Based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Great American Novel”, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby comes flying at us full of fast cars, bright colours; and a Jay Z-penned electronic-hip hop-jazz soundtrack. If you are a fan of the novel, then your enjoyment of the film will have something to do with your answer to this question:
What makes a good adaptation?
It is not a question that has an easy or succinct answer. A lot of the best films, such as Jaws or The Godfather are adaptations, to the extent that they have eclipsed the source material in our cultural consciousness. There are some pieces of literature, however, that are already too ingrained within said consciousness that they will never be eclipsed by any adaptation. The works of Shakespeare, Wilde and Austen fall into this category. As of course does The Great Gatsby.
So what makes a good adaptation of these types of works?
One school of thought says it is something that sticks as closely as possible to the source material. However, I would strongly disagree with that statement. As I made reference to in my Life of Pi review, if you want something that is exactly the same as its source, read the source. Otherwise you are like a painter who can make exact replicas of famous works, technically brilliant for creatively severely lacking.
As such it is my opinion that an adaptation should reflect something of the “adaptor” alongside that of the adaptee. It is for that reason that I was very excited when I heard that the man who brought his own unique take on Romeo and Juliet would be doing something similar with The Great Gatsby.
For those unaware of the source material, the story is told by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) who finds himself living next to the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man who owns a huge mansion famous for its all-weekend parties. Carraway, like most of New York is curious as to how this rich gentleman made his fortune. Thankfully Gatsby has reasons of his own for wanting to get to know Carraway.
Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is an adaptation that makes much of the descriptions of high-life partying and high-speed driving. He is a director who understands perfectly that the way we experience life is very different to what is actually happening around us.
For example, when we meet someone and fall madly in love, we may feel like singing every love song we can ever think of. Something he literally brings to the screen in one of Moulin Rogue’s most famous sequences. And of course few of us have to go through the ordeal of Romeo and Juliet, but sometimes the emotional triumph and pain of first love can make us feel like we are.
One of the way this manifests itself is in the scene when Carraway finally meets Gatsby at the end of the first act. His joy is such that fireworks literally go off behind the titular character. This is made all the more effective knowing that since Carraway is recalling his memories, he may be recalling more how he felt than the literal events.
When one views the film through this lens it makes it much easier to come to terms with the wildness of the parties thrown, the speed the cars travel at, and vastness of Gatsby’s house. Luhrmann, like Fitzgerald causes us to question the reliability of what we are seeing, but uses his own unique cinematic techniques to do so.
In many other ways I was surprised how closely Luhrmann stuck with the original text, and the fact it does feel quite different to the experience of reading the book is testament to Luhrmann’s understudying of what cinema is and should be.
Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is precisely what a film adaptation should be. It is respectful enough to the source material to keep all its primary elements while still bringing enough of its own creative decisions to give the audience an experience that is sufficiently different to the book. Or as Carraway puts it: “You can’t repeat the past”.