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Even 3-D Gatsby won’t touch book

By Philip Martin

This article was published May 10, 2013 at 3:14 a.m.

As of this writing, I haven’t seen Baz Luhrmann’s highly stylized version of The Great Gatsby, and I don’t know that I will see it in all its 3-D grandeur before it ends its theatrical run. I might wait for the DVD.

You should not interpret my reaction as disapproval. I like BazLuhrmann’s films most of the time. I love The Great Gatsby. I am interested in seeing what Luhrmann might make of it. But seeing the film can wait - at least until after the Little Rock Film Festival.

On the other hand, I’m not hopeful. Our critic Dan Lybarger didn’t care for Luhrmann’s movie, and I’m at best a 3-D agnostic. (On the other hand, I like Jay-Z and don’t find modern pop completely incompatible with Gatsby.)

It’s probably impossible to really translate The Great Gatsby to the screen; Luhrmann might make something wonderful, but it won’t be the Gatsby I carry in my head. It’s very difficult to distill great books into movies; pulp novels usually translate better to the screen because their ideas are streamlined and compressed. For me, Gatsby is more about the play of language than the American prerogative for self-invention, though I recognize Jay Gatsby as the precursor to Bob Dylan and Don Draper (the parallels between Draper and Gatsby are so strong that Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner must have been aware of them). Without having seen the film, allow me to wonder if Luhrmann (or anyone) can be able to capture the essential Americanness of the story (especially in front of Australian green screens)?

I don’t mind screen versions of literary classics; I just hope most moviegoers understand the difficulties inherent in converting an interior story to light and sound. I enjoyed Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, which did a better job than most of the previous (and longer)films incorporating Tolstoy’s ancillary characters and themes. But no serious person would suggest that any movie can be substituted for any great novel - the best we can hope is to capture some of the flavor of the experience, to resonate sympathetically with the book. I hope Luhrmann’s Gatsby is Gatsby-like, or that it at least does not misrepresent the tenor of the book (or completely miss its point, as the 1995 film of The Scarlet Letter famously did).

It would be clever (and not exactly wrong) to conflate Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio strikes me as decent casting) with Fitzgerald, who had the kind of career that better befits a rock star than a man of letters: a best-selling author with a glamorous wife at 23, forgotten at 35, dead at 44. When he died in 1940 his work was so out of favor that many assumed he had died years before. In a tersely worded obituary, The New York Times said, “Roughly, his career began and ended with the Nineteen Twenties.” The Modern Library had dropped Gatsby - his one unequivocal success - because of a lack of interest among readers. Among his personal papers there was a newspaper with circled advertisements for a lonely hearts club and a psychic.

Someone could make a movie out of those details. (Well, they have - Gregory Peck was miscast as Fitzgerald in 1959’s Beloved Infidel, and Jeremy Irons, Richard Chamberlain, Timothy Hutton and Campbell Scott are among those who’ve played the author on TV.)

But a movie about a thing is never the thing itself. Luhrmann’s Gatsby may be wonderful - there might be, as Fitzgerald once said of his mad wife, Zelda, something “delicious and smart” inside the craziness -but it shouldn’t be confused with Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. It’s not from the same planet.


MovieStyle, Pages 37 on 05/10/2013

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