Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ has received some harsh criticism over the past week. Perhaps the film could never meet the wild expectations that were set following the tremendous hype in the build up to its release. Moreover, as a contender for The Great American Novel, a film of such a highly regarded book is bound to take criticism. However, the scathing reviews are unfair and somewhat short sighted. Here’s why.
Firstly, many damning reviews agree upon the idea that Luhrmann ‘sacrifices all the subtlety of the original book’ (1). This is true insofar as the novel’s implicit theme by which Gatsby is associated with corruption is made very explicit in the film. Moreover, some of the symbols are explained during the film in detail when there is no need to, such as the binary opposition between old money and new money. Having said this, I think the explicit nature of the film adds to its accessibility; particularly given the film’s international appeal.
Secondly, according to several reviews, Luhrmann ‘never gets round to serving the meat of the novel’ in his ‘shallow spectacle’ (1). This criticism demonstrates a misunderstanding of the text and of the director himself. Luhrmann’s kitsch style helps convey Gatsby’s tackiness and new money lifestyle that Fitzgerald intended to make evident; from his ‘circus wagon’ yellow car to his pink suit. As a ‘connoisseur of kitsch’ (1), Luhrmann excellently conveys the façade that Gatsby has built himself through his new money lifestyle, complementing the idea that Gatsby is unable to grasp the old money grail that is Daisy. Additionally, Luhrmann is very faithful to the text. The dialogue only occasionally strays from Fitzgerald’s novel, and all the key quotes are included. Luhrmann’s over the top, kitsch style, coupled with his faithfulness to the text, more than adequately serve the meat of the novel.
Another area of criticism has been the soundtrack to the film. One review states, ‘the musical choices here – by Luhrmann himself and rapper Jay-Z – don’t work. The incorporation of modern hip-hop undermines the sense of period and distances the audience.’ (2) This is true to an extent. The novel forebodes the Wall Street crash in 1929, as the immorality of a hedonistic society cannot survive beneath the omniscient eyes of God (or T J Eckleburg). In this sense, the modern music of the film does not capture the mood of the period. However, this overlooks the crucial point that ‘The Great Gatsby’ surpasses the realms of a finite period to reach a timeless position that may reflect any historical period, particularly today – a point which Luhrmann picks up on. ‘The Great Gatsby’ has re-emerged with great popularity in popular culture today. Theatre productions, radio programmes and now a film about Fitzgerald’s text demonstrate this. This is because ‘The Great Gatsby’ reflects today’s society. We live in an age of indulgence, materialism, selfishness, Facebook ‘likes’, social network sites, and prioritizing ourselves before others. Just as in 1920’s America, the cyclical signs of a generation destroying itself are evident, as well as the signs of a world crisis, echoed by the current financial crisis. Hip-hop is relevant today in being one of the most popular music genres, and through its lyrical debauchery about guns, women and money. To say the soundtrack does not fit the film shows a misunderstanding of ‘The Great Gatsby’. Moreover, this statement disregards fantastic tracks such as Lana del Rey’s ‘Young and Beautiful’, which aptly frames the film where the protagonist battles ceaselessly against the current of time to recreate the past (Gatsby: “Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can”).
One review states that Luhrmann is ‘tone-deaf’ (2) when dealing with tragedy. Another complete oversight. Luhrmann is the opposite of tone-deaf. He understands the tragedy of Gatsby and underlines it. Firstly, he includes frequent shots of space and the stars as a symbol of a supernatural, absolute being watching down on the events of the story. The omniscient eyes of T J Eckleberg reflect this as they watch over the barren wasteland of the immoral characters and Gatsby’s tragic downfall until his eventual death. Secondly, Luhrmann shows an understanding of the typical structure of tragedy. He recognises Aristotle’s concept of tragedy as being universal in which a supernatural power is essential to highlight the futility of mankind. The presence of the supernatural in famous tragedies throughout history supports this – for example King Lear, Blood Wedding, and Oedipus. So to state that Luhrmann does not adequately represent the tragedy is problematic.
Many strengths of the film are also overlooked in these negative reviews. Luhrmann makes the film his own with original structural elements. The framing device of Carraway narrating the story in a Doctor’s office shows the negative impact that the immorality of the ‘rotten crowd’ and the death of his friend Gatsby have had on him. Carraway also writes the novel in the film and adds the words ‘The Great’ above the original title of ‘Gatsby’ in the final scene. Through this, Luhrmann highlights a key theme in making the partiality and reliability of the narrator a more obvious question to the audience. Has his friendship with Gatsby affected the way in which the story has been told? Has anything been omitted or hyperbolized? Another strength of Luhrmann direction is Gatsby’s final scene. The protagonist rises out of the swimming pool towards the green light at end of Daisy’s pier, seeming ‘so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it’. But when he receives the fatal gunshot, he falls slowly backwards, away from his dream of Daisy that was always unattainable.
On a final note, the film has a great cast who successfully convey the qualities of the fictional characters that one would imagine Fitzgerald was trying to portray. Gatsby, Carraway, Daisy, Tom, and Jordan are all represented faithfully.
So do not be put off by people telling you that ‘The Great Gatsby’ has had bad reviews. See it for yourself and then decide. Don’t let the negative opinions of some mar your viewing of what I believe to be a fantastic film.