“The Colossal Vitality Of His Illusion”: Some Thoughts on Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby

by Erika Koss

During a 2003 interview, Baz Luhrmann’s motives were questioned for bringing Puccini’s celebrated opera La Boheme to Broadway.  The director answered straightforwardly:  “My motive is, I think, that there are extraordinary works, and someone did it for me when I was a child – someone pulled the curtain back and revealed the classics to me, and suddenly I was exalted. Now I feel like I’d like to give back.”

The hype over Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby seems to have mostly passed, further eclipsed by the shadow of The Lone Ranger and other recent summer film releases.  However, I’m still entranced by the particular vision Luhrmann, Catherine Martin, and the rest of their team created; I’m still pondering the reasons why this Gatsby dazzled me so much, beyond the obvious facts of its impeccable casting, exquisite costumes, and extravagant sets.

In an earlier post, I wrote of my attempt to persuade my artistic 14-year-old son to read Fitzgerald’s novel.  He wanted to see the film, and I wanted him to read the book first.  But he simply wasn’t that interested after reading few dozen pages. Despite his acute understanding of character and scene developed from his theatre experiences, he was confused about the narrator, as well as the novel’s constant flipping between the past, present, and future.

Even we who have read this masterpiece two dozen times would find it difficult to articulate the flawless depth Fitzgerald manages to accomplish despite a seemingly frivolous surface, or “whipped cream” (to borrow Jonathan Frazen’s term). So I finally relented and took him to see the film anyway.

Just as I anticipated, we were blown away by Luhrmann’s singular vision and by this cadre of actors. I was enthralled all over again by the power of a story that I know so well and love so dearly. Nevermind my frustration that Luhrmann begins with Nick Carraway in a sanatorium as if there were a need to justify his interest in telling Gatsby’s story  (as if Horatio’s need to tell the truth about his friend Hamlet’s tragic death isn’t reason enough!).  Forget my disappointment that several gorgeous lines from the novel were either misquoted or truncated. Nevermind my annoyance at times with minor additions of dialogue by Luhrmann and his co-writer Craig Pearce.

What matters is that I cried alongside Carey Mulligan during the shirt scene, appreciating anew Daisy’s ability to say so much with so few words. The potent silences of the Gatsby-and-Daisy reunion scene were powerfully rendered, with Gatsby’s clumsy nervousness providing a few seconds of comic relief. But what I loved most about this film was witnessing Leonardo DiCaprio’s consistent ability to translate the depth of Jay Gatsby’s hopeful yet impossible dream. DiCaprio’s Gatsby holds back, speaks volumes with his eyes, and always plays the courteous gentlemen, until the culminating, emotional center of the novel on Nick’s birthday, when we see Gatsby let go, moving from a refined lover to an angry fighter in less than two seconds, looking indeed like he had just murdered a man.

Until watching this film, I hadn’t considered that the man Gatsby murdered may have been himself.  By trying to force Daisy to undo the past, Gatsby undoes his own future. For the first time, I recognized him and Don Draper as distant cousins, a thought that began as I watched Luhrmann’s brilliant flashbacks of Gatsby as a younger man and presumed war hero. And for the first time – finally! – as we raced with Gatsby and Nick back and forth from one end of New York to the other, over the bridge and through the “Valley of Ashes,” I could picture the contrasts that are perhaps obvious to a New Yorker, but have always felt hazy to a southern Californian like me.

To focus on whether or not the hip hop music or the voice over really works or not misses the point of this film.  Baz Luhrmann has, as with Romeo and Juliet, remained faithful to a classic work while offering his own creativity on a silver platter. It hardly matters that my son didn’t finish the book.  He loved the film, and we shared it together. For two hours, we were exalted.

A native Californian, Erika Koss was formerly the Director of of the Fitzgerald Literary Conference in Rockville, Maryland, where, for seven years, she lived less than one mile from F. Scott’s and Zelda’s graves. She worked at the National Endowment for the Arts on the founding creative teams for Poetry Out Loud and The Big Read (where The Great Gatsby was one of the first four books). She now works at Northeastern University as an Assistant Dean in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities. She lives near Boston with her two sons.

Gatsby image above is from here.

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