Monday, June 11, 2012

The Great Gatsby on Film: 3-D or not 3-D?

How apt that the trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby surfaced just before I flew to New York. I consider F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel about longing, romance, and money one of American literature’s greatest triumphs. And New York City is at its center. Fitzgerald’s prose encapsulates what excites me about the Big Apple: “the racy adventurous feel of it at night, and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye.” Here, as Gatsby and Nick Caraway ride into Manhattan from Long Island, is one of Fitzgerald’s most breathtaking descriptions: “Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”

Fitzgerald boasts a visual style that can rightly be called cinematic. Like other novelists of his era, he ultimately made his way westward in search of a fat studio paycheck. Disdainful of Hollywood and its ways, Fitzgerald produced little usable screen material. But his Hollywood period led to the writing of the Pat Hobby stories — which detail with utter conviction the life of a hack screenwriter—as well as the unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, whose central character was inspired by “boy genius” Irving Thalberg. Later, Fitzgerald’s love affair with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham itself became a movie, based on Graham’s autobiographical best-seller, Beloved Infidel.

Baz Luhrmann is hardly the first filmmaker to see in The Great Gatsby terrific source material. There’s a silent version dating back to 1926, with Warner Baxter as Gatsby, though no copies survive. Alan Ladd played Gatsby in 1949, but the version most people remember was filmed in 1974, with Jack Clayton directing Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. (When I taught American literature to UCLA undergraduates, I kept a sharp eye out for students who thought they could watch the movie in lieu of reading the book. Like that scene of Gatsby and Daisy dancing under the big clock – that’s not in the novel, kids!)

Clayton’s The Great Gatsby struck me as dutiful but dull. But on the strength of his trailer, I’m hoping that Luhrmann can capture Fitzgerald’s phantasmagoric quality, that “blanket of beautiful prose” he used to transform the familiar world into magic. After all, he’s the chap who came up with something completely different in Moulin Rouge, and visually transformed Shakespeare’s oh-so-familiar Romeo and Juliet without doing violence to its text. Luhrmann’s promised use of 3-D technology may turn out to be mere gimmickry, or may (as in the case of Scorsese’s Hugo) add something wonderfully new.

By the way, though some New York snobs still exalt their Broadway theatre scene over our Hollywood movie madness, I was struck by the number of Manhattan locales that brag about having appeared in When Harry Met Sally or You’ve Got Mail or an episode of Seinfeld. When I went to the always-astonishing Metropolitan Museum of Art, one fashion exhibit juxtaposed the work of current designer Miuccia Prada with that of an earlier innovator, Elsa Schiaparelli. Schiaparelli, as played by actress Judy Davis, was seen on the museum’s walls in an imaginary dialogue with Prada. The video footage was directed by Baz Luhrmann, hinting once again that he’s a man who responds to visual style. Let’s hope!

This post is dedicated to Alan Bienstock and his bride, Hemed Mizrahi. Alan proposed in the Met’s Egyptian wing, and I wish them both a lifetime of love and beauty.


  1. I hope it's as wonderful as all the people anticipating it want it to be - not a movie for me, however. Hope you'll post a review if you see it!

  2. I will certainly post a review, but the movie doesn't open until December. Frankly I'm always nervous, when seeing a film based on a novel I love, about the possibility of my mental pictures being replaced by those I see on screen. But I survived the Jack Clayton Gatsby, so I'll survive this one, no matter what.