Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Why Gatsby makes a lousy movie
by Sandra Parshall
Filmmakers seem to think they can make a good movie out of anything, and they aren’t deterred by past unsuccessful efforts with the the same book.
The Great Gatsby is the latest example of this triumph of ego over material. It was made into a movie in 1926, the year after the book was published, and was filmed again in 1949 and 1974, then turned into a TV movie in 2001. Did those lackluster adaptations deter Baz Luhrmann, the Australian master of gaudy spectacle? Did he study them to determine the reason why the book simply will not come to full-bodied life on the screen? Apparently not, because he went right ahead and made all the same mistakes, only more so.
Everyone is seduced by the beauty of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s narrative prose. Six passages from the novel, including the unforgettable final line, appear in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. But the dialogue, transferred to screenplays word for word, is virtually impossible for actors to speak convincingly. The performances in Luhrmann’s film are almost embarrassing to watch. I have never seen so much wooden acting outside of a high school drama production. Surely the director is partly to blame for the falseness of it all, the stiff delivery, but honestly, what can any actor do with Fitzgerald’s dialogue? People simply don’t talk that way.
The only time a genuine performance threatens to break free of the script’s constraints is when Leonardo DiCaprio, as Gatsby, explodes in the hotel room scene and grabs Daisy’s husband Tom, ready to kill him. Red-faced and snorting like a bull, DiCaprio is, for at least thirty seconds, mesmerizing. Alas, it doesn’t last, it can’t last, because the script must remain faithful to the book. The accident scene that follows is unaffecting because the characters haven’t become real on the screen.
Add Luhrmann’s taste for excess to the book’s inherent flaws, and you’ve got a sparkling, dazzling mess.
The novel is revered – perhaps more than it should be – not only for Fitzgerald’s lyrical narrative style but also because it captures the amoral, culturally hollow lives of a certain social set in the years before the stock market crash brought on the Great Depression. Gatsby, born poor, has done what a lot of Americans have: reinvented himself in the process of amassing a fortune. But Gatsby is not admirable. The driving force behind his ambition is his desire to reclaim a woman who is not in any way worthy of love. Daisy is selfish and shallow, willing to sacrifice anyone to preserve her own easy life, and Gatsby is a pathetic fool for loving her. That is perhaps the novel’s greatest weakness, and the reason it doesn’t translate well to film: the characters are despicable. The story is a dark tale of destruction, with no hero and no heroine.
A gifted writer can keep readers engaged with such characters in a novel. Put those characters on screen, in the form of real, breathing human beings, make them speak dialogue that is awkward at best, and it’s hard to persuade the viewer care about them. (I couldn’t help hoping Daisy and her husband would end up penniless when the stock market crashed.)
Compare Gatsby to Mystic River, a great novel that was made into a great film. Dennis Lehane’s characters are so real that we recognize bits of ourselves in them. They may be flawed, sometimes profoundly, but they are always struggling to be better than they are, and even when they do the wrong thing we can understand and sympathize. It doesn’t hurt that Lehane writes pitch-perfect dialogue and it moves to the screen without a glitch.
Mystic River has what The Great Gatsby lacks: genuine emotion, so deep that it haunts you long after the story ends.
Note: When Fitzgerald saw The Great Gatsby's original cover art, shown above, he liked it so much that he added the optometrist's billboard, showing a pair of eyes, to the story. The novel received mixed reviews and sold poorly. It is now a staple of American literature courses. Recently it passed out of copyright and is now in the public domain.