Friday, May 31, 2013

The Great Gatsby... a film review

"You really must read the book before you watch the movie!"

Yes, we know.  Yet how many of us actually do this?

No snobbery intended, but if we're talking masterpieces of literature [not Nicholas Sparks, sorry] I've often read the book first.  Come on, I'm not the only one.  You know who you are, you other literary geeks out there.

I'm accustomed to watching a new film adaptation of a classic novel and being filled with apprehension, wondering how it's going to work out.  I breathe a hopeful sigh of anticipatory excitement, thinking: maybe this time the director will have actually read the original work and not just the screenplay?

Afterwards, I sink into a post-junkfood stupor.  I wanted to like it but had to finally admit to myself with honest reluctance that yet again, they just didn't get it right and it's not digestible. Edible, yes; enjoyable, maybe; but just not palatable.

All these bring tears to the eyes of those faithful to the author: miscast actors, entire shifts of scene and mood, book quotes tossed into the script like sweeties to placate the book-lovers whilst satisfying the watchers with gratifying plot changes for Hollywood hearts.  As much as I love Peter Jackson's Middle-Earth movies, isn't there just something that's lacking?  [LOTR: the Cliffs Notes trilogy, anyone?]  Impressive as Les Mis was onscreen, isn't it a bit difficult to imagine Victor Hugo being happy with his sprawling historical epic chopped into a grimy yet glittering feature musically manipulated to squeeze tears from our eyes?

After watching "The Great Gatsby" twice, I am completely torn. I have seen a book adapted properly --onscreen- and they almost got it right. I've been disappointed innumerable times on this score, and I can't let myself think that it was totally right, because it wasn't.  Yet parts of it were... and oh how frustrating it is to even begin to try to explain but I will give it a go.
American writer F Scott Fitzgerald authored The Great Gatsby, published in 1925.  Yes, I've read it.  Possibly more than twice, but that just means I stopped counting after twice.

This most recent adaptation, a Baz Luhrmann-directed tale of early 1920's decadence; sad histories; damaged psyches; and empty wealth was portrayed in a cacophony of modern music, tinsel and glitter, and most importantly: stellar performances from a perfect cast.  The cast's brilliance was overshadowed by the noisy, ADHD insanity of the film, which is exactly what we've come to expect from a Luhrmann movie.  It wasn't a problem for me as I was anticipating it, but I can imagine anyone seeing this who is new to his films might find it over-the-top and in bad taste.

The Great Gatsby is the narrative of a summer gone but not forgotten in the memory of its narrator, Nick Carraway. Nick's cousin, Daisy, is the beautiful wife of the incredibly unlikeable Tom Buchanan, an old-moneyed Ivy Leaguer who enjoys cheating on his wife but is self-righteously affronted when it appears she might be doing the same. Nick's neighbour Gatsby, a Great War veteran, is the centrepiece round which both novel and film revolve: he is the intriguing light reeling us into the story as we wonder, curiously, who he really is.  

The actors were sharply-cast and brilliant in their characters, doing exactly what they do in the book --no more, no less-- just as they should. The poignancy of this novel lies in its characterisation, and the movie manages to fulfil this sufficiently. The human drama is very real. We wince at the sight of Daisy's shallow inability to commit herself, fume over Tom's crass betrayals, feel sorry for Gatsby in his earnest devotion, and visualise it all through the lenses of Nick's naive yet knowledgeable narration.  The story plays out in a dream-like atmosphere, much like Luhrmann's other films do, causing viewers to "feel" the story before they even process the events taking place within it. Such an atmosphere clearly shows the instability of the era depicted in Fitzgerald's book.  As we watch, the story's meaning breaks over us in a sudden sense of realisation and we say, yes!  We understand what he's trying to tell us, and he's right.

Some critics have disliked the use of modern music for the film and derided Luhrmann for inviting us to the ball rather than causing us to feel disdain for the opulence of the era.  I disagree. I think the open-hearted invitation to the ball gives us the same feeling we have at the end of reading Fitzgerald's book: tired of the excess, fed up of the Toms and Daisys who "smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made", and readied us to hunger for some quiet honesty and simple living. By the way, this critic's review was my favourite, because I believe the writer adequately expresses exactly what works about the film and what doesn't.

My general feeling at the end --this second time-- when the credits rolled, was satisfaction.  Luhrmann may not please the film critics with this Gatsby, but I think he's captured the feeling of the book, which is what matters.  Amongst other things, one he failed to capture would be the subtlety that cloaks Fitzgerald's novel.  Which leads me on to...

If you haven't read the book before, do so, whether you've seen the film or not.

You won't regret it.

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