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The Great Gatsby, Rewritten     By Agata Stanford

To experience a fascinating abomination that is cinematically stunning, one must see The Great Gatsby if only to confirm that F. Scott Fitzgerald lives on as the greatest American novelist of The Twentieth Century, and try as they might, the arrogance of misguided filmmakers cannot topple him from his pedestal.

Much more than a love story, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece shows the societal conflicts of the Roaring Twenties. It is a story of conflict between the old rich and the new, with a bay of water separating them; a struggle of a dirt poor Jewish boy’s attempt to fulfill his personal American Dream and to win back his first love.  It is also a depiction of the blossoming of a post-war generation determined to ‘live for today because tomorrow we may all be dead.’  Above all this, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece is a moral tale, and the filmmakers have fiddled with it.  Baz Luhrmann’s 3D version of The Great Gatsby doesn’t depict the excesses of the 1920s as much as it glorifies them.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is startling. It rises above all of Luhrmann’s hoopla with a brilliant film portrayal of Jay Gatsby.  He has brought to the role a touching vulnerability along with a driving power to engine his obsession to reclaim the past, to revive it and relive it in the present.  It not his fault that Fitzgerald’s lean book has been contorted to such a degree into a screenplay that is rife with overstatements, constant explanations and glaring omissions that ignore the subtleties of the novel in an attempt to ram the story down one’s throat. No, DiCaprio is the one shining green light to watch in this film. (I have often wondered how much of the book was hacked away by Max Perkins, Fitzgerald’s discerning editor, but this director had no right to do it.)

An example of this foul play is screenwriter Craig Pearce’s treatment of Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, whom Craig has chosen to deposit into an ice encrusted sanatorium to tell his tale.  Competently played by Tobey Maguire, Nick types his name at the bottom of the manuscript he has written entitled, The Great Gatsby!  This contrivance undermines Nick, who serves as the moral compass of the story, finally leaving the dangers of New York to return to his Mid-Western roots in Fitzgerald’s book.  In this train wreck scenario, Nick becomes a casualty of his time, ending up in a sanitarium, for god only knows what ailment plagues him. Alcoholism?  TB?  Alarmingly, the final scene depicted in Fitzgerald’s novel is once again ignored (as all prior filmmaker have done).  It is the chance meeting of Nick and Tom, which is integral to the point of the book and for Nick Carraway’s enlightenment.

So much is revealed about the enigmatic Gatsby so early in the film, that the mystique of Jay Gatsby’s is diluted, and a still worse effrontery is that the last third of the novel is crammed into just fifteen minutes, as if the director realized he had to wrap things up quickly because he was testing the patience of the viewer. And so, it is that Luhrmann’s focus was more on filming spectacular, depraved, gluttonous Busby Berkley styled party scenes, than in paying cinematic homage to a great work of literature. These glimpses of the debauchery are laughable for their extremes not because they are witty and fun but because they are embarrassingly over-the-top silly.

Daisy is played very nicely by Carey Mulligan.  She fulfils the role of the conflicted, moist-eyed heroine, who is fully aware of her culpability at story’s end. She makes Daisy’s lack of integrity a striking contrast to her sweet appearance.  But, Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan, played villainously by Joel Edgerton (had his moustaches been longer he could’ve twirled them), are of the privileged class, the entitled. Daisy’s world will not be shaken, and she and Tom will carry on, taking their places among their fellow members of American aristocracy or “wherever people played polo and were rich together” as if nothing had happened.  In spite of what’s happened.  Beneath the pretty appearance and vacuous behavior, Daisy is the prime example of youthful moral decay, of all that is wrong with the 20’s mentality, while Jay Gatsby is a man clinging to his pure dream of love, albeit a fantasy of his own making.  He envisions an ideal that has no basis in reality.  Daisy is unworthy of his adoration.  “Her voice is full of money” notes Nick Carraway, an observation that refers to the hollow, mindless, pointless chatter spoken by Daisy and her like; the tinkling of lose change in a pocket.

As well played as the leading roles are, and as hard as the actors tried, the moments when Gatsby and Daisy are seen together lack sexual tension and emotional connection. This may simply have to do with the chemistry between the actors on the screen.  Or perhaps I was enthralled with the magnificent dress made out of glass crystals Daisy wore and was distracted from the love scene in the woods.  Still, there is a forced aspect to these sequences. Where one should feel a surge of excitement and satisfaction for Gatsby’s dream coming to fruition, along with the hope for the couple’s happy future, one is left wanting.  On the other hand, it’s the struggle between Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan that is full of passion, albeit a greedy competition over money, power and possession.

There was so much hype about the Jay-Z soundtrack that I expected to be appalled by the use of a modern film score.  And yet, I wasn’t. I was just left wondering, “why? I have nothing against taking a story like The Great Gatsby and translating it into a modern setting. Like Romeo and Juliet the story lends itself to modern times.  There was a lot about the 1980s that echoed the 20s: Yuppies, the Wall Street market boom, easy money, shoulder pads, Dynasty?

It comes right down to this: When you brazenly rework a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci with flourishes of your own, thinking you can make it better, more commercial, you only defile it.  This is what has happened to a literary work of art. See this discombobulated film, if only to reaffirm the rule that art shouldn’t be fiddled with and to appreciate how very wonderful Fitzgerald’s novel is, for you will surely want to revisit it after you see the film.