There’s a part in William Gaddis’s big novel The Recognitions where Basil Valentine talks about how forged paintings are always outed as fakes over time because they ultimately illustrate not the original genius of the artist, but instead show how the current zeitgeist interprets the artist. Film adaptations of books aren’t painted forgeries, but they are highly susceptible to the same critical limitations that Valentine discusses. We can see this plainly in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, a messy, vibrant, flaky film thoroughly shot-through with the aesthetic spirit of the nineties. I like Luhrmann’s R&J, despite its many, many faults. One of its great saving graces is that it seems aware of its own spectacle—it unselfconciously acknowledges itself as a product of its time, as just one of many, many adaptations of Shakespeare’s deathless work.
Lurhmann has taken a stab at F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. He’s not the first. Others attempted to turn Fitzgerald’s classic novel of the jazz age into a movie in 1926 (the film is lost), 1949 (there’s a reason you never saw it in high school), and 1974 (I’ll come back to the Redford Gatsby in a moment). Most recently, a 2000 anemic TV production featured Mira Sorvino as Daisy and Paul Rudd as a terribly miscast Nick Carraway. Up until now, high school teachers across the country who wanted to foist an adaptation on their students (and maybe free up a day or two of lesson planning) have had to choose between the 2000 A&E production or Jack Clayton’s 1974 Francis Ford Coppola-penned debacle—this is the one I was subjected to in high school. It features Robert Redford as Gatsby, Sam Waterston as Nick, and Mia Farrow as Daisy, and none of them are terrible, but the movie is dull, overly-reverential of its source material, and heavy-handed. It also looks incredibly dated now, its evocations of the 1920’s jazz age petrified in gauzy ’70s soft-focus shots. It just looks and feels very 1970s.
Judging by its trailer, Lurhmann’s Gatsby is making absolutely no play at all for timelessness. Just as his earlier mashup, 2001’s Moulin Rouge!, essentially uses the Belle Époque as a sounding board for transgenerational spectacle, Lurhmann’s Gatsby looks like another thoroughly interpretative gesture, a hyperkinetic, hyperstylized film that makes no bid at realism. This is what 2012 thinks 1922 should look like (or at least this is 2012’s ideal, shimmering, sexy version of 1922.) Here’s the trailer:
Overwrought, frenetic spectacle is exactly what I would expect from Luhrmann. There’s a transposition of meaning here, where Gatsby’s famous party turns into a rave of sorts, where Daisy’s phrasing of “You always look so cool” takes on anachronistic dimensions. But the trailer seems faithful (if hyperbolic) to images described in the book. By way of comparison, let’s look at the first shot in the trailer, the car full of young black people treating said car as a party scene. Here’s the text:
As we crossed Blackwell’s Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish Negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.
“Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” I thought; “anything at all. . . .”
Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder.
The energy of the scene is expressed—and magnified—in Luhrmann’s shot, but it’s impossible to say yet whether or not the invocation to change expressed in this citation will transfer to film.
It’s also obviously too early to make any pronouncements on the casting, although I’ll submit that you could find a worse Jay Gatsby than Leonardo DiCaprio (who I think, for the record, was great as petulant, whiny Romeo in Luhrmann’s breakthrough film). I’m not sure about Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, but there’s a certain, I don’t know, emptiness to him that may work well in our unreliable narrator. My big concern is Carey Mulligan, who I think is very sweet and I will admit to having a mild crush on—is she right for Daisy Buchanan, one of the meanest, most selfish creatures in literature? The other Buchanan, husband Tom, is portrayed by Joel Edgerton with a kind of seething rage here in the clip. Dude looks positively evil—cartoonishly so (which is really saying something, because Luhrmann seems to turn everything into a cartoon). Edgerton’s Tom presents as the glowering obstacle to the pure, positive love between Daisy and Gatsby. And here might be the biggest trip up with the film: The trailer seems to be advertising a love story.
Now, of course reading is an act of interpretation, a highly subjective experience dependent on any number of factors (see also: the opening paragraph to this riff). But good reading and good interpretation is generally supported by textual evidence, and the textual evidence in Gatsby reveals not so much a love story, but a bunch of nefarious creeps and awful liars who ruin the lives of the people around them with little thought or introspection. I mean, really, the principal characters are basically vile people (hence the reason your high school English teacher loved to point out Nick Carraway’s signature unreliability as a narrator—he glosses over so much evil). But again, it’s just a trailer, and trailers are made to make people buy tickets to movies, and people will pay to see a love story. We’ll have to wait for the film to assess Lurhmann’s interpretation. For now, it’s enough to suggest that the trailer achieved what it needed to—as of now, The Great Gatsby is still trending on Twitter. This is buzz; this is what a trailer is supposed to create. And if a byproduct of that buzz is to get more people reading or rereading, that can’t be a bad thing.