Scott Rudin the Hollywood producer known for bringing adaptations of contemporary literature to the silver screen – he was responsible for Wonder Boys and The Hours, for example – may be on his way out at Paramount. This means that several forthcoming literary adaptations could be in jeopardy, including big screen versions of three new books: Ian McEwan’s Saturday, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. Farther along in their development are The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and, of course, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Though adaptations can be a risky proposition, I do hope that some of these end up getting made if only to satisfy my curiosity. Here’s the story from the Hollywood Reporter.
I’ve been writing a lot about film adaptations lately, so I was thrilled to stumble onto this very cool series at the Guardian which each week is turning a critical eye on a new famous film adaptation. The latest is on Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1986 version of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
I don’t recall actually seeing Mary Poppins as a child, but I was aware of the film somehow because for a period of time (perhaps as short as a few concurrent nights, grown through the expansive memory of childhood into years) I suffered a recurring nightmare featuring that nanny extraordinaire. It always began as an ordinary dream, about baseball or swimming or driving the General Lee or whatever it was I dreamed of in those days. But at some point Mary Poppins would fly overhead on her umbrella, look toward the “camera” of the dream to deliver a cackle, then fly off, turning whatever pleasant fantasy I’d been having into terrifying chaos. Everything in the dreamworld became darker; trees died, I got lost and left behind in a grim landscape, and I fell victim to all sorts of other horrible things I’ve managed, thankfully, not to remember so clearly.
I regularly told this story to my students on the first day of a cultural studies seminar on monsters I taught for several years, because beyond the instant class bonding that came, at my expense, from laughing at such a peculiar neurosis, my history with Mary Poppins illustrates something about the power of monsters. We are all familiar with the bogey man in our closets and the clawed creatures under our beds, waiting for us to set a bare foot on the floor or to fall asleep without a night light left on for protection. My somnambulant rendition of Mary Poppins creeps from the same fissures in supposedly shared meaning that make Santa Claus terrifying to some children while beloved by others, or allows the clown to be both a figure of fun and of fright. There is, I suppose, no reliable way of predicting the things that will scare us. It was just my dumb luck that a kind-hearted and magical nanny, of all possible monsters, was the one to work her way up through the cracks in my childhood mind.
The video features an eerie, horror movie-style soundtrack with scenes from Mary Poppins recombined to create a trailer for the story of a creepy, wicked woman flying around London on an umbrella, emerging from a dark and gloomy skyline to terrorize small children. In other words, it’s my own childhood fear made larger than life, first in the diminutive window of YouTube’s viewer and later on the classroom screens where I showed it. It’s the secrets of my psyche uncovered and shown to the world in all their absurdity, turning my personal and previously private misinterpretation of a children’s film into a public spectacle, as if Rule had reached into my mind and pulled his video out. It’s easy to see how such a hybrid, piratical medium as the mashup insists on the “death of the author,” but in this case it also risked the death of the viewer from fright.
The intent of Rule’s video may not be to actually frighten instead of amuse, or to do more than demonstrate how recutting footage — like interrupting a dream — can alter its meaning or mood. To turn a cheerful children’s classic into horror is comically ironic, and for those already familiar with both the tropes of movie trailers and the story of Mary Poppins (likely a majority of American moviegoers), it probably is more funny than frightening. Even for me, reminded as I was of genuine childhood terrors long ago left behind, that comic irony wasn’t lost. What makes my nanny-fear so hilarious and humiliating is its absurdity, because I know Mary Poppins should be comforting, not frightening. I used it as an example in class for that reason, to demonstrate that monsters come from many places: from high and low culture, from shared cultural anxieties, from racial, sexual, and economic constructions of the Other, and — in my case — from some unidentifiable and ridiculous corner of the mind that perhaps, as Ebenezer Scrooge explains his own unwelcome ghosts, has eaten a bad jot of mustard.
