By Joan Ellis
Perhaps it’s time we stop insisting that a movie adaptation be faithful to the book.
What’s wrong with directors building wildly different films on the bones of the same story? We can easily imagine the results if Picasso and Sargent chose to paint the same human being. So let’s consider the latest big screen version of The Great Gatsby in that light.
This is director Baz Luhrmann’s wild-eyed take on the Jazz Age. Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is writing about Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) – the man with improbable millions from bootlegging and crime who built his castle across the Long Island cove where his long-ago love Daisy (Carey Mulligan) now lives with her husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). And so the tale of lost love unfolds.
The bones of the novel are still in place: Gatsby’s belief that the luxury he has created can win Daisy from Tom, his manipulation of Nick, the accident with the yellow Duesenberg (though Fitzgerald’s Gatsby actually drove a Rolls Royce).
It is with the parties that director Luhrmann takes leave of the book and perhaps of his senses. He sees the novel as a platform for the extraordinary excess of the ‘20s and steams full bore into overkill. The musical score, an odd mix of occasional jazz and modern hip-hop, may be overwhelming, but it does serve to link that era to our own.
As background for the relentless, alcohol-soaked parties that consume the first half of the movie, it becomes a series of unwelcome exclamation points. Carloads of uninvited guests pour themselves into the overwhelming excess of Gatsby’s landscape to drink and dance under the robotic attention of tuxedo-clad butlers.
Fitzgerald bore the burden of his lifelong inability to jettison his past as he tried to cross the cove to the world he wanted. His writing is laced with the sweet sadness of being born in St. Paul, Minn., to parents of Irish descent followed by Catholic schools – all of which would have been fine if he had chosen any college other than Princeton where the WASP culture ruled in silent arrogance during the ‘20s. He carried the tender wound of their social rejection. “Once again, I was within and without.”
Denied the acceptance he craved, Fitzgerald, in his final novel, created Jay Gatsby who claws and fights his way to Daisy by force with a fabricated past and criminal fortune.
Leonardo DiCaprio creates a thoroughly unpleasant Gatsby. Joel Edgerton’s Tom is hideously effective, and Carey Mulligan is stranded in the role of a thoroughly empty vessel. Of the time she and Gatsby had lost, “Five lost years struggled on Daisy’s lips, but all she could manage was ‘I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts.’ ” As narrator/observer Nick Carraway, Tobey Maguire seems too weak to have written the story of the life he calls “a chemical madness.”
This movie is Baz Lurhmann’s imagining of the Jazz Age as painted by Picasso, not Sargent.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.
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