The Luhrmannator: Gatsby Not So Great


Part way through Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” the title character has ostentatiously orchestrated his reunion with lost love Daisy at neighbor Nick’s cottage. Gatsby brings over gardening and catering crews to ready the place, then fills the tiny cottage floor to ceiling with flowers. “Do you think it’s too much?” Gatsby asks. “I think it’s what you want,” Nick replies.

I’ve no idea if the director considered the lines a self-deprecating in-joke, but it certainly sums up Luhrmann’s all-amps-on-ten approach to filmmaking. And while the director certainly Luhrmannated his source material, neither his over-the-top style nor changes to the text are what leaves one feeling disappointed. No, all the pyrotechnics are fine, it’s the wooden storytelling that had me checking my watch just as the film was reaching its final act. “The Great Gatsby” is long and slow and Luhrmann manages to sap all the drama from the characters and story just when it should all be racing towards its tragic climax.

I haven’t seen too many movies on opening day, and certainly none at 10:30 AM, but I was eager to see the film and share my impressions. Also, the story has been kind of a recurring motif throughout my life. In high school we held a Gatsby party in English class after finishing the book, and I was chosen to portray Tom Buchanan. Not because my classmates thought I had anything in common with the Old Money jerk, I assume, but more likely because I was too popular to play Wilson but not popular enough for Jay or Nick. Tom would resurface once again when Ralph Lauren Magazine asked me to write a feature on Tommy Hitchcock, Jr., Fitzgerald’s model for Tom. And the motif continues. I fell in love for the first time at the San Francisco Bay Area’s famous annual “Gatsby Summer Afternoon,” a spectacular event and a pretty damn romantic place for first love. I’ve read the book a number of times, most recently last summer, and enjoyed it more with each reading. And the 1974 Robert Redford version, as Wolfsheim says of Gatsby, is certainly “handsome to look at,” and I’ve watched it many times.

The familiarity many of us have with the previous version, as well as dialogue direct from the book, haunts Luhrmann’s adaptation, as we can’t help but hear the lines spoken differently, either in our own imaginative voices or those of the 1974 cast. There wasn’t a single line I thought more poignantly delivered by the current cast. Most were grating.

If you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and accept the changes in the story, the film starts out just fine. Much of the changes are to the Nick Carraway character, and I thought the differences from the novel more intriguing than the performance of Toby Maguire, whom I find miscast. Leonard DiCaprio’s long-delayed first appearance on the screen is fantastically fun, and he seems to do the best he can with the role, but ultimately the director is responsible, and Luhrmann clearly has more on his mind than drawing Oscar-winning performances from his actors.


“The Great Gatsby” is certainly eye candy. Gatsby’s house now looks like a castle, and is surrounded by a kind of fairy-tale forest. Sartorially the film is flat, whereas I always enjoy looking at the clothes in the ’74 version. Gatsby’s parties are filmed like music videos, and all of the spontaneity and sense of genuine revelry is lost. The ’74 version makes you gawk in amazement at how they partied during the Roaring Twenties, and laugh when the partygoers start jumping in the pool in evening dress. Luhrmann’s parties are as artificial as can be, and the pool dives just an empty gesture for effect.

Period music, though used sparingly, is used well, making you wonder why Luhrmann felt he needed the contemporary music, the movie’s most annoying quality for me, but perhaps less so for those who like that sort of music.

I chose the humorous graphic above because in addition to the camped-up filmmaking style, Lurhmann’s script feels packed with Cliffs Notes. The novel’s metaphoric devices — the green light, Dr. Eckleberg’s watching eyes — are literalized and stiffly explicated, as is the clash between Old Money and the nouveau riche. This isn’t a filmmaker who challenges you to figure things out. Meanwhile, the novel’s deeper themes about American culture are totally lost amid the hyped-up love story.

Gatsby’s unbelievable fidelity (he even has the motto “ever faithful” in Latin above his castle gate) will surely fuel the dreams young female moviegoers, many of which were in the theater with me. And, as in the book, Nick remarks on Gatsby’s tremendous capacity for hope.

Once this project was announced, it would have been naive of us to have hoped for anything but a Baz Luhrmann film. And on that he has completely delivered. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

Great Gatsby Character Map via Something So Sam

30 Comments on "The Luhrmannator: Gatsby Not So Great"

  1. I saw it on Wednesday night at a fun screening event. Free (stale) popcorn and soda!
    I think your assessment is correct, that it is a Baz Luhrmann film and it is suitably bold and brash. The second act dig drag a little, and the ending felt a bit too brief.
    Ahhh, I am glad you noticed the iron gates and their motto. Are we fellow Latin nerd, CC? I used my (rusty) Latin, to translate Ad Finem Fidelis more as “(I will go) To the end with faith.”
    Some of the source images for the Gatsby house were taken from the Golden Coast houses. They had quite the overblown style and botanicals that was created for the movie.

  2. Christian | May 10, 2013 at 12:09 pm |

    I’m not a Latin nerd and assumed it was “faithful to the end.”

    The nerds will chime in soon enough.

  3. If you take into consideration that this was the fourth remake of this film, expectations are best kept low!

  4. Respectfully disagree maybe with full explanation another time. Loved every minute. The only flaw for me, Nick Carraway’s contrast buttons on his button down shirts. Toby Maguire’s Carraway was every midwestern high school shlub who got into Yale and was never quite “shoe.” My grandfather, daddy and I fitted plenty during the cash sale at J. Press.Sue me.

  5. Christian | May 10, 2013 at 2:00 pm |

    Your only complaint about the Nick character was his buttons?

  6. I think I am with Squeeze on this one, I think Maguire’s Carraway was just the right amount out of fish outta water, wide-eyed rube for the part.