Rule’s mashup is more than ironic humor, however, and it is more than the coincidental depiction of personal fears that gives power to this relatively new — at least in its ease of production — form of expression. After seeing King Kong in 1934, Jean Levy recalled his childhood fears of ape-men appearing at his windows, a fear he and I shared, though for me it came in the form of King Kong lifting Darth Vader to my third floor window so the evil Jedi (this was early in the series, before we knew Darth Vader’s depths) could come in and “get me.” Of his own pithecophobia Levy writes,
I saw again trait by trait a remarkable detail of my familiar nightmares, with the anguish and the atrocious malaise which accompanies it. A spectator, not very reassured, would like to leave, but one makes him ashamed of his pusillanimity and he sits down again. This spectator, it’s myself; one hundred times, in my dream.
Levy’s “familiar nightmare” was born in the subconscious social, sexual, and racial anxieties that made the giant ape Kong so potent and so sublimely terrifying, which is to say the film succeeded because it showed its audience something they were, all of them, simultaneously terrified of in a graspable, metaphorical, menacing form. It’s telling that we have a word for “fear of apes” — pithecophobia — but no word for “fear of nannies.”
The collective unconscious, or at least our shared fears and fantasies, has always been the lifeblood of cinema: audiences need to share a reaction to make the film and the experience of seeing it work. And, more pragmatically, to make such an expensive undertaking as film worth financing and troubling over at all. “Scary Mary Poppins” is something different, a low-budget, low-stakes (and likely low-profit) exercise in new media. Distributed online, produced with affordable, accessible software and tools, the mashup does not need to make its appeal as universal as a blockbuster does. In this short, public embodiment of my childhood nightmare lies all the possibility of the Web for transformative, responsive, and reflexive creative work: the potential for every viewer to be frightened in his or her own private way even if each must cut their own version of every film.
Certainly cinema (and literature, and visual art, and so on) have always been subject to individual responses and interpretations. And authors of fan fiction have long made characters and stories their own, writing in the interstices and silences, whether to critical acclaim like that found by John Gardner’s Grendel and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, or to local accolades only in the archives of fanfiction.net. But there is something in the monster story, all monster stories, that makes it particularly appropriate and, in fact, vital for such reimaginings to occur again and again. They are intended to frighten, and require flexibility if they are to retain their power to do so across temporal and cultural difference, so monster stories, cinematic and otherwise, are ripe for remakes upon remakes, for an apparently endless stream of classics reproduced every year as dozens of new renditions of familiar archetypes appear on screens large and small, and on pages where Elizabeth Bennet battles the undead after centuries not troubling herself about zombies.
As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen writes in the essay (from Monster Theory) that was the first assigned reading of my seminar,
No monster tastes of death but once. The anxiety that condenses like green vapor into the form of the vampire can be dispersed temporarily, but the revenant by definition returns. And so the monster’s body is both corporal and incorporeal; its threat is its propensity to shift.
The monsters are always among us, because no matter how tightly we shore up the windows and nail shut the doors, we always create some new cracks through which they can come. And sometimes those cracks are the wires and Wi-Fi waves of the Web.
Image: Canon in 2D/Flickr
How much of a mirror are we willing to let Spring Breakers be? In indulging in a nauseating, exhilarating, and absolutely familiar fantasy of American fun, Harmony Korine might be offering the unflinching depiction of rape culture that our national conversation has been needing.
Five days after Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays were convicted of raping a minor, with Mays also charged with the dissemination of child pornography; 20 days after The Daily Princetonian reported the results of a 2008 survey about sexual assault at Princeton that revealed that about 28 percent of female students had been “touched in a sexual manner or had their clothes removed without consent;” a few days after Girls Gone Wild filed for bankruptcy; the month before Sexual Assault Awareness month; and following, or joining, a new national conversation about rape culture, Harmony Korine released Spring Breakers. If you manage to sit through the whole film — 5 people walked out of the first screening I attended — you will see a vision of the world in which all of this is possible, a world that holds together in a terrible, perfectly-packaged union: gun culture, consumerism, wealth inequality, college culture, American Christianity, racism, our global obsession with underdressed young girls, rape culture, and Britney Spears.
If there is anything like a common theme explored in Spring Breakers, it might be the question of how much any of us are willing to do, watch, or endure, in the name of or search for fun. Sliding from the beaches swarming with college kids testing their limits to a lifestyle apparently unconstrained by limits of any kind, untouched by the larger culture’s moral codes, the hinge around which both of these worlds pivot are four young girls in bathing suits. If we’re going to place this film in our contemporary conversation about rape culture, its contribution will be in revealing our unchecked appetite for female bodies, and the role played by these bodies — as mere bodies — in our culture of fun.
