Bridget Hourican: Why even the best directors fail to make Gatsby great on the big screen
BAZ Luhrmann's is the fifth screen adaptation of 'The Great Gatsby' and – if you overlook the Kanye West soundtrack and CGI visuals – the most anxiously deferential to the book. Not only is the dialogue verbatim, right down to narrator Nick Carraway's (Tobey Maguire's) interior monologue, but Luhrmann has incorporated loads of minor details as a nod and a wink to the book lovers.
For instance, the book makes passing reference to a machine in Gatsby's kitchen, "which could extract the juice of 200 oranges in half an hour", and to Gatsby's car being overtaken on the bridge by a limousine, "driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes". Sure enough, Luhrmann's 3D tracking shots include both orange squeezer and limo in their dizzying sweep.
So all hail to Luhrmann, and the literati can relax? Well, no, it's not that easy.
Check out the online threads and reviews posted over the last few days and you soon uncover a groundswell of disapproval rising to a chorus: "No one can film 'The Great Gatsby'"; "this film is all artifice and no soul"; "'The Great Gatsby' is about the superficial lives led by the rich, yet this is one of the most superficial films I've ever seen"; "It gets lost in the pomp of Luhrmann's chaotic editing"; "Only the book can put the 'great' into 'The Great Gatsby'". It seems mean after all Luhrmann's careful detailing, but I'd have to agree – though with a dispensation for the costumes (fab!).
Of course, it's a truth universally acknowledged that schlocky books like 'Jaws' and 'The Godfather' make great films, while great books are unfilmable. Well, yes, except for all those exceptions like Visconti's 'Death in Venice' and Ang Lee's 'Sense and Sensibility' and John Huston's 'The Dead', and David Lean's 'Great Expectations'. Not to mention RTE's 'Strumpet City' and those great BBC adaptations of Dickens, Austen and Thackeray.
Actually, the problem isn't filming great literature in general, but Gatsby in particular. Gatsby fans are not normal. I know, I'm one of them. They – we – are obsessive and aggressive and possessive. We think the book is whispering its magic to us alone.
We're simultaneously thrilled and infuriated by its popularity – because we're sure we're the only ones who really understand it. This is a book that was made into a play, 'Gatz', in which the whole book is read out, word for word, on stage, for eight hours. People pay to see that? It's been running continuously since 2005, with long stints in New York and London. There are so many of us Gatsby obsessives, we need a collective name – Gatsbytes?
When pigs fly, when hell freezes over, and, we might add, when Gatsby is successfully filmed. Poor Baz, did he realise what he was taking on? But what's with 'The Great Gatsby'? Why so impossible? After all, it's not long, experimental and mashed-up like 'Ulysses' (also unfilmable, but nobody really tries).
It has a straightforward plot and at least four characters – Daisy, Tom, Myrtle and Jordan – who are gifts to any actor. Carraway and Gatsby himself are harder to pull off but they're not really the problem. The problem is transferring those shimmery words to celluloid (or CGI). In fact, 'The Great Gatsby', where every single word sings, is a poem cunningly masquerading as a novel. And nobody bothers trying to film poetry – who breaks a butterfly on a wheel? 'Gatsby' should be reclassified in order to save future film directors from themselves.
But that won't happen, and as long as there are Gatsbytes – yes, we're part of the problem – directors are going to bravely go where too many have gone before. 'Gatsby' will continue to get re-made for each generation (and what does it say about this generation that the latest version is so bling? My advice to future directors? Forget about trying to capture the poetry – that green light, flashing pathetically through Luhrmann's film, was cringe. But – with regard to those excellent films 'Clueless' (based on Austen's 'Emma') and 'Cruel Intentions' (based on 'Dangerous Liaisons') – consider a teen movie: Daisy as the prom queen, Tom as the jock, and Gatsby as a Mark Zuckerberg techie type. I'm serious, old sport – I mean dude . . .