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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short novel, The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, was within a year made into a successful stage play by Owen Davis and a silent film (directed by Herbert Brennon, with Warner Baxter as Gatsby and Neil Hamilton as Nick; the film is long lost, save for a trailer in the Library of Congress). Subsequently, there have been four sound films: 1949 (directed by Elliott Nugent, starring Alan Ladd as Gatsby and MacDonald Carey as Nick); 1974 (directed by Jack Clayton, starring Robert Redford as Gatsby and Sam Waterston as Nick), 2000 (made for A&E/BBC TV, directed by Robert Markowitz, with Toby Stephens as Gatsby and Paul Rudd as Nick), and 2013 (directed by Baz Luhrmann, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby and Tobey Maguire as Nick). There has also been an opera (John Harbison, 1999), and several other TV and stage adaptations.
All of them, save Luhrman’s, miss the story F. Scott Fitzgerald told, and thereby miss the heart of the novel. All of them but one are set almost entirely in the present, with Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrative voice, as one of the characters. Sometimes there is voice-over; sometimes there is an attempt at a frame. It never works: the presentations all occur now, and now is not the story Fitzgerald was telling. All of them focus on Gatsby; Fitzgerald’s novel focuses on Nick and his very romanticized involvement with an ever-receding past, the central figure in which was Gatsby.
The Great Gatsby isn’t the story of Jay Gatsby; it is the story of Nick Carraway’s memory of Gatsby and his circle, and of a distant time and place. The narrative of The Great Gatsby doesn’t occur in the brief summer Nick tells us about; it occurs over the two years it takes him to tell that story. At times it feels almost like a fairy tale.
Luhrman’s film is over the top in all regards. The high velocity car-scenes (all blue-screen and CGI, as is much of the film) defy reality: any real driver driving the way Nick Carraway and Tom Buchanan do on the way from Tom’s house to the Plaza hotel in Manhattan would have been killed dozen times before they reached the Triborough Bridge. The crane shots rising over the Valley of the Ashes or the Bridge to spread a glittering Manhattan across the wide screen are closer to the world of cartoon than live-action film.
The most audacious scene is when the orchestra leader conducts both his orchestra and a brilliant display of fireworks over Long Island Sound. As DiCaprio turns, with a blazing smile, the full orchestra bursts into Gershwin’s Rhapsody in in Blue. It is the kind scene of that, if it works, the audience stops breathing; and if it doesn’t work, it sinks everything that comes after because the audience knows it is in world of hype, a world of smoke and mirrors, a world of blue-screen and CGI, rather than in the fairy-tale world of the narrative.
The scene works perfectly and so does the film. We are not in post-War pre-Depression New York, but Nick’s written romanticized memory of that astonishing still-not-understood summer. The narrative frame for Nick’s narrative is not New York, but a mental institution in the Midwest where we see Nick writing it all down, trying to make sense of it, which is exactly what F. Scott Fitzgerald had him do in the novel: write it down, over a period of time, later.
And that is why Luhrmann is the only director to have made a great film out of a great novel: he’s the only one of them all to have heard Nick Carraway’s voice and the story it was really telling.
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