The film begins with manic young people pumping under the sun on the beaches of St. Petersburg, Fla., an explosion of headached colors, terrifyingly exalted faces, and endless, perpetually topless girls, their skin splashed with beer. The plot follows four female college students as they devise a quick-money scheme to make it to Spring Break (“spring breaaaaaak 4eva!”) and, once there, revel in the suffocating, hyper-sexual, round the clock party, nightmarishly disconnected from any other reality, and energized by the clench-jawed commitment to experience everything within a limited life span. After being arrested for being in the same room as drugs, the girls are sprung from jail by Alien (James Franco), and spring break gives way to Florida’s year-round criminal underworld, which itself gives way to what the critics have roundly agreed is a “fever dream;” some of the girls make these transitions seamlessly, others reach a limit in terms of how much fun, how much experience they are able to live with.
Perhaps at the sight of the first bikini being thrown off, or when a muscly 20-year-old male swings that same bikini above his blond head, lasso-style, or when a young woman lies passed out on a mattress surrounded by partiers who are either utterly indifferent to or lasciviously interested in what will happen to that unconscious human, at some point the veneer on all of this fun peels off, and suddenly the only phrase that seems adequate to what’s being shown is “rape culture.” The phrase comes to mind, and if the images had been hard to stomach before, they are, from this point on, nearly unwatchable, numbing, excessive to a violent degree. But what is most unsettling, is that it is possible still to be seduced by them, to thrill at them, all that color, all those bodies. When not utterly nauseating, the film achieves a kind of pop harmony, sweeping us all up in the rush of spring break, making us know it from the inside. Where we might imagine a more European filmmaker, perhaps one practicing the tradition of the “New French Extremity,” would have exposed us to what’s awful about this youthful rite of passage, Korine adopts a different, properly American tactic, demanding that we see what those very youths see: the exhilaration, the colors, the fun.
This is precisely what makes the film work, the very thing that will threaten to drive you from the theater in protest: Korine presents this culture, not for the assessment of knowing outsider — within, for example, ironic quotes marks or a moralizing narrative — but through the eyes of its most ecstatic participants, the camera roaming through the seas of anonymous dancing body parts, palpably elated by the unhinged, unparented energy. When Faith (Selena Gomez), the film’s vague outline of a moral center, begs in confusion and panic, “I feel uncomfortable, I want to go home,” it’s like having one’s mind read: Yes, I feel uncomfortable and want to go home. But when these four girls sing Spears’s well-loved “Hit Me Baby One More Time” in a convenience store parking lot, you realize, of course, you are home, this is home turned up.
One possible, totally appropriate response to this film is wild rage. With an art director’s name attached to this big-budget exploitation romp, it can, at times, feel like the film simply indulges in the very culture it should be critiquing, or like Korine is banking on us reading the film as critical, rather than as the worst and most familiar brand of cinematic misogyny, simply because he directed it.
Anyone familiar with Korine’s other work, though, will know that while his films are challenging, thoughtful, almost impossible to endure, they don’t aspire to be critical, if that means offering some kind of privileged commentary; if anything, Korine’s consistent cinematic aim seems to be to reject the position of privilege that directors tend to enjoy and to offer to their audiences. In Spring Breakers — with sounds, colors, and a budget more luxurious than any he has enjoyed before — Korine pushes this effort further, accompanying characters into a space that they very much want to explore, leaving it up to the viewer to determine to what degree we will join them, take pleasure with them, or try to resist. And though Julian Donkey Boy, Gummo, or Trash Humpers each challenge the capacity of the viewer to separate herself from what she sees, to ask herself what it means to feel entertained by such a film, this task is taken to new heights of difficulty when the world one wants to remain distanced from, the thing one can take no pleasure in, is pop culture, our culture, perfectly distilled.
