Luhrmann v. Fitzgerald, or There Oughta Be a Law


f-scott-fitzgerald-1We interrupt this theater-oriented column to talk about a book and a movie. At first, you’d think they’re the same: The Great Gatsby. They’re not. They’re F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, and Baz Luhrmann’s anti-masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, wherein he treats the April 10, 1925, novel as if it were the blueprint for a bungalow that someone like Donald Trump has used as the basis for an Atlantic City casino-which, when completed, impresses as not only tacky but vulgar and wrong-headed.

Fitzgerald’s defining work about the Jazz Age has been filmed four times for theatrical release, the first in 1926. Scott and Zelda didn’t catch up with it-the only filmed version of the book released during his life-until 1927. They walked out. Anne Margaret Daniel, in The Huffington Post, quotes an undated letter from Zelda to their daughter, Scottie. Zelda wrote, “We saw The Great Gatsby in the movies. It’s ROTTEN [sic] and awful and terrible and we left.”

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But if they were alive to depart this new version before the final credits rolled, a woefully dismayed viewer at Luhrmann’s celluloid equivalent of the medical condition elephantiasis wonders how the demonstrative Fitzgeralds would behave. Might Fitzgerald have exited quietly and then contacted one of his lawyers to ascertain whether eviscerating a literary icon can be considered a criminal act?

For evisceration is surely what Luhrmann has committed. He’s taken a work of art from which it might be argued that not a single word should be added or subtracted and turned it into a shocking 3-D lampoon-which promotional material hails as “relevant to now.”

Actually, the phrase is close but would be more accurate as “reflective of now.” What it catches is the aspect of the current zeitgeist that demands things be big, loud, unrelievedly sensational. They must overwhelm or else as a blockbuster film, they’ll have no cultural (read, commercial) validity.

Granted, the formula worked with Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, but the world he created in his 2001 flick was not derived from a novel of perhaps cleverly disguised delicacy. Nor was it taken from a text renowned for its surpassing prose style, much of the practically swoon-inducing quality lost when removed from the page.

(FYI: The Great Gatsby was received indifferently on publication and only acquired the reputation it maintains-but only shakily if you read some of the new film’s more flattering reviews-after Fitzgerald’s 1940 death and the subsequent reevaluation of his career. Sarah Churchwell looks at this and much more in her about-to-be-issued Careless People: Murder, Mayhem & The Invention of the Great Gatsby, which will initially be available stateside as an e-book.)

Also, granted that Luhrmann keeps the basic plot intact-as if The Great Gatsby is merely storyline. Good-hearted, naïve and impressionable Yale man Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), new to Manhattan and Long Island, recounts the sad fate of arriviste West Egg neighbor Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio).

It’s Gatsby’s abiding dream to reunite with East Egg ex-girlfriend Daisy (Carey Mulligan), now married to moneybags, womanizing Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Pulled inexorably into their destructive vortex are Daisy’s cheating golf champ pal Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), local mechanic George Wilson (Jason Clarke) and wife Myrtle (Isla Fisher), with whom Tom regularly dallies.

When telling the woeful tale in voice-over (with some of his disquisitions scrawled on the screen), Nick speaks a presentable amount of the Fitzgerald descriptive paragraphs, and Luhrmann, with co-scenarist Craig Pearce, repeats a presentable percentage of the dialogue that Fitzgerald-drawing on his observation of 1920s manners and mores and motives-imagined.

But not only isn’t that sufficient to claim this Great Gatsby is faithful to the book, what’s included of Fitzgerald is buried by the production on which Luhrmann collaborated with his wife, Catherine Martin-the two of them possibly thinking screwily that their excesses would serve as a metaphor for the era’s excesses.


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It might even be said that whereas the Fitzgeralds, Scott and Zelda, represent one of the 20th century’s most notably folies a deux, Luhrmann and Martin are prime candidates 90 years later to be one of the 21st century’s outstanding examples.

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Their waywardness is mighty, but perhaps the place to start is with their idea of how Jay Gatsby lives and the parties he throws in hopes that one day lost love Daisy will wander into the midst of the extravagance and realize what he’s made of himself in her honor.

One way to put it might be that this Gatsby is so fabulously wealthy that two years before George Gershwin wrote “Rhapsody in Blue” (the book is set in 1922), he can have an orchestra that doesn’t look like Paul Whiteman’s offer the beloved opus while fireworks and bumper-to-bumper debauchery rule. Luhrmann doesn’t seem to realize that Fitzgerald’s Daisy would never grow weak in the (bee’s) knees at such ostentation. Fitzgerald’s Gatsby (born James Gatz) would know at least that much about her.

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Another egregiously prominent addition to Fitzgerald is its framing device. Evidently, Luhrmann decided the Princeton-trained author was remiss in not specifying why Nick is writing the story of his harsh education in tragic human behavior. So he’s decided Nick, having been institutionalized(!) when he returns to his Midwest home, is scribbling down everything he’s observed at the suggestion of a psychiatrist.

Look here: Some liberties taken with sources are far more presumptuous than others, and this is one of them.

And what about the need for 3-D-other than as an excuse to charge more for tickets and appeal to younger audiences who draw blanks at the mention of the name F. Scott Fitzgerald? Supposedly, 3-D gives depth. Unfortunately, The Great Gatsby already possesses depth enough.

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Ironically in Luhrmann’s travesty, depth’s opposite occurs. Because the technology remains crude, the depth achieved isn’t natural, and the effect is that the dimensions take on the look of receding planes. An awkward result of the un-ironed-out wrinkle: When the actors are in the foreground, they look like cut-outs-they look two-dimensional.

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Possibly, this is Luhrmann’s metaphor for declaring that Fitzgerald regarded his figures as behaving like cut-outs. Probably not, but this brings up the actors’ plights in the auteur’s rigmarole. Suffice it to say, they’re all bad, if not worse-with Mulligan looking entirely at sea. Are they overacting so’s to make sure they’re noticed above the surrounding din and the Jay-Z under-rapping? Could be. They’ll all survive, but each of them may eventually try-in vain, of course-deleting the credit from their bios.

Towards the end of the marvelous novel, Nick is analyzing the failure of his fellow Midwesterners to flourish in the East. He observes, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy-they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness.”

Having suffered through the misguided film, I’m tempted to paraphrase Nick and Fitzgerald and say, They are careless people, Baz and Catherine-they’ve smashed up a remarkable thing and now think they can retreat….”