By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
Too bad the 1926, silent version of “The Great Gatsby,” filmed only a year after F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the book, is missing. Add that to the 1949 edition, the 1974 adaptation I consider the best, and this latest techno-charged remake directed by Baz Luhrmann, and we’d be dangerously armed for all sorts of didactic, comparative studies in filmmaking.
Instead, maybe like what Daisy Buchanan wished for her daughter, we should be pretty little fools, unfazed by all that rigor and fuss, and simply enjoy this latest offering for what it is: a big, boisterous, partially faithful incarnation, conceived and filmed for a new generation. Of course I can’t be that reckless, Old Sport. You see, I believe in Gatsby.
It’s too beautiful a story to sully or mess with, arguably, with all due respect to Mr. Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” our literature’s best short novel. Moreover, as it is, along with Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy,” one of the finest sociological reflections of The Roaring Twenties, any present mindedness is a contradiction in terms.
So hold onto your hat when I relate that, doubtlessly due to Jay-Z’s role as executive producer of the film, the soundtrack is suffused with so-called rap and hip-hop interpretations of the era’s Jazz Age sounds. Well, it’s their ball, but as far as my sensibilities are concerned, it flies badly afoul. Surely it’s not what Fitzgerald heard.
All of which opens a can of worms we should stay away from lest we get bogged down in a lengthy rumination on what a transformation from written page to the big screen should accomplish. Well, OK, let’s get bogged down just a little. Rule #1 for the adapting artist certainly must be, don’t gild the lily. It’s presumptuous and unfair to the muse.
Unfortunately, dabblers both good and mediocre, especially when working somewhat out of their medium, operate in the allusion that they are not merely interpreters of the objet d’art they’ve been entrusted with, but spiritually acknowledged collaborators. More realistic purveyors might argue that, commercially, the market demands a modernization.
In that respect, one can’t help feel director Luhrmann, whose “Moulin Rouge!” (2001) I’m still trying to assimilate, has a condescending need to spoon feed the story to his presumed audience. Hence, by both re-arranging the chronology of the tale and prematurely divulging the mystery that is Gatsby, he commits an unpardonable faux pas.
Like the curious throngs of flappers, cognoscenti and powerbrokers who flock weekly to the outrageous parties the elusive Jay Gatsby throws at his West Egg manse, we must be mystified. Maybe he did kill a man. Perhaps he is Kaiser Wilhelm’s nephew. But it is only though narrator Nick Carraway’s experience that we might really know, Old Sport.
Oh, it’s all still pretty glorious, wonderful, beautifully sad and hopelessly optimistic, thanks mostly to the great, originally sourced writing that, like a resolute oak making its way through the sidewalk cracks, won’t be denied its preeminence. Happily, the inherent magnificence isn’t lost on a predominantly good cast aware of its romantic responsibility.
Although Redford remains Gatsby to me, handsome yet still boyish Leonardo DiCaprio presents a durably acceptable persona whilst also incorporating some commendably empathic nuances within the title character. And while Carey Mulligan falls short of the wealth-imprisoned Daisy that Mia Farrow etched, her old college try gets the job done.
But here’s where I eat my hat. I didn’t think anyone could ever hold a candle to Sam Waterston’s Nick Carraway, one of belles-lettres’ most iconic examples of the narrator as philosophical observer. However, while not entirely relinquishing my prejudice, it bears noting that Tobey McGuire informs with notable aplomb why he is the star he is.
Unhappily, my open-minded inclination spreads to neither Joel Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan nor Elizabeth Debicki’s Jordan Baker. Bruce Dern’s 1974 portrayal managed a seething yet still far suitably subtle indignation toward Gatsby, whereas Lois Chiles’s tennis star/ best pal and less objective counterpart to Nick was more correctly ambiguous.
Far more egregious, however, is Amitabh Bachchan’s thespic miscalculation of Meyer Wolfsheim, Gatsby’s gangster-benefactor so wonderfully evoked by Howard Da Silva. You share Nick’s awe, but should believe it when Gatsby relates, “He’s the man who fixed the World Series back in 1919.” Da Silva’s Wolfsheim could, but not this guy.
Still, by my own definition, this effort adequately checks the dance card delineating what film adaptations of novels should achieve. Putting aside notions of contemporization and other liberties taken, by nonetheless conveying the story’s essence, odds are it’ll inspire one to re-read or, better yet, read for the first time why he is indeed “The Great Gatsby.”
“The Great Gatsby,” rated PG-13, is a Warner Bros. release directed by Baz Luhrmann and stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Tobey McGuire. Running time: 142 minutes