Monday, May 27, 2013

The Great Gatsby: The Movie

Exactly one year ago today I posted the trailer for the new Great Gatsby movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, and the girl from An Education (aka Carey Mulligan.) I was REALLY excited for this movie and now after seeing it a few days ago, I'm still sorting how I felt. Was it good? Yes. Was the book better? Yes.

I think my hesitation in saying I LOVED the movie lies in the fact that so much was changed. In some ways the script writers manipulated changes that completely altered the way in which the viewer perceived the characters. On the one hand, I realize that it is a movie and cannot capture the brilliance of the novel as this medium only allows for so much content, but while I do think I like most of the choices/focuses, a lot was lost in the movie.

However, I didn't hate the movie because even though it greatly rearranged the book and left significant content out, it did get some very key elements totally spot on.

What the movie got right:

If this movie got one thing right, it was Gatsby. While the film dominated the way we saw Gatsby (see below), everything it wanted us to believe about Gatsby can be found in the book, either in print or through interpretation.
Leonardo DiCaprio was the absolute right choice for this role. He is handsome yet believable. He perfectly embodied the juxtapositons of Gastby's insecurities, madness, desperation, savvy, and shady behavior with his sweet, gentle, careful, and hopeful sadness.

I am always bothered that when people read The Great Gatsby they talk about how romantic(ally tragic) it is as though it were a golden standard of ill-fated relationships. Perhaps it is romantically tragic in a way, but I think the whole point of the book is to show a)the corrupting powers of money and b)the corrupting powers of love when turned into an obsession. Luhrmann got this totally right. It's easy to miss Gatsby's madness and romanticize his actions when carelessly reading the book, but when you think about the fact that Gatsby collected thousands of pictures/clipping of Daisy, compromised his integrity and became a bootlegger so she might be willing to marry him, found her house, moved in across the bay from her, stared at her green light every night and thought of her endlessly, knew all about Daisy and all of her friends/relatives without actually knowing them, threw parties hoping she would come, demanded she erased her past and pledge not only her undying love to him, but her entire lifetime of love to him, it is clear that Gatsby holds ever-slipping grip on reality as his love turned into an extremely unhealthy obsession.

My only criticism of Luhrmann's Gatsby is that I wish he would have included was Gatsby's relationship with his parents. In the book he cares for them financially even though he doesn't include them in his larger-than-life lifestyle, but as they are simpler people than he, it seems fitting. Also, I can't get over the line in the book where Gatsby's father tells Nick that as a child Jay/James made a list of ways to improve himself and included "Be nice to parents." I think that speaks volumes about his innate kindness and heart for others that is left out in the movie. 

The Visuals

 I mean wow. 

I was in awe of the fantastical and intricate detail in almost every scene. From the stunningly ornate dresses and jewelry and gallant three-piece suits to the old-world/new-world architecture, it is clear that this film was intended to be a visual masterpiece from its inception. Clearly Baz Luhrmann used wild color throughout the film to further drive home the over-the-top nature of Gatsby's world. Furthermore, I loved, loved, loved the way he incorporated actual writing onto the screen, making them colorful and out of control when drugs and alcohol were part of the story and clean and beautiful when expressing some of Fitzgerald's finer, more poignantly put points.

The Spirit of the Story... kind of...
While there is no singular point to any novel, for me, as metnioned above, this novel is all about reality that abused love, power, and money corrupts and distracts all. Of his own novel, Fitzgerald wrote, "The loss of those illusions that give such color to the world so that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory."

While there were a lot of ways in which this movie rearranged and (in parts) destroyed, the overall message of the human mistake of confusing comfort and beautify for goodness does still prevail.

What the movie got wrong:
The subtlety
While the spirit of Gatsby and Fitzgerald's message is kept in tact in the movie, viewers completely miss out on the deeper layers/motivations of virtually every other character in the film. This is due in part to the fact that it's a movie and at 142 minutes it is already pretty long, but the loss is no less tragic. 

As in the speeding car scene pictured above, the story zooms along with very little time to reflect. Even worse, everything that is implied or nuanced in the book is literally and boldly spelled out in a way that leaves zero room for intreptation, thus using a dominating format to dominate the message received by viewers. As a result, the movie requires zero critical thinking skills. This might not be so bad if not for the fact that the genius, the real beauty, of Fitzgerald's masterpiece is the way in the story slowly, subtly reveals the gravity and depth of the story. Gatsby's every motivation, plan, dream, hope, and even his stalker-esque obsession is quite literally spelled out to the point that there is no room for the literary "other" in the text. Rather, Luhrmann makes sure the message is seemingly idiot proof.

