Friday, May 17, 2013

An English Teacher Reviews "The Great Gatsby"

Directed by Baz Luhrmann, written by Luhrmann & Craig Pearce, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, and Jason Clarke - Rated PG-13

Preface: This review is mainly for people who have also read the novel.  I didn’t focus much on how the film will be perceived by non-readers simply because I cannot imagine what their experience might be like.  That said, I get the impression that if you liked Baz Luhrmann’s other films, like Romeo + Juliet or Moulin Rouge, then you will like The Great Gatsby.

I represent a dark side of America, too, friendo.


The Great Gatsby has been the bane of high school students for years.  The story, set in the 1920s, is filled with symbolism and disillusionment, two things most teenagers aren’t very concerned with.  As an English teacher, I looked forward to the challenge the book presented as a teaching device, but I was disappointed that there was not an interesting adaptation to show my students after reading.  For better or worse, English teachers all over now have the adaptation they need to show students to get a response. 
I am not a “movie teacher.”  By that, I mean that movie days in my class are few and far between.  I may be the “movie guy” to my friends and colleagues, but when it comes to literature, there is no replacement for honestly reading the material.  Faithful adaptations are anathema to my classes.  The only reason to show a class a movie is to aid in their understanding of the source material and, more importantly, get them to think about it in new, interesting ways.  I always require students to write an essay after watching an adaptation.  What can you write about a faithful adaptation?  “I liked watching more than reading”?  “The lighting was good”?  A plain film serves no purpose.  I prefer the crazier adaptations because they keep students interested and opinionated.  When I first read that writer/director Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet) was making The Great Gatsby, I knew this version would be worth watching.

I was able to take my junior class to see The Great Gatsby on opening day (special thanks to Tell City Cinemas for setting up the individual screening for my class).  We had recently finished reading the novel, and I was hoping this adaptation would be interesting enough to get a response from them.  That definitely proved to be the case.  This version of Gatsby is not only interesting, but, more importantly, it’s entertaining.
The same qualities I find interesting and entertaining may leave some people baffled, however.  The most obvious element up for debate is the use of music in the film.  The soundtrack is largely made up of current rap and pop artists, yet the film is still firmly set in the 1920s.  I think the music matches up perfectly with the tone of the film.  The music was an odd fit at first, but by the end it seemed natural to me.  Others may disagree with me.  Some people will simply not be able to get past the fact that music from the 2010s is playing while 1920s characters dance.  It can be jarring, but if you’re willing to go with it, I think it is one of the film’s strongest points.
Equally important is the casting of the film.  The role of Gatsby is important in that it requires an actor who can express elegance, charisma, and boundless hope.  That pretty much describes Leonardo DiCaprio to a T, so obviously he was perfectly cast in this.  It isn’t exactly a stretch of a role for the eternally young actor, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive.  On the more surprising side, Tobey Maguire made for a very effective Nick Carraway.  Maguire’s constant stare of boyish wonder usually annoys me, but it’s the perfect visage for the character of Carraway.  It is especially effective once Nick becomes sickened by those around him and that boyish stare turns into a dead glare.  Carey Mulligan makes it easy to feel sympathy for Daisy.  Joel Edgerton brings perfect physicality to the role of Tom.  Jason Clarke is effective as Wilson in a few short scenes.  And Isla Fisher is decent as Myrtle, but that character felt a little shortchanged in this adaptation.
Shortchanged characters aside, Gatsby is a surprisingly faithful adaptation.  Of course there are a few changes here and there, such as the absence of Gatsby’s father and the inclusion of a framing device for the story, but the overall theme of the novel is intact, which is the most important aspect to me.  The theme regarding the death of the American dream is still relevant today (and always will be) which is why the novel is still taught to students across the country.  The film does a good job conveying that theme and an even better job at explaining the symbolism of the novel.  Anyone who’s read the novel probably remembers the green light and the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, and if you don’t remember them, the film will make sure that you do by the end of the 140+ minute running time.  I’m glad both elements received so much attention in the film, though I think some of it was a bit too blatant (Wilson pointing at the eyes and screaming that they are the “eyes of God” comes to mind). 
The music, acting, and novel elements are all excellent fodder for a student to write a response, but there’s still the matter of style.  Luhrmann has established himself as an interesting director many times over, but Romeo + Juliet is the best comparison to be made here.  That film featured frenetic elements and borderline cartoonish qualities.  Gatsby takes place in a more realistic world than that film, but it is still frantic.  The driving scenes are insane, the editing is rapid-fire, and the party scenes are pure chaos. 