  7. Toby Maguire was a high school drop out and maybe figured out himself how he would have behaved if he were Nick Carraway at Yale. He probably got his clothes at the Yale Coop. Not all of those guys were smart enough to shop at Press.

  8. We might all be better served if Luhrmann’s desire to do a film of the 20s had been a Teapot Dome Scandal musical.

  9. Leo, Leo, Leo, why are you strapping yourself to such productions?

  10. I think Tobey Maguire has been miscast in every role he’s ever played. He’s far more suited to play things like “Man on Bus” and “Spectator #3” than any significant role.

    Having said that, as much as I enjoyed Moulin Rouge!, I have no desire to see Baz Luhrmann’s production of Baz Luhrmann’s interpretation of a Baz Luhrmann conceptualization of a book someone told Baz Luhrmann about (screenplay by Baz Luhrmann, directed by Baz Luhrmann).

  11. Like the good parvenu he is, Jay Gatsby uses Latin to “title” the gates to his mansion with antiquity. CC, your translation is more correct. Fidelis can be either adjective or noun. In context Gatsby would name himself as the “faithful one/person.” Of course, taken in the entirety of Fitzgerald’s plot, one may wonder what person, place, or thing it is to which Gatsby considers himself faithful.

    Now a moment for a Latin nerd rant, which may be ignored if found tedious. Latin is essential for a knowledge of good English and a general understanding of European history and institutions, to which America is indebted. It is to be regretted that few schools public or private teach the subject anymore, for which error the colleges to blame with their low standard of language requirements. Winston Churchill was famously deemed such a dull tool that he was forced to study only English. Yet in “My Early Life” he writes: “Such was my first introduction to the classics from which, I have been told, many of our cleverest men have derived so much solace and profit.” Recognizing the cleverness in this back-handed compliment, I suspect he might still offer a Huzzah with Westminster Chimes to Latin nerds. My count may be off, but roughly 30% of the above words are derived from Latin cognates.

  12. @ Christian

    Your article has inspired me to see the movie. The 1974 Redford version inspired me to buy and occasionally wear a white Panama hat. Since I already have my uncle’s straw boater and numerous bow ties, I won’t have to go out and buy anything. Wearing this “Gatsby” stuff takes more guts than I have.

    Got to get to the ” Gatsby Summer Afternoon ” before I cash it in. Seems like a lot of fun.

  13. Thr reviews are mixed out here in the north bay/Napa valley area. The SF Chronicle reviewer loved it, but with a few exceptions. I’ll check it out Tuesday when I meet a friend in Petaluma for lunch.

  14. Thody Evans | May 11, 2013 at 11:44 am |

    The film is a sad comment on how low the average American film-goer has sunk. All that computer-generated garbage is there to appeal to viewers who are unable to appreciate a film version of one of the major works of 20th century American literature without being treated like computer-game-addicted children.

  15. I must agree with Thody. This work by FSF is more about what’s going on “between” his characters. This film spends way too much thought and effort about what’s going on “around” the characters.
    Three stars out of five is my rating.

  16. Somewhere I read, that Luhrmann’s Gatsby was like having Liberace designing the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade.

  17. Barchester | May 12, 2013 at 12:17 pm |


    Certainly the college students who write papers about the book haven’t read it; they read criticism and college lit profs pretend to be deceived. It’s all part of the farce known as higher education.

  18. @Barchester

    The real farce is high school English teachers pretending that their students are able to understand the novel.

  19. Philly Trad | May 12, 2013 at 12:35 pm |

    Tennessee Williams wrote in his Memoirs (1975), p. 178, that he thought that the 1974 Redford film was better than Scott Fitzgerald’s novel.

  20. Ironchefsakai | May 12, 2013 at 12:51 pm |

    @ Barchester

    Could you elucidate?

    I think Scotty’s more on-point, though I don’t think “Gatsby” is hard to understand. The message is pretty apparent, even to an inexpienced reader. But, with age (and I’m admittedly still quite young), my appreciation of the DEPTH of the novel’s statements on American culture and wealth has grown.

  21. Here’s the whole quote from wikipedia,

    “Tennessee Williams, in his book Memoirs’ (p. 178), wrote: “It seems to me that quite a few of my stories, as well as my one acts, would provide interesting and profitable material for the contemporary cinema, if committed to … such cinematic masters of direction as Jack Clayton, who made of The Great Gatsby a film that even surpassed, I think, the novel by Scott Fitzgerald.”[4][5]”

    I’m a fan of Williams, but this sounds more like self promotion and a suck up to Hollywood by a drug addled writer in the twilight of his career.

  22. Barchester | May 12, 2013 at 8:15 pm |


    The average American highschool student doesn’t have the depth of vocabulary, let alone the intellectual maturity necessary to comprehend the novel:

  23. Ironchefsakai | May 13, 2013 at 10:18 am |

    Oh, well, I guess my perspective is skewed as a consequence of being a faculty brat to two English professors…

  24. At it’s worst, this was an adaptation of the Cliff’s Notes of the book — stripping out what subtlety it had in a few crucial scenes, and overstating everything in cinematic terms. There were one or two moments of idiotic editing and screenwriting — and a butchering of the opening lines that leaves me waiting with baited breath for Luhrmann’s “Hamlet,” which will presumably include the line

    “The question is whether one should or should not be.”

    That said, the middle was excellent (though lifting the framing device from “Catcher” made me wonder if they’d fit in something from the entire junior year high school curriculum), and I thought the music worked much better than a more “realistic” approach would.

  25. ‘I’m not quite sure, however, that Luhrmann grasped the old-money aesthetic, because the Buchanans’ mansion looks like Versailles done up on special offer by Dobbies Garden Centre.’ Times, London.

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