My sister’s eyes nearly bugged out when I announced my desire to see Baz Luhrmann’s new film, “Gatsby”. Based upon F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” (a book which I had never read), it seemed an odd selection, and my sister immediately seized the opportunity to expand my literary horizons. Digging out her copy of the book, she informed me that if I could read it in the three days which preceded our movie-viewing appointment, my ticket would be free. I of, course, could not turn down such a generous offer and what I discovered in the process was simply put, “enchanting”.
Fitzgerald used words like a painter uses a brush and it was not long before I was able to see all of the glorious extravagance of Gatsby’s home, the brilliant lights and colors of the raucous parties, and the sunlight glinting from the windshield of his bright yellow car as if it were all laid out before me, tangible and real. His world sucked me in, not because I would choose it for my own, but because the description kept begging me to immerse myself ever deeper in a narrative that left me questioning the moral rectitude of nearly everybody! It was flamboyant and excessive and it absorbed me.
Due to circumstances beyond my control, I had only made it half-way through the book by the time of our appointment. Upon the conclusion of a brief interview, however, my sister determined that I had, indeed, been reading the book and, more importantly, paying attention. She decided to purchase my ticket anyway and I was treated to a movie almost as enrapturing as the words printed upon the page.
Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation left little to the imagination. Though the first part of the film seemed a bit “trippy” (a sensation created by Luhrmann’s distinctive filming techniques), I couldn’t help feeling that this only helped to draw viewers into the production. If the day was hot and the characters drowsy, we were hot and drowsy as well. If the characters were lost in the chaos of the party, so were we. And if the characters got drunk, we got drunk with them.
These sights and sounds only confirmed us as Nick’s companions. The rest of the tragic story unfolded… a story that, like the best of adaptations, was so close to the book that any departure seemed to blare like a siren. While I understood the literary reasons for most of the alterations (like cutting Gatsby’s station wagon from the picture or changing Tom Buchanan from a footballer to a polo player), others left me wondering.
Why, for example, did Wolfsheim’s molar buttons become a tie-tack? Was there simply not enough money in the budget to make three or four matching buttons? Was it fear that the audience would be more aghast at the excess of human teeth (presumably wrenched from their victims’ mouths by Wolfsheim’s henchmen)? Was there some particular need to turn Gatsby’s vibrant pink suit to a dusty, near-white?
These questions haunted me in light of the excruciating detail which allows us to see the only briefly mentioned Negros with their white chauffer or the gigantic eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleberg which watch over the film with an almost god-like omniscience. Perhaps someday I’ll have my answer, but not today.
Despite these notable oddities, however, the film was an excellent one. With dialogue copied directly from the book, it felt every bit the “Gatsby” I’d come to know. It was loud, gaudy, extravagant, and moving… a film worth seeing, whether you’ve read the book or not. Like its literary counterpart, it served as a stark reminder that, those things for which we sell our souls are, in the end, merely illusions – things of yesteryear forever beyond our grasp. Yet for some reason “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”