As a reader who has had to watch story after story be shredded, hollowed, or enlarged on the big screen, The Great Gatsby is a miracle. The film adaptation of the book is magical. That fact itself wins its claim as kin of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.
Often, the written word is so resolute in its literary nature that it has to be sacrificed on the big screen. In doing so, the story itself loses some of who it is, even if the screen tells a more entertaining one. In Baz Luhrmann’s work, he has carried the words on, by means of voiceovers from Nick Carraway. While voiceover narrations can sometimes fall flat, in this film it acts as a steady vein under the magic of the created world. It keeps the story as poetic and otherworldly as Fitzgerald did, only to uncover the real world with a flourish at the end.
The spirit of the story is that everything and everyone is a character. It isn’t just Gatsby, Daisy, Carraway, Tom, Jordan and Myrtle. It is also the car, the pool, the party, the nameless crowd and, of course, the orgasmic green light. Baz Luhrmann achieves this pulsing narrative by means of a fantastical approach to the film. The screen sparkles, even when it is a moment of pitch black. The shots where white curtains dance and flowers fill up a room is almost blinding.
Baz Luhrmann has the camera sweep across impossibly animated waters and mansions. There is a frenzy of a glittering crowd who are ants and sharks and circus animals all at the same time. The dresses are a wonder, the grease is poetic and a forgotten billboard is the Eye of God. The green light beams, beckons, and convinces us of its importance. It makes the viewer want the green light almost as much as Gatsby does. But only almost.
Gatsby is a character that defines ‘larger-than-life’ while also being a man with the most desperate of simple dreams. One dream. That’s all Gatsby has and as long it stays out of reach, every other inch of gold that falls about him is hollow. The incidental world he has built is only a means. The real dream flutters and giggles in a mansion, one blue expanse and green dot away from him. Daisy Buchanan is a character that is easy to condemn. But she reveals who she is quite transparently early on in the film: ‘A beautiful little fool.’ It is the part she plays in this orchestral play and if it wasn’t for one performer so protective of his ‘incorruptible dream’, she could have gone on without reflection, married to Tom Buchanan.
Gatsby’s dream of Daisy isn’t love; it is a senseless trespass. One that even he is aware should never have been granted to him. But a forbidden world once entered is impossible to leave behind. And so the green light stands as a symbol. Only after it is acquired will the spoils of this world be enjoyed. This is the price Gatsby sets on himself, and it is one that never pays off.
The film is one that fits so perfectly into its title, it is a triumph for both the author and director. There is a need to prefix Gatsby with ‘great’. Gatsby relents that he could have been a great man, if he could forget his love. But perhaps it was only he who found the title undeserved. To Carraway, to the world, to Daisy and even to Tom, Gatsby was always a display of incorruptible greatness; an outsider in their careless play.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.