Riotous Excursions: Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

There’s a moment in Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby where fireworks burst in the night sky over West Egg, Long Island, fireworks so lavish you’d think they were in honor of a visiting monarch. The crowd—made up of senators and bootleggers, showgirls and heiresses, petty thieves and fat cat businessmen—pop champagne corks, and roar their approval. The host, Jay Gatsby, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, turns to his neighbor Nick (Tobey Maguire) and holds up his glass of champagne as the sky explodes behind him. DiCaprio’s expression in this moment is a stunner: He looks transparent and innocent—but at the very same time, it’s also a calculated charm-onslaught. To say that it’s an attention-getting moment is to completely understate the situation. The entire movie stops to revel in DiCaprio’s smile.

If you didn’t know the book, you might think the shot was “over the top.” You might think, “Oh, come on already, isn’t that a bit much? Isn’t that shot a bit too in love with Leo? Can you take it down a notch please, Baz?”

Luhrmann’s work is often greeted with such criticisms, and sometimes they’re warranted—but not in this case. Here’s the same moment from the book:

“He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”

It’s a hell of a description, and a tall order for any actor to pull off, even one of the biggest stars in the world. But DiCaprio pulls it off. He understands what the shot needs to convey: He knows that he has charm and humor, he understands the eloquence of a slight forehead wrinkle, he understands that the eyes are windows to the soul, and he takes all of that and gives it to us with the intensity of a supernova. The fireworks behind DiCaprio were a Luhrmann addition, but they demonstrate that Luhrmann understands what is required here—that if an audience isn’t bombarded by the effect of Jay Gatsby’s smile, if they don’t get the same impression of Gatsby that Nick does, then you have nothing. Or, you may have something, but you don’t have “The Great Gatsby”.

Here are just a few of the descriptive terms sprinkled throughout the novel:

“Riotous.” “Unquiet.” “Grotesque.” “Transcendent.” “Inexhaustible.” “Ravages.” “Hilarity.” “Tumultuous.” “Monstrous.” “Labyrinth.” “Turbulent riot.” “Portentous.” “Menacing.” “Holocaust.” “Distortion.”

I’ve read The Great Gatsby countless times, and even I forget how phantasmagorical Fitzgerald’s language and imagery gets. It pours out in a tumble of impressions expressing headlong optimism, frenzied escapism, and deranged opulence (Nick says of the opulence that he is “simultaneously enchanted and repelled”). The stock market crash hadn’t happened when Gatsby was published in 1925, but Fitzgerald sensed the cataclysm approaching. It is not a realistic novel in any way, shape, or form, and the reason why the most well-known film adaptation from 1974 (directed by Jack Clayton, starring Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, and Sam Waterston) didn’t work—even though Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay stuck almost word-for-word to the original text—was because it treated its subject matter realistically.

The reputation of the novel, and the fact that it’s required reading in high school, has encouraged a somewhat funereal, respectful atmosphere to its depiction on film. But as sad as the book is, it is also hilarious, with some downright screwball scenes, snappy dialogue, and flamboyant characters—not to mention a three-page list of Gatsby’s party guests, all of whom have jokey names about as subtle as an anvil from the sky: “The Willie Voltaires,” “Edgar Beaver,” “Clarence Endive,” “Stonewall Jackson Abrams,” “the “Hammerheads,” “Beluga the tobacco importer,” and on and on. In fact, if you didn’t know the ending of the book, you might just think that you were wandering through a dizzying comedy of manners.

The deeper problem with many adaptations is that the transfer from page to screen often reduces a book to only its plot. If you had only watched the 1974 Gatsby, without ever having read Fitzgerald’s novel, you would be forgiven for thinking the book must be a pretty dreary affair. The 1949 version of the film, starring Alan Ladd as an awkward-but-regular-guy Gatsby, has its points, but the story is demoted to the pedestrian, a dime-a-dozen star-crossed love affair. The 2000 TV adaptation—with Paul Rudd as Nick, Mia Sorvino as Daisy, and Toby Stephens as Gatsby—had some fine acting, but the scope of the tragedy was missing, and the ho-hum visual style didn’t at all express the book’s nightmarish, surreal quality.

The Great Gatsby works through the use of various repeating symbols: the green light at the end of the dock, the gigantic eyes of T.J. Eckleburg, alternating light and shadow, alternating distance and close-up (there are sections in the book that work like gigantic camera moves). The colors are significant: blues and yellows, mostly, and whites and blacks. Like Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, it’s a memory-story, told through the mists of time, mists that distort. These symbols come across so strongly in Gatsby that they emanate as dream-images from a Salvador Dali painting. Without that sense of symbolic resonance—inherently literary—then Daisy’s green light becomes prosaic, the kind of light that shows up on most docks along a busy waterway, instead of a symbol of everything hoped-for and yet unattainable. The Eckleburg billboard becomes just a mile-marker for cars careening through, instead of the indifferent eye of God.

