Into the Past: Assessing Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby


After nearly ten years of production qualms, Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down is soon to be made available for streaming. With trademark flashy visuals and slightly overblown spectacle, Luhrmann tends to be a divisive director. I’m hit or miss with him. Moulin Rouge is one of my favorite films of all time but I strongly dislike his modern take on “Romeo and Juliet”. Australia, while a great throwback to epics like Giant, is a bloated and overwrought period romance. His version of Romeo + Juliet made me apprehensive when I heard he would be directing an adaptation of “The Great Gatsby”.

On the surface however, Baz Luhrmann seemed like the perfect director to adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary classic. A book that thematically centers on idealism, romance and excessive decadence perfectly fits the bill for Luhrmann’s directorial style. While it’s one of my favorite novels, I’m by no means a purist when it comes to the translation process from book to film. If someone makes changes, I can’t complain provided that they work in the context of the film. I was very nervous going into the film because i was worried Luhrmann would sacrifice the book’s themes and subtext for the sake of stylistic visuals. My concerns quickly dissipated when I realized how he was interpreting the novel. Not only was it very respectful, he added a few touches to make it his own.

Right from the beginning, Luhrmann makes a huge change to the context of the book itself. Narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is recalling his memories from a mental hospital. Unable to fully convey his emotions, his psychiatrist recommends that he write his thoughts in the form of a novel. This is a framing device that works, giving the narrative structure a foundation of which to recall the events of the novel. Gatsby after all is seen through the eyes of Nick. It’s only fitting that we as an audience use Nick as our spiritual avatar in the same way his therapist does.

Speaking of Gatsby, DiCaprio gives one of the best performances of his storied career. In comparison to the 1974 adaptation, I found everyone in that film to be miscast, especially Robert Redford as Gatsby. Dicaprio still maintains his youthful persona but brings a true and honest sense of wonder and mystique to the character. His introduction is one of the high points of the film, complete with fireworks and a quip about his “perfect” smile that I found visually stunning.  He speaks erratically as he boasts about all of his accomplishments but without being condescending.  The whole sequence where he is reunited with Daisy is perhaps his standout moment, conveying everything from trepidation to fear to joy.

Luhrmann’s trademark style was overwhelming for the first quarter of the film. The glitz and glamor made it difficult to fully fixate on the interactions between Nick and Tom/Daisy. It was occasionally cynical and hyperactive, but once the party scene began his direction became more reserved. In retrospect, it was intentionally overwhelming. Alongside Nick, we are swept up in this world of extravagance too. Rather than meticulously recreating the New York of the 1920’s, Luhrmann establishes a hyperficticious layout of the city. Nowhere was this more evident than The Valley of Ashes, an area that separates the rich from the poor.  It’s apocalyptic, bleak, and everything that can be visualized while reading the novel.

A common criticism towards the film is the accusation that Luhrmann buries the subtext of the novel. In many respects, Luhrmann actually improves upon the book.  Specifically, a key improvement was made with the character of Tom Buchanan. For the most part, he is rather one dimensional in the novel bu here, not only is he masterfully played by the always underrated Joel Edgerton, but Luhrmann refuses to play him so broadly. Yes, he does some heinous things but those actions come from a believable source. Ultimately, his villainy is more generalized as the flaws in America at the time. Tom represents old money, the America that made its riches early and handed it down across generations. Gatsby represents new money, starting from the bottom to make your fortune through arguably questionable means. Both men disagree with each other’s lifestyles but they share some similarities. They both manipulate the poor for their own benefit, creating a cynical allegory on “The American Dream” and how corrupting its pursuit can be.

The romance between Daisy and Gatsby is much more prominent than in the novel. The romantic element mixes perfectly with the idea of projecting Gatsby as an optimistic dreamer. After all, Gatsby places Daisy on almost an unreachable pedestal. His image of her is one of perfection but it’s also an incredibly naïve viewpoint.  Daisy herself is somewhat ignorant and shallow.  She says to Nick, “I hope my daughter is born a fool.” Her characterization makes Gatsby more of a flawed character himself.  He makes Daisy a true ideal but ultimately she is not what Gatsby expects. Does this make Gatsby a tragic hero or a delusional fool? You can certainly make an argument for either side.


The other red flag in my mind was whether or not Luhrmann would be able to make this film accessible to modern youth. Through the use of modern music, he certainly tries his best. While some disagreed with this choice, I believe it created an interesting dichotomy. By using modern music in a period piece, it’s almost as if the film is both a time capsule for both the 1920s and the 2010s. If I was to watch this film twenty years from now, would I have to look back to the present or could I judge it with those new sensibilities?  The attempts at accessibility don’t stop there. In a way, Nick represents the reality tv obsessed culture of modern day society. When he’s gossiping about the mysteries surrounding Gatsby early in the film, it’s similar to those that fantasize about the lives of the rich and famous.

For all the style that is infused into the film, the violence is surprisingly pulled back compared to the novel. That contrast perfectly encapsulates the movie in general. In many ways, Luhrmann delivered a faithful and respectful adaptation and at other points he subverted expectations. It’s an incredibly audacious film from one of modern cinema’s most ambitious filmmakers. Here’s hoping that The Get Down will also be another film that challenges the medium.



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