The Great Gatsby

I saw The Great Gatsby this evening–the first film I’ve seen on its opening night since The Return of the King, which shows how eager I was for it–and I was quite satisfied with it, 7.5/10. It is mostly true to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterful novel (much more so than many film adaptations of books), well-acted aside from Tom Buchanan’s ridiculous mustache, and visually pleasing. Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of Daisy is riveting. It is immediately clear why multiple men would fall in love with her. The same is true of Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Gatsby, which is helped in part by some luscious suits (I was covetous of nearly all of the clothing in the film; the green cardigan that Nick wears when he has Daisy and Gatsby over for tea is to die for). The soundtrack is spot-on: muted when it needs to be and at the forefront when it is appropriate. I especially appreciate the film’s use of “Rhapsody in Blue,” a quiet homage to Woody Allen’s Manhattan. The novel’s geographical setting is more important than many readers acknowledge, and the film does not make this mistake.

The film has two major flaws, both having to do with infidelities to the novel. The first is that the first half hour of the film uses a jumpy, fast-forward style which ends up muting the few snippets of dialogue that actually occur. It has the feel of someone fast-forwarding through the dialogue in a porn film to get to the sex scenes, which is a problem because when I am watching a film I actually want to watch the film, not just segments of it. As a result of this style, the pace of the first half of the film is very uneven, whereas the novel’s pace is smooth throughout–it builds tension through its language and its characters, not via cheap tricks. This aspect of the film is just Baz Luhrmann being Baz Luhrmann, but it doesn’t work as well here as it does in, say, Moulin Rouge. He could have achieved the same decadent effect with half of the amount of frenzied bits.

The second flaw is that Gatsby tells Tom that he and Daisy know each other. The two men are thus set up as rivals for the second half of the film to build dramatic effect, whereas in the novel Tom does not realize that Gatsby is a rival for Daisy until toward the end. This choice to make the competition overt for both men in the film destroys the book’s beautiful subtle tension and has the effect of making Tom a somewhat sympathetic character, which he isn’t ever in Fitzgerald’s version (nor should he be–he’s a woman-beating racist). Neither man is good for Daisy, but Gatsby is certainly better for her than Tom, and the film muddies this distinction. I understand that cinematic narratives require different moves than verbal ones, and both of these flaws stem from that difference, but if any film could do away with the necessity of narrative sign-posting it would be The Great Gatsby because probably eighty percent of its viewers in the United States will have read the book in school (it was assigned to me in high school, college, and graduate school, and with good reason!), and thus have some familiarity with the story and don’t need as much hand-holding as the film forces upon us.

Nevertheless, the film is worth seeing. I forgot how depressing the book’s ending is, how hopeless despite all of Nick’s admiration for Gatsby’s hopefulness, and the film does a lovely job of capturing this empty feeling. I love the novel because it always moves me, and the film did, too, which is the best recommendation I can give.

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Filed under Literature, Miscellaneous

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