Why I’m afraid to watch The Great Gatsby

The cover of the first edition of The Great Ga...

The cover of the first edition of The Great Gatsby (1925) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I confess that I had a shotgun reaction to the trailer of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. I hated it. Something felt so intensely wrong about it, although it had all the visual razzmatazz and glamour one associates with the Roaring Twenties, the period in which the story is set.  I ended up having a debate with a few friends on Twitter when I posted my immediate reaction. My first complaint, not particularly well thought out, I admit, was that there was no jazz music in the trailer. Shouldn’t a Jazz Age story have well…jazz? A couple of friends told me that cinema merits creative liberties and if Luhrmann chose to use a Kanye West and Jay-Z creation to set the tone for his movie, that was his right as a creative person. I heard a similar argument from the hubby when I once again tried to articulate why I was so deeply offended by the trailer.

Initially, as I said, I couldn’t quite put my outrage into words. Like Time magazine columnist James Poniewozick, all I could think of saying was, “UGH Baz Luhrmann stop touching things that I like!” But the more I thought about it, the greater the conviction grew on me that what offended me really was the lack of fidelity to the source that I noticed in the trailer. Yes, I know a trailer is not the movie itself, and there is a possibility (laughable though it might seem to some) that The Great Gatsby might actually turn out to be an enjoyable movie.

But then it would only be enjoyable in the sense that Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes was enjoyable. Although I hated the Holmes movie at first, it did grow on me. But – and this is the key here – it grew on me only when I willed myself into forgetting that the characters I was watching on screen were Holmes and Watson. I thought of Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law as playing just any other genius detective and his sidekick in grimy Victorian London and then, finally, I could enjoy the madcap charms of Ritchie’s movies.

Because you see, Ritchie’s movies about Holmes have no particular fidelity to the source either. What I mean is, by stating these movies are about Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson, he’s  just pulling our legs. All he’s really doing is selling his movies on the back of Brand Sherlock Holmes. I don’t mean to cast doubt on Ritchie’s familiarity with the Holmes stories. Quite possibly he read and enjoyed them as a boy, and even as a grown man. But does he truly love and understand them in the deepest sense of the words? I doubt it.

To know what I mean by ‘fidelity to the source’ you would have to watch the BBC series Sherlock. That is a brilliant show and made with true and deep love. Any Holmes junkie can tell you that Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, the creators and writers of the show, really know Holmes. There are little hints of various Holmes stories scattered all over the six episodes we’ve seen so far. And Holmes and Watson feel so supremely authentic. If the great detective and his friend had been born in this age, you know this is exactly how they would be.

So what does this have to do with my reaction to The Great Gatsby? Just that I don’t think Luhrmann has really understood the book – he simply doesn’t get it. He’s blinded  by the Jazz Age trappings of the novel and I don’t blame him. It was about the decadent lives of the rich and glamorous, and Luhrmann is perfectly justified in trying to lure us in with his shiny chandeliers, barely-there flapper dresses and glittering diamonds. But what lies beyond that?

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel was a heartache of a novel. It was the love story of two fundamentally hollow people who’re trying hard to fill the void inside them and failing miserably. If the plot seems very dramatic, let me assure you that in Fitzgerald’s masterly hands the drama never gets out of control. Strange and crazy things happen, but the tone remains poignant, thanks to narrator Nick Carraway.

Luhrmann’s trailer had screaming people, loud anachronistic music and hints of an elaborate sex scene and I’m very afraid that that is all he will reduce that beautiful story too. I’m afraid that he’s only latched on to The Great Gatsby as a great marketing ploy: it’s well-known book and if he casts movie critic darlings like Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan it’s sure to draw people into theatres.  He knows the movie will sell. But does he have that reverence in his heart that a literary masterpiece deserves? I doubt it. If he did, he would not have messed with the jazz.


3 thoughts on “Why I’m afraid to watch The Great Gatsby

    • I’m not sure if Anurag Kashyap would have done a better job or not..but I know he could have made a pretty decent Indian adaptation. What this story really needs is a director who doesn’t need to present a spectacle in order to tell a story.

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