It’s always a great risk to try to make a film out of a hugely popular literary classic. And as far as literary classics go, The Great Gatsby is high up in the pantheon reserved for the greatest novels ever written in English. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story of obsession and doomed love played out against the impermeable class barriers in the US of the wild 1920s is high tragedy in its grandest tradition. And then you have the radiant prose and the superb dialogue—I would bet that almost anyone who has read Gatsby even once will remember at least a couple of lines from it. So when Australian director Baz Luhrmann decided to take on Gatsby and managed to raise $105 million to back his vision, the world certainly took notice.
Gatsby has already been filmed at least thrice by Hollywood, and the last one, a 1970 production starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, was a massive critical and popular flop. (Rightly so, in my view. The film was so tepid that I ejected the CD from my player less than halfway through and have never felt like giving it one more try, even though—or actually, perhaps because—Gatsby is one of my all-time favourite books.)
But if Luhrmann lacks anything, it’s certainly not courage. He has made Romeo and Juliet as Romeo + Juliet, a path-breaking MTV interpretation set in modern-may Miami, and of course, Moulin Rouge, the dementedly over-the-top romantic drama inspired by Bollywood that left audiences and critics puzzled, overawed, delighted, enraged, and rushing for aspirin, in equal measure. Well, if there was one director in the world who could get the sheer vulgarity of Gatsby’s weekend parties right, it would be Luhrmann, I thought. And Leonardo di Caprio appeared to be perfect casting for the possessed lover with a mysterious source of wealth.
For though who haven’t read the novel, a brief synopsis. The story is told by Nick Carraway, a young Wall Street bond salesman who rents a cottage in Long Island next to a massive mansion owned by Jay Gatsby, in the village of West Egg. West Egg, a settlement of the nouveau riche, is separated by a bay from East Egg, the home of old money, where Nick’s distant cousin Daisy lives with her idle-rich husband Tom Buchanan. Every weekend, the glitterati of New York descend on Gatsby’s home for the most lavish parties on the East Coast, but no one seems to know who Gatsby is, and what his antecedents are.
Over time, Nick learns that Gatsby has bought the mansion because it is directly opposite the bay from the Buchanan house, and he and Daisy are former lovers. Gatsby, an impoverished young man with no education to speak of, goes off to fight in the First World War, and by the time he returns, Daisy has married Tom Buchanan. But Gatsby, in his mind, has wed Daisy for ever, and decides he would be worthy of her and reclaim her. Within three years, he amasses a huge fortune through bootlegging, running gambling rackets and shady bond trading. He buys the house at West Egg so that he can always see Daisy’s home across the bay, and he throws huge parties hoping that Daisy would one day come. In one of the key scenes in the book (and the film), Nick tells Gatsby that he cannot recreate the past, and Gatsby, astounded, answers: “Of course you can! I’ll fix it.”
Gatsby, writes Fitzgerald (and says Nick, in the film), had “an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” Nick gets Gatsby and Daisy to meet, and Daisy falls in love again with him, but a chain of circumstances and the choices that today’s Daisy makes (while Gatsby has remained stuck with his vision of what she was five years ago, and built his entire life and world to fit his idea of what she would like) inevitably lead to heart-breaking tragedy.
Now, I’ve only read one or two reviews of the film, though a friend, who claims to have gone through over a hundred on the net, tells me that critics across the world are divided almost 50:50 on whether Luhrmann’s interpretation of this magnificent novel is an outrage or a triumph. I think the film does perfect justice to the book.
What does “perfect justice” mean? Film and print are fundamentally different media. At its very basic, what may require two pages of description in a book—say Fagin’s den in Oliver Twist—would require a few seconds of film time, and the action can continue uninterrupted while the viewer discovers the various nooks and crannies of the setting. A full page devoted to a character’s inner conflict has to be conveyed in perhaps one piece of dialogue and the expression on the actor’s face. Conversely, to take just an example, the actual relationship or tension between two characters can be explained with two sentences in a book, while a film may require several scenes to express that. I think it was Satyajit Ray who once theorized that in a film, unless a character’s name is uttered three times, it does not even register with most of the audience.
Then there is of course the storyline. In Troy, the 2004 film based on Homer’s Iliad, Paris escapes at the end with Helen, which is very roughly the equivalent of Ravana giving the slip to Rama with Sita in tow. The ending of Ray’s Apur Sansar is very different from how Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay ended his story, as is the ending of his Shatranj Ke Khailadi from Munshi Premchand’s original tale. And there are enough novels where the hero or heroine dies at the end, but the film versions decide to keep them alive. And vice versa.
With The Great Gatsby, you can take very few liberties with the storyline, quite simply because the plot is simple and tight, and has an inexorable logic from beginning to end. And the question of changing the end—well, it’s out of the question; if you do that, you have nothing left. But Luhrmann goes even further. He has thought up a framing device for the basic story, which has Nick recovering in a sanatorium from severe depression and alcoholism, and is writing Gatsby’s story—in fact, The Great Gatsby—as part of his therapy. So, many of Fitzgerald’s most beautiful sentences appear as voice-overs from Nick or typed out on the screen, as he writes his book. Some of the passages are necessarily abbreviated, but that doesn’t reduce the power of the language or the depth of the sentiment expressed in any way. Much of the dialogue is also taken straight from the book—I suppose because they can’t be improved upon.