The news that Luhrmann would be directing an adaptation of The Great Gatsby, and in 3-D no less, was greeted with a variety of responses. Some were excited, since the 1974 adaptation was a dud, but there were a lot of exhausted, cynical eye-rolls too, worried about what Luhrmann might “do” to The Great Gatsby. Would he “ruin” it with his trademark excess and over-indulgence?

What is The Great Gatsby about, though, if not excesses and indulgences? The excesses are so “grotesque” that Nick Carraway describes Gatsby’s weekend parties as reminiscent of a “night scene by El Greco.” Exaggeration, “a quality of distortion”, grotesqueries, fantastical landscapes, sudden swooping heights of perspective (Nick staring out the windows of Myrtle Wilson’s New York apartment, feeling as though he is both outside looking up, and inside looking out), and equally sudden plunges into darkness and confusion (the “valley of ashes” between New York and Long Island is described as though it is Dante’s Inferno.)

Who else but Baz Luhrmann could take these images and make them as huge and as sinister and evocative as they are in the novel? Who else could make these images as important to the film as “what happens” in the plot?

In 1931, only two years after the stock market crash, Fitzgerald wrote a eulogy to the Jazz Age for Scribner’s, saying:

“It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire…A whole race going hedonistic, deciding on pleasure…The Jazz Age now raced along under its own power, served by great filling stations full of money … Somebody had blundered and the most expensive orgy in history was over.”

More than any other adaptation of The Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann’s has its finger on the pulse of the writer. Luhrmann understands that the book takes place in a non-stop “expensive orgy,” that “pleasure” and “hedonism” were the currency of the realm, and that only within that environment of fantasy and excess could a man like Gatsby rise and then fall. Luhrmann’s style is a natural extension of his opera background. He can be bombastic, he’s inventive, he wants every scene to pop, sometimes to an annoying degree. He throws ideas at the wall to see what will stick, and he does so in front of a paying audience. If something doesn’t work, he simply plows on to the next thing. It’s a man-of-the-theatre attitude. He’s an old-fashioned showman: Give ’em something to look at. And make sure you reach ’em in the cheap seats!

Behind all of this “excess” is sincerity, the key to why it works so well when it does work. Luhrmann approaches well-known stories with sincerity, invention, and irreverent humor. He loves crowding the screen with anachronisms. (Shakespeare’s plays are full of anachronisms too, and current productions are often done in modern dress, so tripping over the fact that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is playing at the Moulin Rouge, or hip-hop music blasts from the car radio in The Great Gatsby seems extremely unimaginative.) The most important thing Luhrmann does is to give the story its proper size (meaning: HUGE). Gatsby is such a slim novel. 182 pages. But it contains so much, including the magnificent final page where it famously moves from micro to macro. Luhrmann’s film also flips between micro and macro, soaring up into the sky for bird’s eye views of West Egg, East Egg, the “valley of ashes,” the canyons of Manhattan, the skyline. We get the geographical lay of the land, but we also get a sense of size.

Great works of literature were often rejected in their own time, and Gatsby was greeted with disappointment upon publication (“F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Latest a Dud,” declared the headline in the New York World). Fitzgerald’s two previous novels had not been flattering to the culture of the 1920s, but there was enough zeitgeist-capturing that he was hailed as not only the voice of the Jazz Age, but its co-creator, its Homer.

Gatsby was different. People didn’t want to hear the book’s message in 1925; perhaps only a post-1929 audience could understand it. The Fitzgerald who wrote Gatsby was a much sadder man than the Fitzgerald who wrote This Side of Paradise five years earlier. For Fitzgerald, in 1925, the roaring 20s had already started to go sour. Something essential was being frittered away, drowned in alcohol, gambled away. And so he wrote a book about Jay Gatsby, a man who had “an extraordinary gift for hope,” who “paid a high price for living too long with a single dream.”

Hope is usually viewed as a good thing: it is supposedly life-affirming, it says “This, too, shall pass.” But in the character of Jay Gatsby, hope is indistinguishable from fantasy and delusion, and perhaps human beings need both to make it through the “valley of ashes.” (Fitzgerald’s original title for the book was “Among the Ash-Heaps and Millionaires”). In Fitzgerald’s book, America starts in the East, and then moves back into the West, “in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night” (similar to the ending of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead”, which also moves west in its final famous moments). America was borne out of hope, escape, lies, cruelty, ambition, grandiosity, love; it was borne out of an idea—an idea still being fought over today. Delusion is required for belief of any kind, and that may be Fitzgerald’s most brutal point of all.

