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Lost In Translation: The Great Gatsby Reviewed
Simon Jablonski , May 17th, 2013 10:23

Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of Gatsby is fiercely stylish, writes Simon Jablonski, but fails to transfer the subtleties of Fitzgerald's novel to the big screen

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An ever-growing frustration with mega-budget film spectacles is that, 90% of the time, the seed of their failure is the cheapest part to rectify: the script. With Baz Luhrmann's theme-park rendering of The Great Gatsby, hiding under the fireworks and fashionable cocktails, it is the very concept of placing F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel onto the big screen that dooms the film to failure. What translates across from book to screen is not darting prose, penetrating observation or literary style, but narrative. The problem with Luhrmann's adaptation is that, although Fitzgerald's novel might have plenty of the former, it's more than a little thin on the latter.

In the novel we're fed this strangely beautiful yet entirely corrupt world through the eyes of Nick Carraway: what this naïve interlocutor makes of his new friends in his new home on new-money West Egg, and his old friends on old-money East Egg; how the pomp of Gatsby's magnificent parties strikes him; his inner thoughts, as the outsider desperate to get in with the crowd he at the same time abhors. In principle, none of this translates into effective cinema simply because visual language alone is not up to the job. So stories, when translated to the big screen, are dramatised. How do you translate "In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars"? You dramatise it and show it. But it's far too abstract an image to fully convey through film, whereas in the form of literature it's packed with meaning.

Luhrmann attempts to patch over this issue through the use of Tobey Maguire's crude narration, which drags the film forward with all the energy of a weary donkey. Far from solving the problem of translating the book to screen, the voiceover is as annoying and patronising as having the person next to you leaning over to explain exactly what's happening at each moment. It's as though you've inexplicably arrived at the cinema wearing inflatable armbands, and an over-zealous do-gooder has taken pity on you.

Arriving on West Egg in New Jersey, Carraway sets up in his humble abode among the newly rich who have arrived thanks to the stock exchange. He only has a couple of friends, old-money Tom Buchanan and his mesmeric wife Daisy. During various parties, he hears rumours of his mysterious neighbour in the enormous mansion, Jay Gatsby.

When the viewer is introduced to Gatsby and given the chance to register what kind of smile he has, an impression of the man is formed. When the viewer is introduced to Gatsby and given chance to register what kind of smile he has while listening to a narrator explaining what kind of smile he has, it becomes clear that the viewer is being treated like an asshat. There's no subtext or intrigue, just chillingly cold and brutal fact. Even Mr. Men cartoons didn't patronise their audience's ability to read a face and follow a narrative to this extent. Children would be bored and offended by quite how stupid the filmmakers expect their audience to be.

Given that The Great Gatsby is the first big budget 3D feature specifically aimed at luring the female 18-49 audience bracket, it also hints a great deal towards what Hollywood thinks of women. Not only do they need guiding through a plot in the same manner that an infant needs talking through tying their shoelaces, but they are shallow and capricious, their thoughts exhausted by fantasies of living like a princess — Gatsby's mansion towers up like the castle in the opening sequence for a Disney film.

Daisy shuttles between her husband Tom Buchanan and Jay Gatsby with no other motivation than money and security. Sure, she might be constrained by her times, but she never seems like she's bothered about that. In fact, none of the characters are particularly likeable or do anything interesting during the course of the film. It's hard to get behind any of them because none of them are doing anything worth getting behind.

Tom is a thuggish, racist, philandering bully. And this highlights a further problem with the film: if Tom has no redeeming qualities (except his money), we can't see why Daisy's with him (except his money) and so she appears shallow, which means we can't see why Gatsby likes her, except that she's pretty. And, as it seems Gatsby has made money through some extremely nefarious means, we can't see why she likes him, except for his money, and that five years ago they had a quick snog.

It's exactly this problem that makes the entire film feel shallow; we never identify emotionally with any of the characters. None of them grow or develop, so we don't follow them through any real changes — which isn't a flaw with the book, it's a flaw with making the book into a film.

The film is, in part, redeemed by a couple of splendid performances — Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan is the standout, thrusting himself round with ceaseless energy even when he's sat down. Even though Leonardo DiCaprio is perfect as the charming 20s socialite Gatsby, it's difficult to shake the memory that we've already seen him play a similarly eccentric millionaire, in a far more exciting and engrossing role, in Aviator.

This film is loud and brash, everyone in it is beautiful and rich and carefree; its nostalgia and aspiration are held together by ferociously sexy glue. But without the story or characters to lend it any substance, after a while you feel like you're watching a two hour version of one of those irritating camera adverts where cool people flirt and laugh and chase each other round a park.

Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby is a beautiful snapshot of a fascinating era; its faces and parties and hedonism and buildings. Perhaps that's the only way Gatsby could be adequately represented visually: as a snapshot, a simple photograph or picture that will capture an essence of the times, but also cause onlookers to wander, guess and fantasise.


May 17, 2013 2:30pm

A reasonable review Simon but Fitzgerald's book is fantasy dogshit, the mewling of a craven middlebrow who wanted to be otherwise and was too white and uptight to see beyond the delusions he swallowed whole. I don't know how much American lit of the 1920s ya'll are exposed to over there but trust from a Yank who knows better-- we ** ALL ** deserve much better. Banality is as banality does, brother, and at least Britian has Electric Wizard-- and more!!

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J. Temperance
May 17, 2013 2:59pm

In reply to :

What 20s writers would you suggest instead? Seeing as you know better.

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D. Basement
May 17, 2013 3:17pm

In reply to :

The world is full of crashing bores.

