As antipodean director of garish stage produced movies Baz Luhrmann unleashes his ‘makeover’ of F Scott Fitzgerald’s durable slim novel The Great Gatsby, Monolith Cocktail poses the question: do we need this vulgar adaptation?

Great Gatsby

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

‘Whenever you feel like criticising anyone’, he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in the world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’


Nicholas ‘Nick’ Carraway’s opening gambit from The Great Gatsby novel.

From the viewpoint of someone who’s still yet to step on the first rung of the social ladder I feel wholly at ease in launching a broadside at Luhrmann and his lavish adaptation of Fitzgerald’s source material. In the misguided role of liberator, the film director’s adoption of contemporary music and turgid branding – from the clips and trailer you’d believe that this was a mega-dollar pop video or advert for a new perfume– attempts to marry the original source text to our own sorry times to appeal to an audience fixated on bombast and gadgetry.

That magnum opus, exalted totem of writing, can’t be relied upon to unfold its ‘roaring twenties’ tale of class – the old systems slowly crumbling as the dust from WWI finally settles, and America becomes the global powerhouse economy – it needs a stick of dynamite, lit by the sort of movie makers who wrongly deny their audience time and space to come to their own conclusions. No, they believe that we couldn’t possibly pick up the books subtleties; the attentive languid nature of the characters and events that eventually lead to such a tragic conclusion, perfectly paced by Fitzgerald.

It’s rather telling that the most famous of Gatsby adaptations is the 1974 Robert Evans produced and Francis Ford Coppola scripted version, which starred the luminescent Robert Redford – an indolent played Gatsby, glowing with soft focus and hallowed light. Though it garnered mixed reviews, especially for Mia Farrow’s almost somnambulist performance as Gatsby’s great-lost love Daisy Buchanan, its slow pace felt more in step with the book even though Fitzgerald’s story only just breaches the 200 page mark. Fast-forward to 2013 and the all singing, all dancing faux-Broadway version features a turgid soundtrack by Jay-Z, swelled with the usual ‘in favour’ pop idols of the day and acting talent, with Leonardo DiCaprio in the leading role.

Glibly putting the dialogue in the mouths of the cast with, the equivalent of dropping a piano on our heads, method of prompting hints to the nature and business of the enigma Jay Gatsby, there really isn’t any doubt that this is a guilty pleasure produced for those sucked in by the gushing over-indulgence of Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge and most awful waste of space, Australia. Never has a director had so much at his disposal yet failed to produce anything of worth.

Costing a reputed $109million dollars to make – even after moving production down under to cut costs – the decadence is still amped up to staggering proportions. The central premise of a mysterious figure emerging from the mid west of America to become a semi-isolated millionaire living the life of a recluse on the Long Island Sound – whilst his myriad of ‘fine weather’ friends and fleeting acquaintances party away like it’s the last days of the Roman Empire – and rubbing up against the ‘old money’ of his love rival Tom Buchanan seems lost in this new expensive stage production. Whilst the time in which Fitzgerald wrote his most accomplished work – perhaps as it has been so often celebrated, the greatest American novel of the 20th century – was one of ostentation, the depression was waiting in the wings ready to drag the US and than the world into a black hole of despair; alluded to through the eyes of the book’s narrator ‘Nick’ Carraway who is really documenting its collapse not glorification.

Luhrmann may wish to criticize the times yet all he shows us is the seductive power and dreamy escapism of money as if its to be adored; his tenuous grip on reality using the theme of Gatsby’s reinvention (the returning modest WWI hero turned bootlegger through his string of pharmacy’s; fronts for the buying or selling – we never know – of illicit alcohol) to get away with murder.

Luhrmann even has the gall to suggest that the innovational enthusiast in Fitzgerald would have approved of both the 3D technique in cinema and his new treatment; just as well than that the poor sods been dead for over seventy years and isn’t around to answer for himself – handy that!

Fitzgerald wrote something that still resonates. Regardless of the novels ‘roaring twenties’ staging and dress it still speaks to us in a language and phrasing we can all understand. This incessant appropriation with fatuous add-ons will only sell this seasons dapper 20s fashion ranges and make Jay-Z et al even more filthy lucre. Something I’m sure was intended from the very beginning.

Great Gatsby 2: Robert Redford

One Response to “Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby: Ostentation over substance”

  1. I’ve never been a fan of Baz Luhrmann’s filmography, and his new Gatsby project is no exception. This is an amazing book, but his adaptation to the screen employs rap music and modern references here and there that do not fit the story at all. Now, I’m not a cinema purist when it comes to adding modern hints in period pieces, but the way Luhrmann does it is too obvious to benefit from subtlety. Also, Carey Mulligan and Isla Fisher should’ve switched their respective roles as Daisy and Myrtle: the casting choices there were not great. Each woman would’ve played the other character better, and the movie would’ve benefitted greatly. As for DiCaprio and Maguire, they played their characters on par with Fitzgerald’s writing, and added some character nuances that only great actors can pull off, so bravo to them. If you’re a fan of the story, it might be worthwhile to check out the movie, but don’t set high expectations.

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