It’s in fact interesting that the only sequence where Luhrmann almost entirely changes the dialogue and the tone of the character is the one featuring the Jewish don Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby’s mentor in dark deeds. Fitzgerald described Wolfsheim as “a small flat-nosed Jew… with a large head… and two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril”, an unsavoury sleazeball who pronounces Oxford as “Oggsford” and connection as “connegtion”. Amitabh Bachchan’s Wolfsheim is flamboyant, mysterious, vaguely menacing, and dominates the sequence in an unforgettable manner. Whether this is an expression of Luhrmann’s admiration for Bachchan, or his clever avoidance of what would immediately be pounced on today as anti-Semitism, or a combination of both, one does not know, but the scene works wonderfully, and Bachchan rocks.
One of Fitzgerald’s prime objectives in writing The Great Gatsby was to expose the corruption and vapid excesses of the 1920s. While he relied on several lengthy dinner conversations at Gatsby’s parties to highlight this, and Nick’s impressionistic descriptions, Luhrmann does it as it should be done in cinema: with party sequences overcrowded with drunk dancers, debauches, thumping music—from jazz to rap, and bravura firework displays. He also takes the little crumbs that Fitzgerald strewed around in the party scenes about Gatsby’s shady business deals, and draws attention to them, but never overdoes it. When you have gangsters being thrown out of the party, it’s all done in the dark, and you can only vaguely make out what is happening. A man called Mr Slagle keeps getting mentioned, but we never see or hear him.
All the key scenes are wonderful cinematic interpretations of Fitzgerald’s splendid prose. When Nick meets Daisy for the first time in her home—the ethereal languor in the fairy-tale world of the immensely rich is visually translated in stunning fashion, through gossamer billowing curtains that envelope and disorient Nick. The sequence in the apartment which Tom keeps in the city for his mistress, as Nick gets wildly drunk for the second time in his life, and feels he is “both within and without” is a masterpiece of editing, computer graphics, music, general vulgarity, ending with a quick and brutal violence that will shock the audience. Fitzgerald/ Nick’s descriptions of a New York drunk on what seems like a permanently golden future become rich sun-bathed visuals with the camera zooming at impossible speeds from tops of skyscrapers to the teeming streets below.
What Luhrmann excises from the novel is most of what occurs after Gatsby’s death—which takes up the last 10% of the book—except for the essentials: Daisy’s reaction, and a rumination over Gatsby’s tragedy, which ends the novel (and the film) with some luminous prose. This is not only because most audiences cannot be expected to hang around for 15 minutes after Leonardo di Caprio is dead and watch Tobey Maguire (Nick), but also because Luhrmann clearly likes Gatsby the flawed and in-many-ways blind romantic more than Fitzgerald did. So the film does not reveal what Fitzgerald told us, that all of Gatsby’s underworld friends, including Wolfsheim, washed their hands of him the moment they heard of his death. We just get to know that Wolfsheim’s men came and cleaned out Gatsby’s mansion.
In fact, the only way Luhrmann’s film is unfaithful to Fitzgerald’s novel is the relator’s opinion of Gatsby. In a film filled with Nick’s voice-overs of the greatest lines from the novel, there are a few key aspects from those lines that Luhrmann suppresses. The most important, perhaps, is this one. As Nick leaves Gatsby’s home for the last time and knows that Daisy will betray him, because life with her husband, even though bereft of love, is safe and Teflon-coated, he shouts at the still deluded Gatsby: “They’re a rotten crowd. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” This is followed by Nick’s voice-over (from the book): “I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever paid him.” This is fine, and an emotional moment, because the audience can already guess what awaits Gatsby, but Fitzgerald did not end that line there. The whole sentence reads: “It was the only compliment I ever paid him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end.”
This is an extremely crucial deletion, but then, however hard Fitzgerald’s heart was, the legions of his readers who have read his book and loved it and read it again and again, have always empathized deeply with Gatsby—the man who made money because he cared madly, and never understood the world where money made everyone careless.
Fitzgerald’s novel is finally about innocence and corruption: how the seemingly innocent could be the most corrupt at heart, and the seemingly corrupt—the vulgar bootlegger—could be mythically idealistic. The Great Gatsby is a great novel, and a cynical one, aimed at the reader’s head. The film that Baz Luhrmann has made is a fine tribute to a classic work of art, but consciously targeted much more at the heart than the intellect. But if it stuck any closer to the Fitzgerald’s vision, it would perhaps been a less satisfying experience. For the heart. As for the head, Luhrmann has enough cinematic chutzpah to keep you from thinking too much, unless you go back and read the book carefully once more, with a vengeance. As a celebration of one of the most marvelous novels ever written, it works just right.