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Leroy Hugenkiss
May 17, 2013 4:47pm

I didn't particularly find any of the characters had any redeeming characteristics in the book either.
I'm sure I would have hated the film had I not read the book, but as I have I sort of enjoyed it.

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May 17, 2013 5:25pm

In reply to J. Temperance:

John Dos Passos >>>>> F. Scott Fitzgerald, it's not even close

Start with "Manhattan Transfer" and move on to "U.S.A. Trilogy"

Theodore Dreiser sleepwalking destroys Fitzgerald in every way imaginable but if you want go in the deep end, start with "American Tragedy" (though "Sister Carrie," "Jennie Gerhardt" and "The Genius," for starters, are all also superb earlier works.)

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May 17, 2013 5:29pm

In reply to :

Typical Yank. You're just showing off, trying to impress we hyper-literate Brits. You may have 21st century paperback editions of those titles on your shelf, but I bet you've never read further than page 17.

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Nick Pierce
May 17, 2013 5:54pm

I never really understand how one can classify a book as 'unfilmable'. I think it's purely a case of needing the right imaginative and intelligent person to take a stab at the adaptation. I've seen films just as packed with insight and meaning as the best prose.

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aaron,
May 17, 2013 5:58pm

In reply to Nick Pierce:

"If you cast a light on a cube, and project its shadow against a wall, you reduce it from a three-dimensional object to a two-dimensional square. While the square is comprehensible from the perspective of the cube, the reverse is not true: the square cannot comprehend the cube’s third-dimension. The same applies to books and movies: movies, for the most part, take the cube of literature and project it onto a screen, where it becomes a square. And we sit there in the projection hall, like Plato’s prisoners in their cave, watching shadows flicker across the screen, and we’re content with the show".

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Nick Pierce
May 17, 2013 6:17pm

In reply to aaron,:

That's a very silly analogy. One could actually argue that films offer a more profound insight into our world than the modern novel with its preoccupation with 'psychological insight'. After all, we aren't given privileged access to the things people think. We don't have their thoughts laid out for us in easily comprehensible form. Whereas films give us a chance to experience the world from a detached perspective in all of its complexity, opacity and mystery. So, in short, that quote strikes me as somewhat sophistic and pretentious. Anyone who thinks books are 'better' than films is, to my mind, simply guilty of prejudice against a more populist artform. Is The Great Gatsby better than There Will Be Blood, Persona, The Rules of the Game or Vertigo? Answer: No. Better answer: It's reductive and daft to even compare them in such a way.

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aaron.
May 17, 2013 6:24pm

In reply to Nick Pierce:

I'm not about to hold forth on some silly medium dispute here, but to state that films somehow capture "complexity, opacity and mystery" better than books is a confusing thing, indeed. Also, your 'privileged' "detached position" is an aestheticists' "distraction". Regardless, criticizing Luhrmann (especially) and films (more generally) for a lack of subtlety strikes me as a pretty common complaint. Luhrmann is not a director I associate with nuance.

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aaron.
May 17, 2013 6:26pm

In reply to Nick Pierce:

Also I never even mentioned 'x being better than y'. It was just a quotation about the nature of the different mediums. Nobody started comparing Citizen Kane to Ulysses. Do you burn straw-men every Friday night?

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Nick Pierce
May 17, 2013 8:54pm

In reply to aaron.:

I think it's pretty clear that the quotation you used is intimating that books are 'better' than films, insomuch as it uses the analogy of the cube and the square to suggest that films lack the potential for a 'third-dimension' which belongs to the sphere of literature. That's what I took from your use of it anyway...how was I meant to interpret it? Not entirely sure why you responded to my comment if you didn't want to get into a debate, or what you mean by an 'aestheticist's distraction', but I guess we'll leave it there.

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J. Temperance
May 17, 2013 9:28pm

In reply to :

Dos Passos' U.S.A. trilogy is fantastic,no argument there. I have only read Sister Carrie by Dreiser and to be honest I found it incredibly dull. I don't see how either of these writers make Scott Fitzgerald is a "craven middlebrow" in comparison.

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May 17, 2013 11:36pm

Dos Passos and Dreiser are both very good, but neither have written anything as wise as Gastby or Tender is the Night (or a couple dozen of his short stories), and neither write prose even half as lovely as Fitzgerald. It seems to be fashionable right now to rip on Fitzgerald, but all it does is expose the shallow followers of orthodox trendiness for what they are.

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Fielding Melish
May 18, 2013 5:35pm

In reply to :

Agree with this that dullards seem to have decided now is the time to say that 'Fitzgerald wasn't any good, you should read XXX instead.' It's utter horseshit, and patently embarrassing, particularly as this specific idiot refers to Fitzgerald as 'too white and uptight', which means sweet fuck-all but probably goes over gangbusters with his fellow bearded friends, all of whom are just, so so enlightened as to the truth, man.
I'm always reminded of Woody Allen's 'Manhattan', and at the scene where he is apoplectic at his friends' 'Overrated' list. Joyless fucks with their heads buried far up their own asses.

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Tobey Maguire
May 19, 2013 3:40pm

DiCaprio hasn't been good in anything since Gilbert Grape. The fame achieved with Titanic destroyed whatever talent he may have had. He's unbearable to watch now, you see every calculation and script recalling process flash across his face. This was the best person to cast in this role? Really? He doesn't come across as a fully developed man no less one with a haunted mind.

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srp
May 20, 2013 4:46pm

while the comments section of the quietus may be more flowery, the rudeness and attitudes are basically the same as youtube's comments section. don't you people have anything better to do than to be snide and accusatory to one another?

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