“You can’t repeat the past? Of course you can.” is the tagline for Luhrmann’s re-imagining of F. Scott Fitzgerald's luminescent novel. As history has proven to us, the past has been repeated, and it continues to do so. The first adaption appears in ’26; a year after Fitzgerald is published, with Warner Baxter as The Great Gatsby himself. The film has been lost ever since and only the trailer remains. We then see a version in ’49 with Alan Ladd filling the shoes of the mysterious bachelor. Although, the most remembered version is the Jack Clayton ’74 version starring Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby with a script originally helmed by Truman Capote and later reworked by Francis Ford Coppola which became the draft that would make it to the screen.
The story of Gatsby is so infamous and complex that to create a pithy plot synopsis would be to make little of the scope of the story. However, here is an attempt. Gatsby, a veteran of the Great War who has fallen into great riches, is a bachelor living alone in his mansion of West Egg amongst those barring the title “new money”. He spends his nights throwing exotic parties while not attending a single one of them. Instead, he can be found in his study or dock, staring into the mist across the pond that bares a green glow in the distance. This glow emanates from the dock of his lost love, Daisy. Daisy Buchanan lives across the river with her husband Tom. Tom Buchanan has been born to riches making the young couple “old money”. Daisy and her husband have no need for parties; they are elegant, refined, and proper. Nick Carraway, cousin to Daisy, finds himself on Wall Street and walks into a bit of wealth placing him in West Egg, coincidentally, right next door to Gatsby. Gatsby befriends Nick and uses him to reconnect with his girl from before the war.
The film has been compared to the director’s earlier film Moulin Rouge; the comparison is understandable,Moulin Rouge has pacing problems. The Great Gatsby has pacing problems, and both films are stylized within an inch of their life. However, the comparison doesn’t fit; at least, it doesn’t fit as well as the comparison to Luhrmann’s retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Luhrmann has told the story of riding on the Transibberian Express right after completing Moulin Rouge, drinking red wine, and listening to the audiobook of The Great Gatsby on his iPod, and this is when he decided to make the film. This is, in fact, a perfect description of how it feels to be viewing this remake of The Great Gatsby. It feels as if we are riding through Siberia on a speeding train drinking wine and listening to the words of Fitzgerald through our iPods.
There is an inherent love and goodwill that can be felt throughout the film, you can tell that the filmmakers have a great reverence for the novel and if anyone takes a stab at Gatsby, parts are bound to be brilliant because the text that is being drawn from is so vibrant and filled with viscera. However, like with every Luhrman film, the characters are secondary to Luhrmann’s camera and “vision”, this being the reason that it is difficult to discuss the performances because even Dicaprio feels understated by Luhrmans’s grandiose style.
Redford has said, looking back on the ’74 adaption, “it probably wasn’t such a good idea.” The update of Gatsby has moments that shine but several that miss the mark. Perhaps the largest achievement is that Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby shows us just how wrong Redford’s claim is. Jack Clayton’s The Great Gatsby is still the greatest adaption of the Fitzgerald text, and it will be a long while until the underrated masterpiece is matched.