You have to admire Baz Luhrmann’s balls. Not literally, of course, that won’t be necessary, not for the purposes of this review. No, you have to admire his metaphorical balls for adapting one of the best-loved novels of the 20th century; one that is admired for its subtle prose and its subtext and lots of other things that Luhrmann’s work is not admired for in the slightest.
For some reason – and this is no reflection on Fitzgerald – it brought to mind the dilemma facing Ron Howard when he was handed the task of adapting The Da Vinci Code. How do you begin to interpret the delicate intonations of Dan Brown’s serpentine magnum opus? The Da Vinci code was, of course, actually a comment on the state of the publishing industry. Dan Brown, with his mind immeasurably superior ours, set out to prove that publishers would print anything, literally anything, no matter how creakingly obese the structure, how offensively blunt the prose or preposterous the narrative – and, moreover, that we would lap it up like senile dogs gnawing our way through a thicket of nettles. It’s a subtext Howard missed; adapting popular novels is a tricky business.
But I digress. Approaching Luhrmann’s adaptation as some kind of definitive retelling is missing the point: you don’t watch his Romeo and Juliet for a probing insight into the mind of the bard. The Great Gatsby feels like a movie about the book, rather than a movie of the book. In the original text there were hints that Nick Carraway was novelising the events – Luhrmann takes this idea a few dozen steps further and has him dictating the manuscript to his psychiatrist. The text takes on a tangible presence, with words jumping off his typewriter on to the screen, using an effect that looks like it was knocked up in PowerPoint (incidentally, this review contains spoilers; given it’s an adaptation of one of the classic 20th century novels, I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you’ve read it).
True to form, Luhrmann conjures some impressive stylistic flourishes. Gatsby blazing through otherwise monochrome landscapes in full, gleaming technicolour is exhilarating, as are the vertiginous, swooping shots of 1920s New York City. The soundtrack, curated by Jay-Z, also works well in the context of a decadent prohibition US.
While Gatsby’s manor looks a little too much like the Disney palace, the rest of the staging is immaculate. Gatsby’s famous parties, though, despite coming complete with trapeze artists, swimming pools and an obscenely large organ, fail to capture the glamour of the novel. They look more like up-market Ibiza foam parties.
DiCaprio is passable as Gatsby (certainly better than Robert Redford), while Carey Mulligan has perfected looking exactly like a puppy that has just received a sharp kick to the ribs; all glassy eyes and trembling lip. So far, so-so. As a period romp loosely inspired by a famous novel, it just about works.
But then Luhrmann decides Fitzgerald got the ending wrong. In the novel, Gatsby’s death is almost incidental. The entire sequence lasts two pages. Without his dreams of Daisy (or at least what Daisy represented), Gatsby simply disappears, fading away like a ghost. No pomp or ceremony, just a third-hand retelling of what might have happened.
Luhrmann, though, opts for a big, overblown, melodramatic finale with slow-motion and flashbacks and whispered final words. The profanity of it made me throw up in my mouth. The more I thought about what Luhrmann had done, the worse it got. There was sick in my lap and sick on the people in front of me and sick in my shoes. There was no stopping it: it was like a wayward fireman’s hose, streams of vomit whipping across the cinema, dousing everything in sight, raining down like a rancid tropical storm, only subsiding after the screen itself was subsumed by the dripping, bilious remains of my lunch.
After The Great Gatsby was published, Fitzgerald said he hated the title and wished he had changed it. It is somehow appropriate that these words linger on screen at the end of Luhrmann’s adaptation: Fitzgerald would have hated this, too.
First published in City A.M.