I would argue that the subtlety of the storytelling is mimetic of the way in which the decline from morality that these characters experience. As I said above, I realize it's a movie and not a book. Perhaps because of the medium I need to realize we can't have our cake and eat it too, but regardless of the things this movie does right (and regardless of the fact that I really liked it) this element is what truly separates the book from the movie when the rubber hits the road.

I will be the first to say that I hated the choice to put Nick into a Sanatarium. He was disturbed by the whole summer of Gatsby experience, but I don't believe he couldn't recover, I like to read the story believing he witnessed the depths to which humanity can fall and chose to be better for it in writing his story. I guess that is what the whole sanatarium arc acheived and I realize it was probably just a means to an end, but still. I felt it added an unnecessarily dramatic tone to the movie.

The first time I read The Great Gastby I liked Nick. I thought he was a sweet, tender, homegrown kind of guy who happened to be from old money. Then to me he was some poor young man who got mixed up in this crazy world and saw these vile people for what they were worth. That is generally what the movie portrays.

However, upon a closer second reading, I found that Nick is not a bad person, but he also thinks very highly of himself to the extent that he isn't exactly truthful throughout the book. In fact, he reveals that he himself has made some heartless decisions to pursue the Buchanan-Gatsby stratosphere on his own after leaving Yale and then his family in California. (I'll let you find them the next time you read the book.) While I realize that to some extent even Nick is a means to an end within the telling of this tale and therefore has to remain somewhat passive in order to maintain his narrator/observer role, he is quite passive and has a multitude of opportunities to make a bad situation better but chooses not to.

In the book Daisy is, in a few words, dumb, shallow, and self-obsessed. Like most people, I read Daisy's character as shallow, manipulative, and passive. While not an all around terrible person, at the end of the day Daisy throws her tortured hopes and dreams to the wind when a diamond is dangled in front of her without care or consideration for the consequences of her actions. While not completely missing the mark, this is not the Daisy in the movie.  Mulligan was just too lovable as her Daisy is just a little TOO tortured and a little too sweet. In the end of the movie, Daisy is portrayed as a lovesick child, unsure of who will really love her and provide for her best, stuck in the middle of a power struggle which she has ultimately lost, hoping to atone for the sin of her affair by pledging herself to Tom once again. However, we never see what a terrible mother she is as she constantly blows off Pammy and allows her servants to raise her. We learn that Daisy, a child herself still, simply wants to be with whomever can make her most comfortable, excited, and feel most wanted. Furthermore, she lets Gatsby take the fall for Myrtle's death even though she was driving. Instead of telling the truth she "retreats into her money" and the reader has no indication that she feels any remorse.

 In the book, Tom is, also in a word, dumb. His parents paid for his Yale education so that he could play polo and live a life of grandeur. His old-money, racist, sexist behavior/comments could be found in the movie, but the way the movie was edited and the way Joel Edgerton plays him, the film is so focused on his power struggle over Daisy that his less-appealing traits were overshadowed. In fact, even I walked away wondering, "Does Tom love Daisy? Is he just a misguided, over-sexed dog who thinks he can have it all too?" But no. Tom is really a lummox who wants to own Daisy and have his fun on the side and not the seemingly brilliant evil mind he plays in the movie. Also, I was very sad to see the details of his affair with Myrtle Wilson and his relationship with George Wilson were glossed over. Again, contributing to the general lack of subtlety in the movie.

The Jordan/Nick fling

While the "girl back West" is mentioned, again, it happens to quickly that the line is easily drowned out by the speed of the movie. In the book, Jordan and Nick seem to fall for each other and yet even Nick starts things and breaks things off with Jordan feeling fairly unconcerned for her feelings. To me, the fling is an extension of Nick's corruption--using Jordan because he can, because it's convenient, but he does snap out of it in the end and the book makes mention of the possibility of either returning to or making amends with the girl back West.

George and Myrtle Wilson

First things first: Myrtle is much older and, ahem, thicker, in the book than Isla Fisher just so happens to be. Not that it should matter, but the way Myrtle looks makes the reader/viewer perceive Tom's affair differently, and thus perceive Tom differently. The book goes into great detail about the ways in which Myrtle felt she was tricked into marrying George because she thought he was rich, but turned out not to be. Much like he does Daisy, Tom uses his wealth to justify this ill-fated version of Daisy's need for him.
George is, in keeping with the theme, too good looking in this movie adaptation. Furthermore, the lack of dimension the viewer gains into his character makes his character almost completely irrelevant to the story. Whereas he seems like a pitiful/crazy/possessive guy in the film, the book explains why in a way that makes him oh-so-much-more pitiful and far less crazy.


How about you? Do you agree? Disagree?

Enjoyability: 10
Story in the movie apart from the book: 8
Visual Elements: 10
Music: 8
Overall movie considering the book and knowing the sacrifices made: 7

How would you rate The Great Gastby?

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