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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

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.