02 November 2013

2013 movies: "The Great Gatsby"

As this year is wrapping up, I think I'll review a few of the movies I saw throughout 2013. Maybe some of them will win Oscars? 


Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby (2013, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan, and Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway) is a remarkably literal adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel. I have rarely seen a film that followed its source-book as faithfully, except for settings of Shakespeare's plays. Of course, Lehrmann is known for his brilliant and bizarre Romeo + Juliet (1996)--yet even his wildly original twist on the old tale followed this unspoken rule about adapting Shakespeare: You can cut out as many lines as you like, you can interpret the words as strangely as their ambiguities will allow (visually, verbally, physically), and you can even cut-and-paste the order of lines and scenes—but you may never, ever add new words to Shakespeare's text. Lehrmann followed this rule a little more loosely in The Great Gatsby, and both his additions and his wooden fidelity together constitute a commentary on the current state of American education: a song of praise for the writer's power, and a lament for the loss of Classical learning.

The most obvious departure from the book comes in the frame-narrative: the story of pathetic Nick Carraway, voyeur, pander, morbid alcoholic, locked in a sanitarium to recover from post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet Nick is an author, writing as therapy—and narrating the entire film via an invasive voice-over. As the movie closes, he finishes the typescript, revealing its title, Gatsby, before penning in The Great. Nick, then, is both a character in the story, deeply implicated in his friends' guilty actions, and the storyteller who evokes a time gone by and a man with extraordinary dreams. The impact of this trope strikes in two opposite directions: on the one hand, it reinforces the stereotype of the drunk, mentally-ill writer who can't cope with life. On the other hand, it revives the Romantic concept of the inspired writer as a sort of demi-god, creating worlds with his words. More than most screen adaptations of novels, then, The Great Gatsby screams at its audience: READ THE BOOK!

Yet, sadly, the literal, plodding nature of the voice-over narration serves as witness that people don't read books, or if they do, they don't do so with the powers of analysis that use to be expected of a literate, educated generation. Maguire explains everything, telling the viewer what to think, expounding character's thoughts and feelings rather than letting the actors reveal them through their subtle arts, and (most annoyingly) interpreting emblems. “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us,” he declaims, substituting exposition of the metaphor for subtle resonance. Clearly, this movie was made for a generation that does not want to interpret visual symbols for itself.

But then again, the book rather bashes the reader over the head with its own wooden literalism, interpreting events and leaving no room for either misunderstanding or subtle application. “I was a guide, a pathfinder, an original settler” Nick announces after someone first asks him directions in West Egg. A more profound novelist would leave that conclusion, or some other, for the reader to draw. A more profound novelist would trust his readers more. Perhaps that is why this movie was made, now, for this generation: with our left-over poetolatry but without a classical education, what we want is literal interpretations of simple novels, narrated, interpreted, packaged, and delivered. That way we can feel sophisticated without having to think too hard.

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