BY MICHELLE MEDFORD AND JENNA SIMPSON
Two filles discuss one of the most buzzed-about films of the year, The Great Gatsby, Baz Lurhmann’s adaptation of the beloved F. Scott Fitzgerald book.
J: I’ve always felt that Daisy Buchanan was misunderstood. Daisy is meant to represent all that is morally corrupt about the Jazz Age–she is described, along with her husband Tom, as “careless” about other people. But I think it’s just because Nick sees her that way (and just at the end, really). What were her options, realistically, under the circumstances? She had her own secrets to protect. She loved Gatsby, but it was the 1920s after all, divorce wasn’t exactly as regular an occurrence as it is today, and despite all the sexual and gender liberation going on at the time, it was very much frowned upon, especially for a woman. I just think Daisy is sad and lonely and married to a turd.
I’ve loved Carey Mulligan since An Education, so I might be a bit biased here, but I thought she was the best Daisy Buchanan we’ve yet seen on the big screen. Mulligan’s performance helped to shed some light on Daisy’s turmoil, particularly in that scene in the hotel room in New York when things came to a head with Gatsby. It demonstrated how torn and confused she was about how she felt, and what she needed.
I thought that the actress who played Jordan Baker was Zooey Deschanel for the entire movie, right up until the closing credits. Deschanel annoys me to no end, and I was surprised that she was doing such a great job in this role. But of course, it wasn’t her, and I am vindicated in my dislike for the doe-eyed Deschanel–it was a virtual unknown Aussie actress called Elizabeth Debicki, who in her official IMDB pic looks NOTHING like Zooey. Anyway, she was perfect as Jordan Baker.
M: When I read The Great Gatsby, I didn’t really care for Daisy. When I saw the movie, I disliked her. She seemed air-headed, timid and confused. However, after some thought and hearing Jenna’s perspective, I’m a little more understanding of her (though not entirely). It was a tough time for women. Daisy’s character today would have been seen as weak and selfish. Daisy back then was just doing what was expected of her, or at least attempting to balance expectations with her true desires and crumbling in the mess of it all. While I can’t say I was blown away by Mulligan’s portrayal of Daisy, I have nothing bad to say either, which is always a good thing.
As far as the women in this movie go, I was pleasantly surprised by Isla Fisher’s performance as Myrtle. I haven’t seen her in much, let alone serious roles, but for someone primarily associated with Confessions of a Shopaholic (which, full disclosure, I know nothing about), I really enjoyed her performance as yet another one of the many selfish and confused characters.
However, I was most impressed with Debicki as Jordan. Like Jenna says, she was perfect. She was exactly as I imagined Jordan when I read the book. Cool (in both senses of the term), somewhat reserved and proud, but also welcoming.
NARRATIVE AND PERSPECTIVE
J: As I hinted at above, I think there are some limitations to the story, because it is told from Nick’s perspective. It’s a double-edged sword in literature, I think, to tell a story in the first person: it can help to draw the reader in by making a personal connection to the narrator (who is often but not always the protagonist, as in Gatsby), but it also limits what can be told and also how the characters are viewed. Can we, as readers, trust the first person narrator to tell us the truth about what happened, with complete knowledge? Or is the narrator only ever bound to tell a story from his own, biased and partial, perspective?
Nick was so embittered by the end, having fallen prey to Gatsby’s charms in the end as well. It was an interesting move on Luhrmann’s part to frame the narrative as Nick’s therapy sessions/memoir, and to set up Nick’s character as being an alcoholic in need of rehab. I’m not sure it entirely worked for me, but I’ll give him points for creativity.
M: My favourite part of the book was the way the first person limited the narrative. I liked that there was so much mystery around the characters, that Nick never truly knew who anyone was, but I loved even more how little we knew about Daisy and Jay’s relationship. Even when they finally reunited, we never really knew exactly what they were up to and I feel it added to the complexity of the relationship and characters. The less I knew, the more I felt there was some deeper understanding that I would never know anyway.
Like Jenna, the framed narrative didn’t work for me either. Actually, I hated it, primarily for two reasons. For me, it wasn’t a true framed narrative. It kept returning to Nick with the doc, as opposed to book-ending the story, and it kept pulling me out of the main story. I also felt that it turned Nick into a bigger, less relatable character than he was in the book. In the book, I didn’t really think too much about Nick and what he was feeling, but rather felt like I was going along with him and whatever he did. Nick’s alcoholism in the film constantly brings him to the forefront and separates him from the viewer. It almost makes me wonder if there were supposed to be two main characters to the movie.