There are some notable absences in Luhrmann’s adaptation: the romance between Jordan Baker and Nick, and the sudden re-appearance of Gatsby’s long-lost father at the end of the book. (Both of those plot-points are included in the 1974 version.) The character of Myrtle Wilson, Tom Buchanan’s “girl on the side”, has been reduced to a caricature, and one longs for Karen Black in the same role in 1974. There is a framing device, identical to the one in Moulin Rouge, showing Nick Carraway, in a sanitarium for alcoholism, telling his psychiatrist about Gatsby and—doctor’s orders—writing a book about it. It is a major stumbling block in the film, contrived and unnecessary, but the device does do one very crucial thing: It shows what was lost when Gatsby died. It’s not just that one lonely guy died in his swimming pool and no one came to his funeral and isn’t that sad. It’s bigger than that.

Nick, first glimpsing Gatsby, standing down at the end of the dock, observes:

“He stretched out his arm toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling.”

Talk about “over-the-top.” It’s like something out of a penny dreadful. But Luhrmann does not shy away from that, does not try to reduce the moment into something “subtle” or human-sized. Gatsby’s gesture is not human-sized, it is supposed to be poetic and epic and universal. Luhrmann returns again and again to that green light, and each time we see it, we see it as it must appear to Gatsby. Luhrmann does not give us a realistic depiction of a realistic light at the end of a realistic dock. He gives us a glimmering pulsing beacon of hope swimming in a sea of darkness.

There are so many layers to Gatsby and DiCaprio inhabits them all: The liar, the man who made up a new identity, the bootlegger who made millions, the guy who created a fake voice for himself that he hopes sounds East-Coast-WASP, and yet there he is hissing orders on the telephone in his real voice. Nothing WASP-y about that sound. DiCaprio is a gifted comedian, and brilliant physically. In the scene where Nick opens up his tiny house so that Gatsby and Daisy can have their reunion, DiCaprio is a bumbling awkward clown, calling to mind Cary Grant’s pratfalls. Gatsby shows up, so nervous that he almost bolts from the house before Daisy arrives. He hides on the porch. He fumbles with a clock on the mantel, nearly knocking it off. He hisses his anxiety at Nick like a terrified schoolboy. He looks pathetic. It’s a tour de force. Luhrmann and DiCaprio push the scene to absurdity, because it already is absurd. In the book, the scene is very funny, but with a sickening realization that Gatsby has blown this love affair with Daisy way WAY out of proportion.

DiCaprio’s sense of Gatsby’s delusion (delusion indistinguishable from hope) is so strong that when Daisy (a tepid and mis-cast Carey Mulligan) explodes in his face that of course she loved Tom in the past, but she loved him “too,” there’s a moment—at the sound of the word “too”—where you can see Gatsby’s castle in the air crumble to dust. Something breaks in DiCaprio. His whole world ends. Her words do not line up with the reality in his head, a reality that seems so real to him that he cannot conceive that he has made it up. As Nick says of Gatsby, in one of the saddest lines in the book, “He felt married to her, that was all.” DiCaprio, his 6-foot-tall frame quivering with devastation, repeats: “You loved me too?”

His work in that moment is practically unparalleled in his career.

On the page the exchange goes by so quickly you might miss it:

“Oh, you want too much!” she cried to Gatsby. “I love you now—isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past.” She began to sob helplessly. “I did love him once—but I loved you too.”

Gatsby’s eyes opened and closed.

“You loved me too?”

In the space of Gatsby’s eyes opening and closing, a dream dies. A life ends.

Luhrmann’s style, frenetic as it often is, messy as it often is, is big enough to handle the hugeness of such a tiny moment. And DiCaprio, as good as he has ever been (and that’s saying something), trembles over the abyss of this character’s dying hopes, the sense of desolation rising up to meet him like a Leviathan. You can see it on his face.

F. Scott Fitzgerald kept notebooks where he would jot down descriptions, ideas, character names. He organized them under different category headings. Under the heading “Descriptions of Things and Atmospheres” comes the following fragment, unattached to anything else, but eloquent:

The evening gem-play of New York was already taking place outside the window. But as Charlie gazed at it, it seemed to him tawdry and theatrical, a great keeping up of appearances after the reality was gone. Each new tower was something erected in defiance of obvious and imminent disaster; each beam of light a final despairing attempt to pretend that all was well.

“But they had their time. For a while they represented a reality. These things are scarcely built; not a single generation saw them and passed away before we ceased to believe.”

The language is reminiscent of The Great Gatsby, of course, and reminiscent, too, of the doomed and glittering Jazz-Age-Atlantis created by Luhrmann. Baz Luhrmann, with his beautiful excess and swooning sincerity, believes in hope just as much as Jay Gatsby does.