Gatsby fever is at an all time high–temperatures are soaring whether you are in love with the idea of a new film version of The Great Gatsby, or if you are dreading it like some sort of 3-D technicolor train wreck.
In either case, I have never seen such a polarized anticipation of a movie in my lifetime. I mean when the last installment of the Star Wars saga or the Indiana Jones franchise came out, was anyone against it? Of course not. But the divided reaction against Baz Lurhmann’s Gatsbyesque hubris in staging an ambitious visual version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s sacrosanct Great American Novel has us buzzing, so we should all probably go see it anyway.
I am doing a brief review of this film for a journal called The Millions, but I have been excited since December when I was planning a lot of my Christmas vacation around viewing this movie. I did most of my dissertation on Fitzgerald and modernism, and I teach The Great Gatsby and Fitzgerald’s other great works frequently. I did an essay on this blog site called “Gatsby Fever” to get people through the months leading up to this week, and then another called “Ten Great Things About The Great Gatsby” because a lot of my students had never read this book, and that was so wrong. So it would be pretty ridiculous for me not to be super interested in how Baz Luhrmann interprets this novel for the screen.
But what has been fascinating to me is the intense reaction to this film before it has even been in widespread release, and why that may be the case.
One of my brilliant former students refuses to see it because he cannot stand Tobey MacGuire, and I sort of get that because he is not my favorite actor either, and I certainly would never picture him as Nick Carraway. However, that does not mean I am willing to miss the whole movie over it. But this gave me pause, because this student did this brilliant paper on advertising in The Great Gatsby and the twenties, loves Fitzgerald as a writer, yet this casting, or miscasting, is a complete and total deal breaker for him.
Another friend refuses to go because he “does not belong to the target audience.” However, maybe he is having a midlife crisis, and there is nothing I can do about that. He also cannot get excited about the trailers, and claims that “nothing” will ever convince him to see this movie. So usually trailers reel you in, even if it is the stupidest movie ever made, and you go, and then you feel had, and you want your money back. This is the first time I have heard of someone being so turned off by a movie trailer that they would actually pay not to go. So much for Baz Lurhmann’s slick advertorial team.
Another male friend hates the soundtrack so much, he would only agree to go if they put the entire movie on “mute.” “Well, I’m certainly glad to see you too.” I get this, I mean maybe Jay-Z was not the first musician to pop into my head when thinking of the Jazz Age, but then again Fitzgerald was a modernist who was willing to experiment with prose style, and so it should not be this big shock that this might be inspiring to Baz Luhrmann and lead to similarly radical experimentation with film. After all, there is nothing wrong with wanting to “make it new,” and Luhrmann has never been known for trying to be a hyperrealist in any of his films, but rather make them more like pop operas with an emotional resonance with the primary text that inspires him rather than replicating the work to the letter of the law–even though that law is different for everyone anyway.
Interestingly, my female friends and colleagues seem much more excited, overall, about this film than the males that I know. There could be many explanations for this. Maybe girls are more interested in costumes and fashion, maybe we think music that really came from the Jazz Age would seem too boring, maybe it is just all about Leonardo DiCaprio. I am not really sure.
Maybe my guy friends just cannot stand the idea of someone willing to engage in suspicious if not all-out criminal activity over some girl who doesn’t even really appreciate it.
But here is the thing: here we have an Australian director willing to take the risk of putting a novel that has already had a well-known film version made (starring Robert Redford of all people) and it is the Great American Novel. And so many, many readers already have their own film version of this book running in their heads exactly as they already see fit. That is a lot of images to compete with. And like the transformation of Jay Gatsby himself, that level of colossal reinvention takes guts.
Students often ask me, “Why is Gatsby so great?” In the book, I think it is an intensity, an intensity of emotion and creativity that, however misguided, is impressive of its own accord. Baz Luhrmann’s film may be indeed ultimately be over the top, but maybe that is the point. That may be the lesson he learned from reading Fitzgerald’s classic novel, and some people are mesmerized by such efforts (sort of like Nick Carraway), and some people want to punish those efforts (sort of like Tom Buchanan).
I don’t know if these responses from some of my circle of friends and readers are representative–probably not. But I am going tonight at ten o’clock to see it early and start writing my review. Maybe the ambivalence toward this film can be explained from Fitzgerald’s novel itself: for many readers, the novel is such an important literary artifact, that any translation to the screen seems always already an adulteration of a well-wrought urn. In other words, they don’t think you can, or should, change “the past” or whatever already exists concerning The Great Gatsby.
But here is Baz Luhrmann saying, “Of course you can!”
And to tell you the truth, no matter how it turns out, I can’t wait.