Seriously, did I watch the same film as everybody else?
Well, here's the thing: according to what seems to be the vast majority of critical opinion, Luhrmann's Gatsby is, at best, a glossy but hollow mess that doesn't come close to capturing the greatness of its source material. Allow me to swim against the tide of popular opinion then when I say that The Great Gatsby isn't just a wonderful piece of cinema but it's as good an adaptation of the novel as we could ever hope to see.
I haven't, it has to be said, actually seen any of the other adaptations, but I have read the novel and Luhrmann clearly gets all of its character-driven subtext and its involved dissection of the American dream. He also, however, clearly understands that the novel itself is demonstrably anything but cinematic so rather than going the reverential route and giving us a stately, staid retelling of a story that was never made for cinema, he uses all the tools at his disposal to ensure that not only is the film captivating on a surface level, but that its surface reflects the story's themes in a way that the novel simply cannot.
It's the kind of adaptation, in other words, that invalidates any questions of which is better: the film or the novel. The novel is the best kind of novel and the film the best kind of film of this story they are both trying to tell - comparing them is simply pointless. Purists who knock the film's "self-indulgent" emphasis on heavily stylized visuals, its booming soundtrack and its extravagant production values are ignoring the things that make the film the successful adaptation that it is.
To understand why it works, one needs to consider the central theme of The Great Gatsby, that of the illusory nature of the fulfillment of the American Dream. The basic plot of the film can be seen as being a tragic love story about a rich man named Jay Gatsby trying to win the heart of his lost love, Daisy Buchanan but that's certainly not what it's about. These two characters are central to the plot not because of who they are but because of what they represent. Gatsby himself is an illusion; a "nobody" who utterly transforms himself to become something "better" and something more "successful" - the American Dream in a nutshell - for the sake of his rich love, Daisy. But Daisy herself is even more of an illusion as she, like all of her rich friends and colleagues use their own wealth to hide the fact that they are themselves entirely vacuous and entirely lacking in substance.
To say, therefore, that Gatsby is all about the hollowness of wealth and flagrant materialism is reductive to the point of insult to a great American novel but it is a central point nonetheless. The film, as such, needed to show both the glamour and glitz of a lifestyle that is, in essence, the culmination of the American Dream and how utterly empty it all is. The novel could only show this to a point - indeed, my only real complaint about Fitzgerald's masterpiece is that I was never truly convinced of the seductiveness of the world that he attempts to create. The same is certainly not true of Luhrmann's film.
Luhrmann is actually very faithful to the novel overall, going so far, in fact, as to lift whole paragraphs of dialogue verbatim from the book itself and, with some assistance from a typically brilliant turn from Leonardo DiCaprio, more than does justice to the intriguing complexities, outright lies and great, unbridled optimism of the character of Jay Gatsby. People, however, tend to overlook that because of just how Luhrmann-like the look and feel of the film clearly is.
And, make no mistake, it is pure Luhrmann. It's vibrant, colourful, snappily edited and grandiose with all the swooping, giddy camera movements and extravagant set design that you expect from a Baz Luhrmann film. But really, how better to bring to sparkling, vivid life the extravagance and decadence of the world that both Gatsby and Daisy inhibit? This isn't a world of stuffy lawn parties but of great explosive soirees that would (I presume) put most modern Hollywood parties to shame.
Much has also been made of the anachronistic soundtrack of the film as Jay Z tries to bridge the gap between 1920's Swing and 2010's hip-hop with the emphasis mostly on the latter and the extent to which you'll go with this is a good indication of whether or not you're willing to go along with Baz's vision. I personally hate the vast, vast majority of hip hop that I've heard and would take swing jazz over Jay Z any day of the week but I thought the soundtrack was absolutely perfect for the film.
The genius of Luhrmann's vision, in fact, lies on precisely this dichotomy. Rather than making a classic tale timeless by setting it in contemporary times (see Romeo + Juliet), he makes it timeless by portraying the sights and sounds of the 1920s as being more now than now - the sights and sounds of Luhrmann's 1920s are so vivid and so alive that they feel more alive than our own present. Despite its setting, The Great Gatsby is NOT a period piece - it's a work about an enduring, endless present where reckless, amped-up car races can take place in vintage cars and jazz and hip hop can clash and clang against one another without a second thought for the century that divides them.
So much more can be said about the film - the brilliant way it conveys the melding of rich and poor, its (largely) excellent performances and the many themes that I have barely even touched on - but it is perhaps enough to say that above all else, Luhrmann has made a timeless novel into a film that actually reflects its immortal themes of greed, obsession, corruption and, yes, hope for a better tomorrow. What else could you ask for?