The Grand “Gatsby”
La Cieca doesn’t branch out into The Film very often (even though she is quite the ardent cinephile) but the recent release—or, at any rate, the reaction to the recent release—of Baz Luhrmann‘s film of The Great Gatsby served to crystallize a few ideas bubbling about in your doyenne’s brain.
A parallel—not an exact one, but perhaps a useful one can be drawn—between a filmmaker’s adaptation of source material (a novel, a play, a real-life event) and a stage director’s take on a dramatic or operatic text. This is especially true, I think, when each of these directors is working from “classic” material. Essentially there are two valid attitudes to the process of “translation” from one medium to the other, which for the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to call “reverence” and “respect.”
The “reverent” approach essentially cedes control to the “creator,” that is, the author of the source material. If there’s a stage direction or an indication of historical era in the original, that must be followed without question. Introduction of additional details or themes not explicitly present in the source material is generally frowned upon.
As you might guess, La Cieca is more disposed to the “respectful” method; that is, the director treats the “creator” as a collaborator rather than a god. The ideas and details presented in the original are to be observed and judged with respect, that is, not dismissed willy-nilly, but, by the same token, not followed slavishly. The director’s job is to try to discover and to understand broader ideas behind the words on the page (or the notes of the score) and then find a way to express those ideas to the public.
Luhrmann’s Gatsby, I think, is a “respectful” adaptation: the director seems to demonstrate that the source novel is an important and truthful work, and his shaping of that material for a 2013 audience I think is done with a good deal of care.
But it should be always kept in mind that a film of The Great Gatsby is always a take on the book, not the book itself—and the “book” needs to be understood in a fairly narrow way; that is, what’s on the page, and not what the commentator thinks is on the page, or what the general consensus of critical opinion has decided the book is “about.”
There are many, many critics who don’t seem to get that last point:
“…although Luhrmann’s film mostly adheres to the letter of Fitzgerald’s novel, it would be difficult to envision a work less in keeping with its wistful spirit.”
“The hyperbolic Australian director Baz Luhrmann… is exactly the wrong person to adapt such a delicately rendered story…”
[The framing story] “gives the film a moralistic streak whose explicitness is alien to the source material.”
“When hysteria finally gives way to fatalism, the film itself seems to deflate, tacitly suggesting that the story’s most delicate, complex moral reckonings are less interesting than flagrant consumerism and excess.”
“F. Scott Fitzgerald’s epic tragedy is lost amid the lavish excess…”
“The author… never completely resolved his feelings of envy and of contempt for the Gatsby crowd, nor of his own uneasy self-regard. He knew what it meant to be on the outside looking in, even when he was in.”
“Though it is gorgeously written and often cited as one of the great American novels, Fitzgerald’s ‘Gatsby’ is in fact very much a slender reed, a tragedy in a minor key.”
“It is as close as Luhrmann ever gets, however, to what I take to be Fitzgerald’s central thesis: That the American dream has always had two faces, and what is noblest in it is also, simultaneously, what is falsest and most delusional about it…. That paradox is meant to be embodied in the person of Jay Gatsby, of course, but in DiCaprio’s overly suave, overly sleek, borderline-repellent performance Gatsby just comes off as a giant phony, and far too literal-minded a metaphor.”
What these reviewers have in common (and in common with dozens of others, not to mention hundreds and hundreds of smarty-pants online commenters) is the notion that each of them knows precisely what Gatsby is about: delicate or wistful or epic or paradoxical. Then, by extension, the film is judged by how closely it hews to the critic’s interpretation—or, perhaps, the interpretation of the critics the critic reads.
What they’re expecting, in other words, is the reverential treatment, though not of the source material itself, but rather of their own notion of what the source material means. The adapter’s task, then, becomes “guess what I want for my birthday and then give it to me.”
La Cieca prefers to be surprised. She has her own ideas about what The Great Gatsby is about, so she really doesn’t need to have a filmmaker spend $100 million simply to reinforce what she already thinks. Surely it’s both a more noble calling for the filmmaker and a more stimulating experience for the audience member to be forced to reconsider some of those comfortable notions and (best case scenario) to see something entirely fresh in a familiar work.
For me, the “entirely fresh” angle was that Luhrmann refocused the central dramatic action away from the “fragile, slender” affair between Gatsby and Daisy to a much more vital and interesting love story between Gatsby and Nick, rendered with the kind of tear-blurred, aching adoration that is so central to heterosexual male affection. Casting Tobey Maguire opposite the love of his live, Leo DiCaprio, means that neither of these less-than virtuosic performers has to do much in the way of heavy lifting in the acting department: one just makes puppy eyes as the other basks in his gaze.
Another perhaps broader element I wound striking in Luhrmann’s approach is that he treated the era and locale in a mythic way: the details of early 1920s New York are neither treated realistically nor satirized, put in quotation marks. Instead, the director uses cliché imagery to evoke what might be called our racial memory of the Jazz Age: everything is skyscrapers, fast cars, noisy music, stiffly glittery clothes, bubbling Champagne.
In other words, we are freed from the nagging necessity to try to make the events and images make rational, quotidian sense. The action unfurls in a sort of formalized dreamscape, at the same time blatantly artificial and yet numinously hyperreal. We are constantly reminded that we are watching a film, and yet, paradoxically, we sort of “fall into” the film, participate knowingly in the fantasy.
In a way, this Gatsby is a superhero movie, with Nick Carraway a patient at Arkham Asylum, and the title character’s famous line of self-introduction spoken in the tone of “I’m Batman.”
But wait. Did F. Scott Fitzgerald really intend The Great Gatsby to be a superhero story? I think we can agree that on a conscious, rational, “reverent” level he did not. However, in a freer, “respectful” sense, the novel treats on themes of self-invention, admiration, questing, betrayal, and above all, hope. I would argue that these very lofty ideas call for a larger-than-life treatment, a mythic treatment, and what myth is more native to the 20th century than that of the superhero?
Which finally (at great length) brings me back to the operatic connection, because this kind of artificial/fantastic style is a particular favorite of mine, whether in Willy Decker‘s Traviata, Stefan Herheim‘s Parsifal or Krzysztof Warlikowski‘s Krol Roger. And I’m guessing the commenters here (so much more clever than those on the movie sites!) will have their own ideas about how well this manner works in opera production.