The book is always better than the movie. What would you expect an English teacher to write? Yet, some adaptations can become something wonderful in their own right: The Lord of the Rings, The Wonder Boys, Out of Sight, The Princess Bride, Shawshank Redemption….I better stop because those last three disprove my rule. I prefer the movies to the books.
This past week a colleague and I watched Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby with about thirty students (and one Bruins player I would never-ever recognize but who sent the kids into a minor flutter). I did not expect to see the novel perfectly transposed on the screen, so I was not surprised to find that I like Luhrmann’s version of Gatsby and his green light.
First, let’s celebrate the fact that the glittering, bass-bumping film puts teenagers in the seats (without the promise of extra credit). The critics panning the film have probably never worked with teenagers. I have taught this novel 20+ times and am excited to teach it again with this film as a resource. It will certainly help me hook more of my students on one of the greatest American novels.
Baz Luhrmann’s style works well with many of Fitzgerald’s major themes. The director’s kinetic cuts, thumping scores, and lush-and-purposefully-cartoonish color palettes perfectly articulate the grandeur and absurdity of Gatsby’s vision. I spend considerable time in the classroom helping students see the over-the-top nature of Gatsby’s choices. The kids, however, end up imagining party scenes where stiffs in suits sip martinis and swoon stylishly over droll, blue-blooded humor.
A few seconds of the movie’s pool party, however, smashes this misconception and replaces it with a visceral portrayal of the excess Fitzgerald splashes throughout the novel. Inflatable zebras might not have existed in the Roaring Twenties (or maybe they did?), but we should overlook such anachronisms and bathe in the hypnotic extravagance. Very few teenagers would want to be invited to the parties described in the book. (Their loss, of course, as Fitzgerald knew what a good time looks like.) But, almost every person under the age of 35–and plenty of us over that benchmark–would jump at the chance to rage at one of Luhrmann’s blowouts.
I will further incite the purists and admit that Luhrmann occasionally tells Fitzgerald’s story better than Fitzgerald. The fight scene set in roiling heat of the Plaza hotel room, the backdrop for Gatsby’s verbal duel with Tom, has better pacing in the movie. When Leonardo finally loses his temper and reveals the animal nature that makes Gatsby so successful in his underworld ventures, I gain a new understanding as to why Daisy abandons her lover. In the book, Daisy can seem like a shallow, addled gold digger, but the fear on Carey Mulligan’s face reminds me of Daisy’s humanity and better establishes her frazzled mind that leads to the story’s climax.
Also, when comparing the party scenes in Tom and Myrtle’s apartment, the movie gives us a more layered, symbolic version (not to mention a much cuter puppy). Yes, the film takes liberties. Nick never pops pills, and the sex is not so overt in the text. Yet, the movie makers put a very close reading on the screen.
Nick’s voyeurism is part of the book; his drunkenness is a metaphor for his willingness to give in to the seduction of Tom’s wealth; and Fitzgerald does strip some of the characters down to their underwear. Most importantly, Nick’s fractured vision, his sense of being “…within and without. Simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life” is more poignantly articulated in the film. And, in case your head just exploded when reading this last sentence, I will note that Luhrmann did have to use a Gooey to fully communicate this duality, superimposing the author’s words next to his actor.
In this way and others, the film lacks the subtlety of the novel. I did resent the way Luhrmann connects almost every dot for the viewer. We don’t need to actually see Gatsby telling Daisy that he did everything for her in order to understand that obvious point. When Daisy weeps over Gatsby’s beautiful shirts in the novel, the reader is left to infer why she is suddenly despondent.
Fitzgerald, like all great novelists, trusts his readers. He insinuates and hints, letting readers intuit deceits and revelations. Too often, the movie draws a box around key themes, adds a cluster of scribbled stars, and washes over all of that with a neon green highlighter. I understand that Luhrmann wants to create a film where people who did not read the book can understand the story, but I feel he missed too many opportunities to leave Easter eggs for the legions of loyal readers that also fill the seats.
Yet, the book is not all that subtle either. The symbolism, for experienced readers, is very heavy-handed. Beginning readers, however, need such directness as they learn to read more critically. Even though I see the blazing symbolism Fitzgerald uses in his classic, my students do not. And, that’s O.K.
The Great Gatsby, for so many American readers, is their introduction to multi-layered meaning, and it can be appreciated on many levels, with each re-read. One of my students told me this week, “We needed to read The Great Gatsby our sophomore year to be able to read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Invisible Man our junior year.” Exactly. And, many readers will use the movie to gain a deeper appreciation of the novel. After all, last week more copies of The Great Gatsby sold than in Fitzgerald’s entire lifetime.
In the end, this film is not for everyone. A shocker, I know. Yet, I can see past the Moët product placement and Jay-Z’s rhymes to appreciate the loving way Luhrmann has rendered Fitzgerald’s vision for the 21st century. It isn’t perfect, but it sends me back into the novel with fresh eyes.
Every time I read this classic, I see the pink seersucker Gatsby wears in the closing chapters as a garish affair, more appropriate for the circus than a swank New York hotel. Yet, in the movie, the suit is still a symbol of Gatsby’s overt “otherness,” but the costuming choice seems right in place with the world on the big screen. Leonardo DiCaprio, like the role of Gatsby itself, wears this pink suit. He looks refined, comfortable, and of the moment. He looks damn good. For me, this pink suit embodies my reaction to the film. I still prefer the book, but I appreciate the beauty and care in Luhrmann’s vision, too.