Adapting a piece of classic literature to film is perhaps one of the most difficult undertakings to which a filmmaker could subject themselves. The most common complaint about a movie based on another work is the classic “that’s not how it happened in the book.” However, when adapting a piece such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, people are less concerned about the specific details of the book, but rather the legacy the book has created. While a huge portion of Americans have read the book, for most of us it has been quite a while since we were assigned to do so in English class, and though we may not remember every detail and nuance, we still remember it as an important piece of literature, one that incited certain thoughts and emotions that make it the classic it rightfully is.
While many argue that adapting such an important and beloved novel into a movie might cheapen the source material, in most circumstances I believe that film can be a very effective way of paying homage to and creating new perspective for a piece of work. It certainly never could, nor should it, replace the original work, but can be a powerful complement to it. Of course occasionally, if not often, this complement does not live up to its source, and is dwarfed by the legacy of the original. The legacy is not tarnished, but instead wields its sway to cast the imitator into obscurity. So the question going into director Baz Lurhmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby was not how accurate would he get the little details, but would his film be a respectable tribute, or a forgettable knock-off?
At its core, the story of The Great Gatsby is a love story, wrapped up in the glamour and excess of the 1920s, while the films of Baz Lurhmann tend to be showcases of glamour and excess wrapped in a love story. Told from the perspective of a man of little wealth or social status thrust into the world of money, excess, and self-indulgence, we are able to see two sides of this grand culture: the shimmering and spectacular houses, cars, and parties, as well as the strife and struggle of lost love and regrets. Ironically, the film shines brightest not in the elaborately staged and choreographed parties, but when it focuses on the relationships and interactions of the main characters. The most vibrant and powerful scenes take place not in the beautiful halls of the various mansions, but in simple rooms where the timelessness of lost love is able to take the spotlight.
The Great Gatsby essentially lives as two films: as a vast, shimmering spectacle, and as an emotional, confined chamber piece. The primary disconnect is that instead of using the spectacle of wealth and excess as a backdrop to provide context, it is treated as simply an excuse to create slick and sexy imagery, leaving a rift between the social commentary of the original novel and the simple love story we are left with. While it is still a very powerful love story, it is a shame that such a rich story has been stripped to its most basic form.
Despite all of its flaws, I would not say that The Great Gatsby is guilty of any betrayal to its celebrated source material. While its lack of focus and depth may not capture all of the greatness of the novel, the film does grasp the power, conflict, and confusion of the love story at the center of it all, primarily through Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of the charming and tortured titular character. Though some of the scenes do sacrifice story and emotion for show, the vibrant cinematography and excellent production value still make it an enjoyable, scenic detour. The Great Gatsby is by no means a substitute for the classic novel on which it is based, but it does serve as a mostly effective tribute.
My Rating: 3 Stars