The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is more poetry than prose, which is why I think attempts to translate it to the screen have failed. However, Baz Luhrmann takes a shot at the literary white whale this Christmas in a big-budget, 3D extravaganza that stars Leonard DiCaprio.
Let’s take a look at the trailer.
:11 — We start with Tobey Maguire’s narration as Nick Carraway. Maguire is miscast — just as Paul Rudd was in the 2000 TV movie version. They are both entirely too modern and frankly don’t look like guys who went to Yale and hung out with Tom Buchanan. I think a Chris Pine or a Channing Tatum would have been a better choice: Someone who resembles Tom somewhat physically but not intellectually. Maguire and Rudd strike me as an attempt to cast the Nick we see from his internal commentary on events, which is a mistake. Practically speaking, Nick isn’t wealthy, so Jordan Baker’s attraction to him requires an explanation other than her (non-existent) depth.
:12 — I’m pleased that Luhrmann includes the following scene from Chapter Four: As we crossed Blackwell’s Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.
These two sentences accomplish a great deal: The Harlem Renaissance is taking place, and the grandchildren and perhaps even the children of slaves are enjoying the American Dream as defined by material gain. It is how Gatsby defines it — the transformative, almost baptismal power of money. However, the “bucks” foreshadow the futility of that dream: America’s class structure is as rigid as it pretends not to be. The scene is also a great counterpoint to Tom Buchanan’s earlier racist ramblings about the “colored races” who will “take control over things.” Nick’s casual racism is such that he laughs in their faces. He is secure in the social structure. However, in his misguided way, Buchanan correctly sees the future and fears it. This makes him less racially arrogant than Nick.
:14 — I hope the narration is just for the trailer. The 1974 film and 2000 TV versions used voice-over narration. I find this a cheat. Gatsby isn’t a hardboiled detective story.
:24 — The description of the era reminds me that the 30 years from Nick’s birth in 1892 to the summer of 1922 was world changing in a way that I don’t think has been repeated (and I’m including the ’50s and the ’80s).
:27 — Jordan Baker, my literary love, is again depicted (incorrectly) as a brunette. From the book:
Chapter One: Tom and Miss Baker sat at either end of the long couch and she read aloud to him from the Saturday Evening Post.— the words, murmurous and uninflected, running together in a soothing tune. The lamp-light, bright on his boots and dull on the autumn-leaf yellow of her hair, glinted along the paper as she turned a page with a flutter of slender muscles in her arms.
Chapter Nine: She was dressed to play golf, and I remember thinking she looked like a good illustration, her chin raised a little jauntily, her hair the color of an autumn leaf, her face the same brown tint as the fingerless glove on her knee.
If autumn is the death of summer — when the events of the story take place, the color of Jordan’s hair takes on an appropriate meaning for her character.
Elizabeth Debicki, who plays Jordan, is also very pale, and Fitzgerald goes to great lengths to describe Jordan’s skin as tan (“golden” being the most commonly used descriptor and again symbolically appropriate).
:34 — Daisy Buchanan (here played by Carey Mulligan) is one of the most fascinating villains (yes, villains) in literature. Our tendency to not view her as villainous recalls Nick’s chauvinistic line that “Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply.” Perhaps if Daisy were male… just as we might view Tom differently if he were female.
I’m told that Jordan is usually depicted as a brunette in order to avoid confusion with Daisy, which still doesn’t make sense because Daisy is a brunette:
Chapter Five: A damp streak of hair lay like a dash of blue paint across her cheek, and her hand was wet with glistening drops as I took it to help her from the car.
Dark hair would take on a bluish tint when wet.
Chapter Eight: On the last afternoon before he went abroad, he sat with Daisy in his arms for a long, silent time. It was a cold fall day, with fire in the room and her cheeks flushed. Now and then she moved and he changed his arm a little, and once he kissed her dark shining hair.
Her hair color is also obliquely referenced in Chapter One during Tom’s racist tirade:
“This idea is that we’re Nordics. I am, and you are, and you are, and ——” After an infinitesimal hesitation he included Daisy with a slight nod, and she winked at me again. “— And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization — oh, science and art, and all that. Do you see?”
If you’ve been to the Nordic countries (Denmark, Norway, Sweden), you would notice that there are a lot of blondes around. So, the reasonable assumption is that Tom is blonde, Nick is also (though never cast as such), as well as Jordan. Daisy is not. This doesn’t mean she’s from Compton but she’s most likely pale with dark hair… so like the lady playing Jordan in the movie. Sigh.
:46 — DiCaprio as Gatsby. I can’t think of a better actor of this generation for the part. Also… he’s my age so I still feel young.
1:01 — Changing the location of the lunchtime meeting with Meyer Wolfsheim into some sort of speakeasy, strip joint is unnecessary and misses the point of what Gatsby is attempting to accomplish with Nick.
1:13 — Joel Edgerton — also my age, so again, I feel young — has the brutish appearance (if not the “straw-colored hair”) of Tom Buchanan.
1:19 — I hope there’s more to Mulligan’s performance than this overdrawn mopiness, which isn’t Daisy Buchanan. I can’t disagree more with how she delivers the key line, “You always look so cool.” It is not an anguished declaration of love but the flighty, indiscreet comment from a woman whose “voice is full of money.”
1:31 — Now, this is just terrible. My Jordan Baker does not get excited about things. She is cool as ice.
Chapter Three: “It was — simply amazing,” she repeated abstractedly. “But I swore I wouldn’t tell it and here I am tantalizing you.” She yawned gracefully in my face: “Please come and see me. . . . Phone book . . . Under the name of Mrs. Sigourney Howard . . . My aunt . . .” She was hurrying off as she talked — her brown hand waved a jaunty salute as she melted into her party at the door.
2:00 — We never know if Gatsby and Daisy consummate their affair (because Nick himself doesn’t know). Unless Nick is filming this for future use, then the film chooses to show us things outside of his point of view, which is a mistake (it also creates narrative inconsistency — if the POV can just shift, then why would we not know when Jordan does about Gatsby’s request, and so on?).
Further, I think Gatsby’s dream is greater than simply having sex with Daisy. If he does that, then it’s just an affair. He wants to court her — as he did in the past but correctly this time — and then marry her and obliterate their five years apart.
2:05: Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson? Huh?
Chapter Two: She was in the middle thirties, and faintly stout, but she carried her surplus flesh sensuously as some women can. Her face, above a spotted dress of dark blue crepe-de-chine, contained no facet or gleam of beauty, but there was an immediately perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continually smouldering.
And if Myrtle’s fate is experienced in 3D… oy vey.