Tackling a classical novel by turning it into a blockbuster is always going to be tough. Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby is stunning and sensational, but can’t live up to Fitzgerald’s original prose. In my opinion, though, it comes about as close as it can get.
The tale of Nick Carroway’s induction both into decadent society and into the irrepressible, insane hopes of Jay Gatsy is told through a narrative framing device unique to this 2013 version of the story: Nick is a recovering alcoholic in the future, and tells the entire story to his psychiatrist, who urges him to write it down as a novel that just happens to sound exactly like the celebrated source material. This is clearly a way for the film to get away with a ton of narration. The film even explicitly shows the typed words on screen occasionally.
This whole thing is a bit questionable, as a film that adapts a book is supposed to stand by itself as a film, with as little narration as possible, and certainly without the actual words showing up on screen. However, the film is also admitting that the book is better at sounding good, so I can’t really blame it for admitting the truth.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, and Carey Mulligan all tend to love this type of film: cool, slick, and cultured. They all act well, and fit their characters aptly. The film stands out in a couple ways. First, the CGI is thick and strong, giving the film a more surreal quality, and one that keeps it interesting. Chris Godfrey, the VFX supervisor, has posted a clip on Vimeo that points out just how much the CGI influenced the final product:
It definitely establishes the excess and cheer of the 20s, though maybe not as subtly as the original text. The second stand-out element is the soundtrack. It uses modern artists — Lana del Rey and Jay-Z, for instance — to evoke the mood of the film, rather than using time-period-suitable musical choices. It’s definitely a polarizing choice, as I’ve heard from people who loved it and hated it, but no one who didn’t notice and form an opinion on it.
I like it: the soundtrack carries the same themes of hedonism and unrequited longing that are essential to the story, but uses them through fresh musical eyes, removing the feel of age and vintage that an older soundtrack would force on the audience. It’s not the same as Fitzgerald imagined it, but that’s because we could attain that mood after the decade has passed. I suppose the most accurate path to that mood would be to read the book, though. So if you enjoy this film, go check it out from your local library.