Saturday, May 11, 2013

Classic Comic: Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby

Watching Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is like watching a movie when you have a fever. Ever watch a movie when you’re home sick, really sick, and whatever movie it is, you see it as an absurd, surrealistic fantasy? That’s how Luhrmann’s Gatsby plays, and that’s how it looks.

With its reliance on CGI vistas rendered in blunt color no more impressive than the comic book special effect on iMovie, along with its gratuitous shots of snowflakes or confetti flying out for 3D effect, the movie is more comic book than film. As I watched, I found myself remembering the Classics Illustrated comics I used to collect and read when I was a boy.

Classics Illustrated (originally Classic Comics) were comic book versions of works of classic literature. My favorite issues were The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Toilers of the Sea, The Octopus, and Lord Jim. Their colorful, realistic line drawings never detracted from the drama of the story or the words of the original. Artwork varied throughout the issues. Some of the more distorted, surrealistic artwork competed with the story. Nevertheless, each comic book carried a postscript that, to this day, is responsible for my being a voracious reader: NOW THAT YOU HAVE READ THE CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED EDITION, DON’T MISS THE ADDED ENJOYMENT OF READING THE ORIGINAL, OBTAINABLE AT YOUR SCHOOL OR PUBLIC LIBRARY. I did exactly what the postscript suggested.

As a Classics Illustrated, Luhrmann’s Gatsby would have been one of the more oddball editions. Its flamboyant visuals smother the drama and emotion. And don’t get me wrong. I’m not speaking as an outraged fan of the novel. In fact, The Great Gatsby, a watered-down, Americanized take on Heart of Darkness, is not one of my favorite works of American literature.

As a film, however, The Great Gatsby is choked to the point of emotional inertia by smothering CGI, harsh noise, and frenetic motion. Gatsby drives fast, likes to throw big parties, his guests drink a lot. We get the point!

As for the performers, Carey Mulligan plays Daisy like she’s drugged by all the flowers that surround her in a number of scenes and Joel Edgerton renders Tom Buchanan as scary caricature. Tobey Maguire has trouble keeping his eyeballs from popping out of his head, but his languorous voice-over narrative captures some of the spirit of the story. Meanwhile, Leonardo DiCaprio makes you see and feel the character of Gatsby, a golden hero with an enigmatic past. As the film sags under the bloat, DiCaprio gives us a Gatsby to care about. In his winning but tortured good looks you can see the passion that drives him and the innocent vulnerability that is his undoing.

But DiCaprio’s performance is not enough, and even during the film’s final recital of the novel’s famous last lines, you wonder where The Great Gatsby was in all the shallow glitz. Well, I guess, NOW THAT YOU HAVE SEEN THE LUHRMANN COMIC VERSION, DON’T MISS THE ADDED ENJOYMENT OF READING THE ORIGINAL, OBTAINABLE AT YOUR SCHOOL OR PUBLIC LIBRARY.


Steve's Blog said...

I really appreciate your analogy of watching Gatsby to watching a film when "you're really sick." That's because I felt queasy after digesting (or attempting to) all the gaudy fanfare on display. It was like eating 100 snickers bars with no veggies. It simply wasn't any fun.

As an English teacher, I am hesitant to admit that I am far from a fan of the book. I thought what this film did was to reveal to an extent what a mediocre novel Gatsby actually is. It is true to the source material, probably to a fault that it drags. I have been a fan of Luhrmann's style/antics in the past. I even liked Australia! In some respects, as flashy as Gatsby is, I felt he actually restrains himself. I found myself missing one of the main characters breaking into a Beyonce number, a la Moulin Rouge, or one of the songs from the trailer blaring over the dramatic confrontations, a la Romeo and Juliet. There was none of that, and thus the emotions were awkward and the drama embarrasingly stiff. I wish Baz would have thrown caution to the wind more. Here he only relies on swooshing cameras and cardboard art direction in lieu of passion.

This one was a disappointment. Maybe the continuous changes to release dates should have been a warning.

Hokahey said...

Steve, thanks for this. A couple of responses:

1. Oh, thank God. Another English teacher who considers this one a mediocre novel! And it's so popular with teenagers. I wish they could love a novel with more pith! I glanced back at the novel last night, and I found some of the descriptions rather trite.

2. I don't know if Luhrmann restrained himself, but perhaps he didn't use his flamboyant propensities dramatically enough. I agree; I was waiting for a key scene to be showcased with a contemporary song that would have packed some punch. I kept thinking about how "Everytime" was used in Spring Breakers. There is NO MOMENT like that in this fizzle.

Sam Juliano said...

This is a very creative review Hokahey, and like you I was a HUGE fan of Classics Illustrated comics to the point where I was also and still am a big collector. I have re-kindled my childhood obsession with those incomparable comics by re-acquired many on e bay. I started off by amassing Classics Illustrated Jr's, and progressed to the series you recall here. Like Steve I am also an English teacher (for 29 years now) holding both my bachelor's and master's in English literature, however unlike Steve I regard THE GREAT GATSBY as one of the greatest American novels ever written, and am more than perplexed that anyone could possibly think otherwise. I could never use it in Jr. High of course as it's too challenging (LORD OF THE FLIES, A SEPARATE PEACE and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD are my favorites) but it's a stone-cold masterpiece of literature.

I like your use of the fever metaphor too! Nice.

But in the end I like this film quite a bit more, and feel it captures much of the muted emotions and textures of Fitzgerald's mysterious work, with the aid of a splendid visual design and exceptional performances. I know the critical establishment is split down the middle on the film, though some of the more respected scribes like Zacharek, Scott and the extremely difficult to please SLANT are singing it's praises.

To be sure, Fitzgerald's book is nearly impossible to film as can be seen from past flubbed efforts, but Luhrmann's effort is probably the best I've seen so far.

But Hokahey I did catch that sarcastic undercurrent of the Classics Illustrated comics and how they apply to this adaptation. Ha!

Hokahey said...

Sam, thanks for your praise. It means a lot to me. I appreciate and respect your passion for this novel, as well as your positive response to this movie. I know teenagers love the novel too, and many I have talked to, not all, enjoyed the movie. As for me and the movie, I felt the style detracted from the drama and emotions of the story.