Someone tell Baz Luhrmann he can’t repeat the past

9 Jun

Baz Luhrmann must have gotten caught up in Jay Gatsby’s dream, but he should have listened to his narrator, Nick Carraway, when he said “you can’t repeat the past.”  The same goes for trying to re-do an adaptation that was already about as perfect as any literary adaptation could hope to be (1974), but which had also failed, albeit beautifully, to fully match F. Scott Fitzgerald’s poetic genius.


Luhrmann, whose other films I actually do enjoy (I thought his “Romeo + Juliet” was brilliant), may have been channeling Gatsby, but he certainly wasn’t in tune with Fitzgerald when he tried to redraft some of the most elegant prose in American literature.  For all the attention to and worship of the “word”—inserting the author into a questionable frame story, literally throwing letters up on the 3-D screen—he missed the boat entirely when he thought he could get away with such rewrites as describing Gatsby as full of “hope,” for example, instead of, as Fitzgerald penned it, “romantic readiness.”  And this just the 2nd page!  For one unique as Gatsby—he was “worth the whole damned bunch put together,” remember?—you can’t try to describe him in ordinary terms.  Unless, of course, your audience is the equivalent of a bunch of middle-schoolers who need real literature dumbed down to the lowest common denominator or the latest “Twilight” installment, at the risk of being redundant.  (I guess the 3-D was for them, as well—what other purpose did it serve?)


Those who are gushing over Luhrmann’s latest most likely fit in that category—sorry, if you are one.  We English professors take our classics rather seriously, even if no one else does.  (Case in point:  the copy of The Scarlet Letter I sent to director Roland Joffe after his 1995 debacle because he surely hadn’t read it though he claimed to have translated it to the screen.)


Not that I didn’t like parts of this new rendition of The Great Gatsby.  Topping my list is the top of the cast, none other than Leonardo di Caprio, portrayer of the infamous Mr. G.   I have always been a fan of Mr. diCaprio since his amazing performance in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” and, again, I loved him in the aforementioned “Romeo + Juliet.”  But I have more than just an affection for Robert Redford (politics aside); to me, his was the quintessential Gatsby with all his understated “romantic readiness.”  There is nothing understated about this new Gatsby, though.  And while I understand Luhrmann’s attempt to recreate the opulence—physically and metaphorically of the Jazz Age—I have always said “less is more,” and I am not changing my tune now.  The monstrosity of the West Egg house and the vulgar parties he lavishes on the screen are more than just a little over the top:  they turn Fitzgerald’s “blue gardens” into a rainbow carnival that would offend even Myrtle Wilson and her sister.


That said, di Caprio’s Gatsby may be a little over the top himself at times, but there is a hard desperation in his obsession to bounce high enough to impress the Golden Girl that I think Fitzgerald would appreciate, even if he might prefer (with me) the subtlety Redford brings to everything he does.  I love the maturity evident now in di Caprio that doesn’t need to be achieved by makeup (as in his aging J. Edgar, which was also nicely done) and the little extra je ne sais quoi he infuses in the mysterious “Gatsby—what Gatsby?” which does not go unrecognized even by me.  In short, I believe him.  And that’s all we really ask of actors, even when they have the audacity to take on our favorite literary characters.


Tobey Maguire does his usual decent job as Nick, though I am still in love with the young Sam Waterston (call me), and Carey Mulligan looks the part, even if she can’t deliver a “voice full of money” like Mia Farrow can.  No matter.  Her director doesn’t seem to require it, as he inexplicably cut that most famous and important line from his script.  To say I hated Joel Edgerton isn’t necessarily to be expected:  I know we’re supposed to hate Tom, but, again, I don’t like my villains and heroes so black and white.  Ironically, for one who wants to “beat down the colored races,” Edgerton’s Tom Buchannan is about as black as an old western’s gunslinger’s hat, lacking all the refinement any East Egger would effortlessly display.  Not to harp on the ‘74 classic, but Bruce Dern did it with his softened voice and insincere smile.  Like I said, I believe Dern, not Edgerton.


Sure, most of the famous symbols are still there:  the green light, the white dresses, East Egg/West Egg, Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, the Valley of Ashes, but more than being hit over the head (or in the face, thanks to our 3-D glasses) with the objects, we want the words.  The original words.  And not just now and then, but all the time.  If Luhrmann could do it with Shakespeare (and he did, admirably so), he could surely do it here.  Why he doesn’t is beyond me, and that’s what keeps his “Gatsby” at arms’ length.  Does he think he can make us say we never loved Fitzgerald, and the novel, like the past, will be swept away as though it never happened?


 I’m sorry, Mr. Luhrmann, we may say we love you, too, but even then it wouldn’t be true.  Like poor boys who never marry rich girls, you’re nouveau riche, and we English professors, at least, are still “Old Money.”

–Rebecca L. Briley


One Response to “Someone tell Baz Luhrmann he can’t repeat the past”

  1. Joan Lattimore Hockman August 26, 2013 at 4:09 am #

    Wonderful. You settled my decision to let this version go unseen. Redford/Farrow it is. The only book-to-movies I’ve liked are Dashiell Hammett’s book. But this stories were almost screenplays.

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