The partying is the main selling point for Gatsby, both as a film and a novel.  I certainly focused on it heavily while teaching it.  The point is not to glorify it, though.  The parties or drinking episodes in the novel are not treated as good times meant to be emulated by others.  Instead, we see the parties through Nick’s eyes, and he has come to the conclusion that these events are not happy moments, but are actually the shallow proceedings of a morally bankrupt group.  It’s easy to get that point when you’re reading about the parties; it’s a bit more difficult to pick up on that message when the parties are visually presented with lavish dance numbers and whatnot, all presented in 3D, no less.  (For the record, I have not seen the film in 3D, but I can hardly imagine that it changes the experience much one way or the other.)  Still, the film does not glorify the lifestyle of the characters.  Others may disagree because the parties take the center stage, but as I watched those scenes, I didn’t think, “Oh, how cool.”  My thoughts drifted more towards, “When will these parties end?”   

The Great Gatsby is essentially about the end of the party.  The novel and the film convey that message to the reader/viewer.  Is it possible that viewers will miss that point?  Of course, but they’ll stay awake through the proceedings.  The biggest hurdle any teacher faces while teaching Gatsby is the boredom complaint.  While I find the themes of the novel fascinating, I definitely encountered a student or two that “just didn’t get it” or “couldn’t get into it.”  As the kids filed out of the movie theater, even the ones who didn’t exactly love the movie told me they were surprised by how interested it kept them.  If that’s not a sign of a successful adaptation of a novel force fed to a teenager, I don’t know what is.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

"I'm so tired of partying.  So very tired."
Yes, that is Slurms McKenzie from Futurama to the right.  I couldn't resist including it.

The framing device bothered me a little bit because it turned Carraway into an alcoholic.  Maybe I'm just too trusting of Carraway as a narrator, but I never got the impression that he was drinking himself into an institution throughout the novel.  In fact, I always pictured him as the sober guy at the party, casting judgment on everyone.  I think the novel backs me up on this since the one scene in which he admits being drunk (at Myrtle's apartment) is a haze of random events (staged wonderfully in the movie, by the way), while the rest of the parties are reported on in quite a sober manner.  Having him constantly drink throws doubt on the entire proceeding.  I know there's a question of his bias as a narrator anyway, but the alcohol makes him seem much more like an unreliable narrator. 

That said, I still accept the framing device since it gives a reason for the words to appear onscreen.  The teacher/dork in me enjoyed seeing some of Fitzgerald's greatest lines recreated that way.

I was okay with Gatsby's dad not showing up at the end.  It seems almost better that he's absent so he seems that much more alone in death. 

I was not okay with the absence of Daisy and Tom's daughter.  I know she finally shows up in the end, but I think it would have been very effective had she appeared in the other scenes she was supposed to be in, especially the one with Gatsby.  In the novel, Gatsby reacts strangely to the child, appearing to not have believed she existed until that moment.  It is effective because it is part of the crumbling dream he has.  Here is physical proof that Daisy and Tom have something together.  It is obviously not part of his grand fantasy.  I can live without the scene, but I think the film would have been better with it, and it would only have taken up thirty seconds or so of the running time.

Gatsby doesn't freak out and almost punch Tom in the novel, but I enjoyed that change.  In the novel, Gatsby suffers a quiet defeat.  That's fine, and it shows how dreams can, and often do, die silent deaths.  But that scene in the hotel room was building with such tension that a quiet ending would have been a let down.  Everyone is sweating and uncomfortable, there's a topic brought up that would normally be kept quiet, there's an ice pick... That scene needed some yelling to finish it up.  And who better to yell out in fury than DiCaprio?

I was definitely not okay with Gatsby being a scrapbooker.  In the novel, he mentions that he has some "clippings" of Daisy, but it doesn't say he busts out a full scrapbook that has been carefully put together.  I know Gatsby had some time to kill in that five years leading up to the reunion, but I simply can't imagine him sitting home with his Elmer's rubber cement, pasting newspaper articles onto construction paper.  Sure, maybe he had a servant do it, but I don't buy that.  And it's equally ridiculous to imagine him handing newspaper clippings to a maid, demanding that a scrapbook be made.  Am I blowing this out of proportion?  Absolutely.  But sometimes small details like that really bother me.

1 comment:

  1. DiCaprio is amazing, as usual, but everything else seems to be falling apart around him here. Good review Eric.