Baz Luhrmann’s “Gatsby”: The Colossal Vitality Of His Illusion

There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams–not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

When I learned months ago that audacious filmmaker Baz Luhrmann was working on a movie based on one of the greatest American novels of all time, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, I was filled with deeply mixed feelings.

On one hand, I’m a fan of Luhrmann’s. He’s a gutsy, no-holds-barred visionary, willing to push the boundaries, to take risks.

I was a pretty solid Shakespeare traditionalist throughout my time concentrating in the Bard at Rutgers in the late 1980s, preferring stage and film versions of the plays set in the time period originally established by Shakespeare. And yet, Baz Luhrmann’s 1995 William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet changed everything, opened my eyes to the seemingly infinite possibilities available through the art of interpretation.

On the other hand, The Great Gatsby is a deeply special book to me, quite possibly my favorite of all books, a book that was, when I first discovered it in high school, undoubtedly the catalyst for my eventual pursuit of a degree in English.

It was the first book that I ever read cover-to-cover in one sitting, a phenomenon I’d previously thought neither desirable nor possible. I’ll never forget how I was given a copy of the book by a dear Humanities teacher in 12th grade, a man who opened me up to great literature, art, film, and music, whose teaching methods greatly resembled the Robin Williams character in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, and I was so excited to read this book after his passionate introduction to it in class that as soon as I got home I dug in, refusing dinner when it was offered, turning page after page, basking in the gorgeousness of Fitzgerald’s prose, and, upon completion, I closed the book, embraced it against my heart, amazed by the story I’d just read, and the seed was planted that I would someday be a writer of some kind.

So, how worried am I, despite my fondness for Baz Luhrmann’s work, that this sixth attempt at a Gatsby film (five theatrical, one TV) will trample on a piece of fiction so dear to my heart? Will the movie capture the “colossal vitality” of Luhrmann’s, Fitzgerald’s, and Gatsby’s respective illusions, or will it be a “foul dust”:

No – Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams…

Well, judging by the first trailer available (see below), I certainly wouldn’t say that it’s an outright abomination, nor would I even go so far as Bryan Hood at ARTINFO.com and say that, “There’s nothing in the clip to promise any substance…”

By all historical accounts, the Roaring Twenties were very much like they are shown in this brief glimpse, and so Lurhmann isn’t really manufacturing anything here. If you disapprove of the focus on the decadence on display, then you’re starting off where character/narrator Nick Carraway ends ups, disillusioned with New York and it’s seeming, “first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.”

After all:

…[Gatsby’s] heart was in a constant, turbulent riot. The most grotesque and fantastic conceits haunted him in his bed at night. A universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain while the clock ticked on the washstand and the moon soaked with wet light his tangled clothes upon the floor. Each night he added to the pattern of his fancies until drowsiness closed down upon some vivid scene with an oblivious embrace. For a while these reveries provided an outlet for his imagination; they were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing.

Visually, you can tell that Lurhmann’s taking enormous pleasure in all of the lush Art Deco detail, and that, it seems to me, is exactly as it should be.

So, put me down in the cautiously optimistic column. I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? The movie could suck big time, but the book will always be the great, virtuosic romantic work that it always has been.

12 thoughts on “Baz Luhrmann’s “Gatsby”: The Colossal Vitality Of His Illusion

  1. My daughter just finished reading this, and she loved The Great Gatsby too. She read passages from This Side of Paradise aloud to me, and I hadn’t remembered that Fitzgerald was so funny. So interesting to learn all this about you! As a fan of Shakespeare, did you have the chance to see Shakespeare in Love? I thought that film was brilliant.

    1. Yes, true, Fitzgerald can be bitingly funny!

      He’s really a well-rounded writer, able to covey humor, angsty romantic but not overly sentimental love, commentary on his contemporary culture, and strong statements about the corrupting power of money.

      As for Shakespeare in Love, yes, I have seen it and I enjoyed it very much. And, while I thought that the acting, directing, costume and set design were all great, the main thing that made that movie so good was Tom Stoppard’s writing. He’s a brilliant play and screenwriter, able to comically play with words, dare I say, with the same bravado as the Bard himself, and his feel for farce is spot on.

      1. We love Tom Stoppard. For her final project in her theater class, my daughter Bea chose to perform a scene from R&G Are Dead. To help her rehearse, I get to play R to her G, and we have been having a lot of fun with it.

  2. “The Video is Currently Unavailable” – it says. Maybe it’s only available in North America?

    I was avid to see because, like you, he sold me with his vision for Romeo and Juliet, and I loved his early work in the Opera. He seems to understand young men, so it will be very interesting to see what he does with Gatsby. Given your position on the book (liked learning something about you), I’m confident you’ll post about the film just as soon as you’ve seen it (’cause you can be sure we’ll not see even a pirated copy here until long after its theatre release).

    1. Sorry that you can’t view the trailer there in Sri Lanka. It makes absolutely no sense that you shouldn’t be able to, since you’d think that they’d want it viewed as far and wide as possible.

  3. I have a deep love of this book too and Robert Redford was THE Gatsby for me ( though I didn’t actually think the film was great ) .. The trailer looks interesting enough but the music that goes with it… well doesn’t go with it for me.. VERY loud and irritating!
    Doubtless I shall go and see it when it comes this side of the pond though 🙂

    1. On reflection.. I was 20 when the Robert Redford and Mia Farrow version came out and very in love with the book so probably no film would have done it for me.. I think I need to watch it again..

    2. While I understand your dislike of the music in the trailer, I have seen a couple of examples where modern music was used in a period piece film and it actually worked. Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette was one of them. I was prepared to not like it, but somehow it worked.

      So, I’ll just withhold judgment on that for now.

      Besides, it’s possible, since I’ve seen this happen before, that the music used in the trailer doesn’t actually appear during the film at all, or it only appears during the closing credits.

      1. P.S. I liked the Robert Redford and Mia Farrow well enough, but for some reason Redford isn’t Gatsby in my mind’s eye. Nor is Alan Ladd.

        Rather, for some reason, I always think of Fitzgerald himself, even though it might seem more appropriate that I think of Fitzgerald as Nick Carraway.

        Perhaps, or maybe for sure, it must be because F. Scott, like Gatsby, lived both within and without the world of super privileged wealthy society.

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