So “critique” in this sense is not Korine’s aim at all; the viewer is never invited to join in anything like critique, there is no external vantage on this world, there is rarely anything like an assuring wink. We are rather swallowed whole by spring break, by its nonstop terrifying energy, and asked to revel in it. The closest we get to critique are the repetitious shots of various degrees of debauchery paired with the whimsical, hollow voices of the girls talking to their mothers about the life-affirming experiences they’ve been lucky enough to have; its impossible to take this seriously, and through this we are, perhaps, given a kind of distance from the screen. But for the most part this world is presented in utter sincerity, nowhere better realized than in Alien’s soulful, seaside rendition of Britney Spear’s “Everytime” — which, to be sure, is an oddly moving ballad, in a ghostly kind of way.
In interviews, Korine has emphasized that his goal was to achieve, in contrast to an arced plot and developed characters, “liquid narrative,” that he wanted to make a film that looked like it was “lit with Skittles;” “its meant to be candy…there’s no right or wrong way of viewing the film.” While it may be unproductive to insist, as some offended critics have, that this film was not worth making or showing because of its candied presentation of rape culture, it seems wildly irresponsible to insist, as Korine does, that a movie about a culture structured largely around the drugging, undressing, filming, and habitual assaulting of women should be easily consumable, or that there is no wrong way to view it. There is of course the question as to whether Korine means this seriously or if, by insisting on the emptiness of his film, he is just goading the moralizers in the audience. Still, though, if someone could watch Spring Breakers and not experience a moment of fighting rage or bleak sadness, I would say they haven’t seen it rightly.
And indeed it turns out Korine wants it both ways: in the same interviews in which he’s insisted on his achievement of cinematic substancelessness, he’s also tossed off comments about Spring Breakers as a movie about “female empowerment.” What this means is he’s either pandering to the audience’s need for a message or suggesting that the idea of female empowerment is a kind of candy, a junky fantasy. While we might get some rush from their ruthlessness, the realization of a feminist vision is hardly his goal. If female empowerment was actually the issue, maybe the girls would have massacred, not the black gang members and rivals of their boyfriend-collaborator, but instead their grinning, eager, white male peers from the beach, the ones who’d been yanking off bikinis and circling passed out women like sharks (its not insignificant that Korine’s climactic image of power is Vanessa Hudgens gunning down Gucci Mane in his hot tub). Korine’s vague idea of feminism is ultimately nothing more than a marketing gimmick for the film; putting his “girls” as he affectionately calls them in balaclavas seems less a nod to real-life empowered females Pussy Riot, and more of a smirk. And truly, what could be more marketable than this hysterical, well-trodden male fantasy of female power: interchangeably beautiful, half-naked girls, dancing with rifles; these are women without identity, incapable of much emotion other than excitability, “sociopaths,” as Korine himself has said.
Korine’s insistence on superficial fun repeats, of course, the mantra of the very culture in which Spring Breakers is absorbed, and it is this commitment to superficiality and fun that inspires people, in real life, to threaten rape victims who come forward. If Spring Breakers can have any place in our culture, if it can be something worth seeing, its worth must be located in its frightening capacity to capture a world we dismiss as “just fun,” to capture the seductions of a world we refuse to understand. And there is potentially something valuable about being subject to this world without the assurances of critique, without being able to congratulate ourselves on knowing that we are well outside that environment, morally and experientially. There might even be something valuable about coming to the film expecting a play of surface and light, and instead glimpsing something profoundly real and deep and present.
The scenes that are most difficult to watch are not the more spectacular scenes of violence and revenge, but the ordinary, familiar parties on the beach that could be pulled from any Google image search of “spring break” or from any music video; what is hardest to stomach is so much “fun.” In making the party scenes, some of the most difficult to endure moments in American film history, Korine effectively brings rape culture, masked as ever in the guise of party culture, into the bright sunny dancing daylight. Which is to say that what’s most compelling and infuriating, what ought to leave any viewer deeply unsettled, is simply seeing the world we live in, the world in which spring break is an experience of a lifetime, a world scored to Britney Spears and fueled by blue Kool Aid.
Credit: Publicity photo.