M: I love Baz Lurhmann’s films for many reasons and one of those is his very unique and extravagant visual style. Another person equally important to acknowledge as far as style goes in Lurhmann’s film is Catherine Martin (his wife), who did the costume and production design for Gatsby, but also the entire gorgeous Red Curtain Trilogy (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge!). We’ve all seen Gatsby’s wild and crazy parties (take note of the blow-up zebra in the swimming pool), so I’ll illustrate with another scene, and my favourite of the entire movie: the time Nick got drunk with Tom, his mistress and their friends. In this scene, Lurhmann takes the opportunity to trip us out through Nick’s intoxication. We stumble through a dazed pillow fight with slow-mo feathers flying through the air and grins of drunken stupor, before some gorgeous shots through the apartment window and into the complexes across the street with warm lights emanating through cool streets. It’s so visually stunning, I almost can’t handle it.
J: This is going to be akin to sacrilege, I know, but here’s my movie confession: I hated Moulin Rouge!. Nothing about it worked for me. I was SOOOOOOO disappointed, because I loved Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet. But it has been many, many years since I’ve seen it, so maybe I would like it better now. However, if Gatsby is anything to go on, I’m not sure I would like it any better today.
The only scenes that I felt were appropriately extravagant were the party scenes and the scene Michelle describes above in the small apartment in NYC. The rest was just too much for me. Maybe I should have seen it in 3D; there was something missing about the visuals in regular 2D. But that’s not really the problem for me. The problem is that the story didn’t lend itself well to the kind of lush, over-the-top visuals that Luhrmann is known for. True, the story is set in the flashy, glitzy, extravagant Jazz Age. And all the parties! The lush visuals were appropriate for those scenes. But there are quiet, intimate parts of the story as well, that don’t need and aren’t improved by the heavy-handedness Luhrmann can’t help but to bring to any scene he directs. It’s just too much!
TRUENESS TO THE BOOK
M: When I heard that Baz Lurhmann was directing The Great Gatsby, I was beyond excited. I thought it was a good book, though by no means my favourite. You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s a bit dry. Not much happens. Throughout the movie, I didn’t pay too much attention to its trueness to the book because I was hoping that it wouldn’t be. I hoped that Lurhmann would give this book some much-needed punch. I actually even hoped that he would make some bold changes (more than just the framed narrative) and transform the story into a new and more enjoyable experience for me. To some extent, he did, but I wish he changed more. That’s not to say that I thought The Great Gatsby was a bad book, it’s only to say that I think Moulin Rouge! is the best movie in the history of all time and I hoped that this adaptation would become its companion piece. It didn’t.
J: I recently re-read the novel The Great Gatsby, in preparation for seeing the movie. It’s short, and I read quickly. I hadn’t read the book since high school, and back then I didn’t understand what was going on, and the writing wasn’t enough to capture my interest for long. This time around, I breezed through it easily, captivated by the words on the page more than the story itself.
Because really, the story is not that exciting. The big twist is kind of not a big deal in the post-“I see dead people” age. What is interesting is the writing, the way the story is told, not the story itself.
Was the movie true to the book? Yes and no. It told the story and followed events in the book fairly closely, but because it was framed so strangely and the visual elements of the film were so prominent, we lose a lot of what makes the book so wonderful. Some of Fitzgerald’s best lines–“Her voice was full of money,” for example–were missing, and others, like the novel’s opening lines, were mangled. Others were given almost too much reverence, like the novel’s closing lines. The whole thing was just so heavy-handed. The story needs a far lighter touch, in my opinion. Or, like Michelle says, maybe it’s the kind of great novel that should just be left on the shelf to be enjoyed as it was meant to be enjoyed: as a fine–perhaps unrivalled–piece of prose.
Although I really don’t think The Great Gatsby makes the best source material for a film, I still think that there was no better director to try his hand at it than Baz Lurhmann (speaking from a very biased perspective, that is). Like I said, I was beyond excited for this movie, and although it wasn’t what expected, I can’t say I’m disappointed. It was good. And that works for me.
The Great Gatsby was pretty good. It’s flashy, it’s entertaining (until the story starts to drag), it’s pretty well-acted. It just wasn’t, for me, quite right. The over-the-top, highly stylized approach to telling this story makes us lose sight of its simplicity: The Great Gatsby is a morality tale that sits in judgment of the excesses of the Jazz Age that this movie places so much emphasis on celebrating. The irony is not lost on this critic.