A new film is upon us from the man who visualised Shakespeare’s Mercutio cross-dressed and gyrating on the sweeping Capulet staircase to ‘Young Hearts, Run Free’ in a white diamante bra and choker. Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ has burst onto our screens with much the same panache and beat as his 1996 ‘Romeo and Juliet’. As Luhrmann revealed in an interview for Sky Movies, he first envisaged creating a film out of Fitzgerald’s classic as he travelled on the Trans-Siberian railway after filming ‘The Moulin Rouge’, enjoying the novel in audio book format as he dozed off with a glass of red wine. Just like the fantastical ‘blue gardens’ and ‘yellow cocktail music’ of Fitzgerald’s imagined world, Luhrmann has conjured up a vision of ‘The Great Gatsby’ that cavorts as if it is haunted by the cancan dancers and clownish entertainers of that infamous Parisian nightclub, born out of train journey slumbers and wine-fed dreaming.
Luhrmann’s inspiration is apt, as the novel really is all about dreaming. Nick’s dream of Gatsby, Gatsby’s dream of Daisy, Gatsby’s dream of Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s dream of Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s dream, or perhaps nightmare, of America. Hemingway claimed that Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda used to encourage her husband to drink whilst writing. Perhaps, much like the stumbling narrator Nick , who sits ‘within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life’, Fitzgerald wrote his novel through a haze of ethanol, in a state of wakeful dreaming. He shaped the black ink on the page with a mind blurred and fluid at the edges, at liberty to fantasise, to fashion the synaesthetic party scenes in which the senses queasily intermingle. Even after all the bloodshed, the smashing up, the loss, there is a small place within Fitzgerald’s imagination still enchanted by a faith in dreaming that he has shown to be futile. He is in part charmed by the ‘orgastic future’ that we ‘stretch out our arms farther’ to reach, despite its eluding us ‘year by year’. It is Fitzgerald’s ambivalence that defines Gatsby’s ‘greatness’. Like the sublime, he is a figure who unnerves as much as he attracts, just as his dream is as romantic as it is dangerous.
It is this instability that Luhrmann fails to capture. He dreams with the carelessness of the party- goers and the wild romanticism of Gatsby himself, and doing so, the caution and nuance of the author’s craft is lost. The word author is etymologically related to authority, seen in the close relationship between the medieval words ‘auctor’ and ‘auctoritee’. The hold of an author over their work has always been problematic from literature’s foundations, with writers such as Chaucer struggling to establish clear power. He prefaced his works with vocalisations of modesty which instructed readers didactically as much as they apologised for any shortcomings and shook off culpability for dangerous misinterpretation. With the invention of the printing press in the 1450s, private manuscripts became available for public readership. Popular anthologies such as Tottel’s Miscellany encouraged a collaborative authorship, with readers actively taking to the page with quills and amending sonnets, circulating new versions and subverting the original poet’s power. Clearly the authority of authorship has always been contentious, but it is difficult to lose ourselves in the film’s contrived and off-piste opening, as a washed-up, bearded and morose Nick talks softly to a psychiatrist as snowflakes dust around the sanatorium. Luhrmann’s portrayal of the story’s narrator provides a painfully unsubtle metatextual experience, as Nick’s words clunkily etch themselves across the screen in typewriter font. Suddenly, the famously unreliable voice careers off with such autonomy that even as Fitzgerald’s powerful cadence draws the film to a close, Nick must wrap it all up in a ring binder and in a moment of casual afterthought asterix ‘the great’ onto the title of his manuscript, ‘Gatsby’. Giving such deliberate power to a narrator who oscillates so infamously between repulsion and attraction in the novel, Luhrmann re-shapes Fitzgerald’s tale with a carthartic neatness, a ‘once upon a time’ frame that counters its original sense of emptiness, negating the force of the ‘foul dust’ and ash that swirls through its pages and drains away any prospect of redemption.
Of course, it is important to recognise that a film is a work of art in its own right. But for dedicated Fitzgerald fans, Luhrmann’s emphasis seems to usurp the ultimate dreamer, the author. The novel’s greatest moment of loss is given a sense of rose-tinted fatefulness in the film. Gatsby’s death is romanticised by his desperate belief that Daisy is the one at the end of the trilling receiver, a point in the plot that Fitzgerald fashions with devastating sparseness. Nick can only imagine that Gatsby looks up at the ‘unfamiliar sky’, detached from the ‘new world, material without being real’, a man who had ‘paid a high price for living too long with a single dream’. Lying not far away is Wilson’s body and ‘the holocaust was complete’.
Nick is a man who is glad to compliment Gatsby before he dies as better than the ‘rotten crowd’ he associates with. But in all the glitz and glamour, we must not forget that he is also a man who freely admits in the same sentence that ‘I disapproved of him from beginning to end’. Dreams are not always beautiful, but they are always enigmatic. This is what Gatsby is, how Fitzgerald writes, how Nick observes. It doesn’t seem to be how Luhrmann directs.