Several years ago a friend of a friend of mine received free tickets to a new production of The Taming of The Shrew in Washington D.C. and made the unfortunate decision of bringing me along. I grew dismayed as the play progressed, believing that it was perhaps impossible to try to reinterpret a play so rife with misogyny. I’ve listened to the many reasons people have provided for why this play is actually a critique of patriarchy, how the final scene is so obviously repellent that it is impossible for anyone, least of all Shakespeare, to be condoning these values. In researching others opinions, I found a review of Conall Morrison’s 2008 version of this play for The Royal Shakespeare Company by Peter Lathan, who stated “In our modern political correctness we tend to think that Shrew was a play about keeping women in their place, just as we relate Merchant (the companion piece to Shrew in the RSC Theatre Royal season) to anti-Semitism, but that, perhaps, says more about contemporary preoccupations than it does about Shakespeare, for certainly Conall Morrison’s Shrew is more about status than misogyny.”
In my mind, the fact that some people today do still find women and minority rights to be mere “contemporary preoccupations” rather than actual human rights issues, makes the issue of lauding or critiquing a new interpretation of an old play especially slippery. Generally speaking, new versions of older literary works strive to do one of two things: exalt the original author’s story, or else try to save it from the weight of its own history. I have always been particularly confused by some feminists’ desire to reignite old stories with female characters or else reinvent female characters from days yore. We have so few new stories that delve into current female experience, that taking the time to further empower these older works seems to actually reinforce the notion that literature is a man’s world, and that the most women can do is amend these staple stories, rather than writing new works of their own.
Tim Burton’s new version of Alice in Wonderland is in some ways a feminist dream. It contains a screenplay written by a woman, Linda Woolverton, who strives to provide her audience with a self-actualized Alice, an Alice who is a warrior, rather than a princess. In this new chapter, Alice is 19 years old and at the mercy of a decidedly anti-feminist Victorian age, in which her main option in life is marrying an unimaginative bore of a Duke who, his mother warns Alice, has “digestive issues.” Rather than heed the sage advice of her mother, Alice does not don a corset, but rather begins chasing a real life rabbit she seems to remember from her dreams. She falls deep down the rabbit hole where she ends up in “Underland”, welcomed by several talking animals, all of whom want her to be the champion who fights the terrifying Jabberwocky and, in doing so, defeat the evil Red Queen.
Perhaps on its own this would actually be a fantastically good story. The problem is, it bares little or no relation to the actual text of Alice in Wonderland, which is not a fantasy or action-adventure novel, but a small and clever little book, filled with imaginative puzzles, rhymes, word games and mathematical problems, much more akin to a female version of The Phantom Tollbooth or Harold and The Purple Crayon than Star Wars or Lord of The Rings. The original Alice was neither a princess nor a warrior; she was a little girl. The book is actually refreshingly free of gender stereotypes. Alice is portrayed as smart and imaginative, filled with wonder at the world around her, but the focus is never so much on Alice per say, as it is on the world itself. In some ways, the wonderful thing about Alice in Wonderland is that it provided girls with a story which centered around their perspective of a fantasy world, but could ultimately be relatable to a little boy as well. By drawing more attention to the gender norms of Victorian England, Woolverton actually creates issues of sexism which never existed in the original edition.
This decision by Woolverton and Burton is a shame for a variety of reasons. First, because there is nothing interesting or controversial about showing that Victorian women were dealt a tough hand, and as such, there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to force this particular trope onto this particular story. Second, it is reductionist. Why is it we have to see a woman play the role of a classic warrior in order to view her story as important enough to necessitate a big blockbuster movie? Lastly, it simply obscures the small joys that come from reading the original work. Many of Tim Burton’s films effectively capture the bizarre and otherworldly language of childhood; Alice in contrast seems like a composite of typical CGI images, chase scenes and the requisite action sequences that pop out of the screen, but fail to leave any sense of haunting after the credits roll on.
In the end, I find myself yearning for visions of female agency which are neither critiques of a patriarchal past, nor visions of an equally patriarchal future, wherein women are only valued if they are seen as tough and warrior like as their male predecessors. Perhaps Carroll’s original story worked because it wasn’t about what it meant to be a woman at all. Instead, it was about a particular girl and her particularly curious adventures into a world of nonsense so unique there still hasn’t been a film version which has really done it justice.
