience, and that is genuinely terrible. The Great Gatsby is more than some dimly-remembered required reading, or the ‘basis’ for some ridiculous re-imagining. The book is a funny, heartbreaking, vividly modern work of social criticism, and the depth and beauty of its writing should not be diminished by the misreadings and short-cuts of Baz Luhrmann. The film, like Daisy, will be a dazzling, seductive trick of the eye, “a beautiful little fool” unworthy of devotion.