Whenever a new film that’s based on a book is announced, I always have a mixed reaction: delight that a whole new audience will see a story they’ve not seen before, and a dread-like sinking feeling that a director will destroy a much loved novel. Admittedly, there have been any number of great adaptations: the Harry Potter series was treated with the love it deserved to produce a beautiful franchise of films; The Lord of the Rings series made Tolkien’s tedious tomes just about tolerable and We Need to Talk About Kevin is possibly the greatest example of this genre to grace screens. Of course, there are more than enough exceptions to this rule: One Day is probably my favourite to moan about; The Time Traveller’s Wife can never surmount to the pain and love captured in Audrey Niffenegger’s novel; and I’m eternally grateful the rest of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy will not be subject to the same torture The Northern Nights was to create The Golden Compass. My torment was escalated when it was announced Baz Luhrmann was to direct his version of F. Scott Fiztgerald’s The Great Gatsby - the great American novel, which also happens to be one of my all time favourite books. Even if I had managed to lock away my literary snobbery and throw away the key, I don’t think any amount of pretty dresses or cool soundtracks could have sedated my disappointment.
When wannabe writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moves from the Midwest to New York City to chase his American Dream, he gets more than he’s bargained for. It doesn’t take him long to discover his modest home lies in the shadow of a lavish mansion, belonging to a mysterious, party-hosting millionaire: Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Living just across the bay from his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her blue-blooded husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton), Carraway soon becomes drawn into the captivating world of the wealthy along with their delusions, deceits and desires. Nick, the narrator, tells us tales of the nouveau riche from the safety of a psychiatric hospital.
Yes, that’s right: a psychiatric hospital. I have to hand it to Baz Luhrmann; I didn’t know how he was going to do The Great Gatsby without the narrator’s strong voice. Luckily for him, he found a way around it. Let’s stick poor Nick Carraway, an ageing alcoholic fatigued from living the highlife, in hospital. From here, he writes The Great Gatsby as a form of therapy. That makes perfect sense. I’m not sure if this is a nod to Fitzgerald’s personal life and his wife, Zelda’s, struggle with mental illness or simply an idea plucked out of the air; either way, it doesn’t work. Not just because Luhrmann suggests that Tobey Maguire, aka Spiderman, penned the greatest American novel of all time. I won’t even touch upon how pointless it is to have words from the text appear on the screen as they’re being said. Way to make the most famous closing sentence of all time redundant, Luhrmann.
Despite the above rant, The Great Gatsby isn’t all bad. Leonard DiCaprio really cannot do any wrong; he’s the perfect embodiment of the dapper Gatsby. The rest of the cast isn’t so bad either: Mulligan’s Daisy is the beautiful fool she so wishes her daughter to be; Edgerton is brilliant as the brutish Tom (he dominates scenes from his first appearance; when he’s busting out of his polo gear like only Buchanan could) and Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker is exactly how I imagined her. The weakest link in chain of the cast is Maguire, but you’ve already read my thoughts on him.
Much like Moulin Rouge, The Great Gatsby is visually dazzling. The costumes, the set design and the soundtrack are all equally breathtaking. The roaring 1920s has never looked or sounded so appealing. Sadly, not enough credit is given to the existing text, resulting in an empty, yet pretty, disappointment. Sorry Lurhmann, old sport; you’ve got to learn to leave the classics alone.