The verdict has arrived, and the critics have condemned yet another adaptation of “The Great Gatsby.” This latest Gatsby movie, directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the title character, has been held up as “a multiculti musical mashup,” by the Washington Post, and “an exercise in absurdist excess,” from The Wall Street Journal. Though not universally panned, its reception has been pretty hostile on the whole. We may now expect it to take its place with other failed Gatsby movies, like the 1974 version starring Robert Redford.
I write today neither to praise the new movie nor to bury it. It’s clearly an ambitious adaptation, and a serious work of art. Instead, I wonder what makes The Great Gatsby so attractive to filmmakers, yet so elusive a grail. Is the novel unfilmable?
Certainly it doesn’t present that way. It’s a passionate love story with dramatic confrontations, and a showy and lurid jazz-age setting. A man who isn’t what he says he is falls in love with a woman who isn’t what he thinks she is. Though built on self-deception and mendacity, his love nevertheless transcends the falsehood it’s planted in, and his fall is tragic.
Action, not interior musings, move the plot of The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald was no Henry James, staging his dramas in the mind. The Great Gatsby has glitz, scandal, and even murder.
So what makes it so hard to film?
I see two main problems. First, everyone who has read Gatsby has their own vision of it. And lots of people have read it. Though it flopped in Fitzgerald’s time, the novel consistently sells half a million copies a year in this country alone. Lots of people who love to read -- not just literary specialists like me -- have read Gatsby. That number includes, I would venture to say, most film critics. So the reviewers of this movie don’t come to it unexposed or unbiased. They have their own Gatsby in their heads, just as I have mine.
This brings me to the second problem, namely that Fitzgerald actively promoted that kind of individuality of response. Consider the first time Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, meets Daisy, the object of Gatsby’s deathless love. He describes Daisy and her friend Jordan Baker as “buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon” until Daisy’s husband closes the window and “the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”
Daisy and Jordan aren’t really aloft, of course, but that’s how Fitzgerald wants us to understand them. What does the image mean? Well, it’s up to each reader. I could try to convince you of what I think it means (and I would have a lot to say), or you could do the same for me.
The Great Gatsby is filled with images like that: Fitzgerald’s language marks an important way that he took leave of the rigorous realism of previous literary generations. But how do you film it?
Moviemakers have to make choices, of course -- that’s part of the adaptation process. But what I want to suggest is that The Great Gatsby is a deceptively slippery book to adapt because any attempt runs straight into the choices that Fitzgerald’s readers have already made for themselves.
One of Luhrmann’s controversial directorial decisions has been to give his Gatsby movie a hip-hop soundtrack. That’s a little weird, but we might understand it as his attempt to put deliberate distance between his adaptation and the adaptations that Fitzgerald’s millions of readers are already carrying around in their heads. It’s an interesting try, but if the reviews are any guide, it didn’t work.
Maybe it never had a chance. Not every American book can claim so many personal owners. Not everyone has their own Age of Innocence, for example -- and that gave Martin Scorsese the space to make a terrific movie out of Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel. But everyone has their own Gatsby. And it looks like that’s the way it’ll stay.
Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, is the general editor of “The Cambridge History of the American Novel.”