Critics have been hard on Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby since it opened last week. This latest film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous (and famously unfilmable) novel is pulling down a 55 on Metacritic and a 50 percent unfavorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Joe Morgenstern went so far as to call the film “dreadful” and said it “derogates the artistry of Fitzgerald.”
You might think, then, that the people who know Fitzgerald’s novel best would have the most disapproving view of the movie. To test that hypothesis, we asked five English professors who specialize in American literature to take in an early showing and share their thoughts. And to our surprise, they liked it. Of course, they had their problems with the movie, too, some of which are less minor than others. But they praised Carey Mulligan for turning in arguably the best version of Daisy Buchanan the silver screen has ever seen, and there was abundant acclaim for Leo as Jay. They also admired the way Luhrmann pulled material from Fitzgerald’s short stories and his first draft of Gatsby in order to create a screenplay that isn’t quite a facsimile (in a good way) of the finished novel.
And, as you can read below, they actually applauded Luhrmann for omitting the most famous line of the novel.
1. Kirk Curnutt, Troy University
What I most hoped Luhrmann would nail is Daisy’s depiction.
Because, honestly, Fitzgerald didn’t, and none of her previous cinematic incarnations did either.
Of course, we have no idea how Lois Wilson fared in the lost 1926 silent. The only thing the trailer reveals is that Georgia Hale as Myrtle Wilson could inflate her eyes as big as this lady. Betty Field in 1949 played Daisy like your best friend’s spunky little sister, while Mira Sorvino in 2000 had nice hair. As for Mia Farrow, I’ll only say that if I play her clips at home my Labrador runs in circles wondering who stole her squeak toy.
Carey Mulligan is as good as we can expect from a character that is even more of a cipher than Jay Gatsby. She conveys Daisy’s forced gaiety at the Buchanans’ estate and doesn’t sound screechy-silly delivering the “beautiful little fool” line. Mulligan’s melancholy in later scenes has a wan as opposed to hysterical quality that I found stirring. I love that Luhrmann lets Daisy attempt to telephone Gatsby at the moment Wilson arrives to take revenge.
It’s time we empathize rather than vilify the golden girl. One minute you’re a 22-year-old overgrown woman/child raised to sit on couches and yawn, married to a philandering slab of roast beef, miserable even if you’re described as not happy but not unhappy either, and next thing you know literary critics are calling you a “bitch goddess” for decades on end.
Maybe I missed it adjusting my 3D glasses, but I was glad Baz cut the “voice full of money” line. I’ve never understood whether coming from Gatsby it’s admiration or an insult. All I know is that I myself have long wanted to save Daisy — though I wouldn’t run out into the road to do it.
2. Michael DuBose, Penn State University
When someone assembles an edition using all the available variants of a text, we call that an “eclectic” volume. These are often put together to unify a book’s textual history. Baz Luhrmann does something similar with his Great Gatsby. Instead of slavishly adhering to Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, Luhrmann takes cues from an early version of the novel, some of the short stories, and Fitzgerald’s own life. The result is a movie slightly different from its source, but no less authentic.
This comes through most clearly in Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Jay Gatsby. DiCaprio seems to take his inspiration from Fitzgerald’s first draft of the novel, Trimalchio. In that text, Gatsby is edgier, more mysterious, and more neurotic. DiCaprio’s Gatsby is equal parts vulnerable and calculating. His character’s mannerisms are carefully crafted and rehearsed, but that poise belies an imposter complex that DiCaprio acts to perfection. The ubiquitous “Old Sport,” for example, totters between casual endearment and desperate refrain. It’s the lynchpin keeping Gatsby’s whole identity from unraveling. DiCaprio almost swears it out as an incantation against the façade crumbling.
There are echoes of Fitzgerald’s “Winter Dreams” and “Absolution” along with Trimalchio, and even a nod to the “Rich girls don’t marry poor boys” line from the author’s youth. Most of it works, but sometimes the concept falls flat. (The “rich girls” line, specifically, is blurted without any context.) However, we know what we’re getting with Luhrmann; he’s going to execute the grand set pieces to perfection, but will stumble with the nuanced stuff. The director clearly shares Jordan Baker’s enthusiasm for large parties: whenever there are more than five people in a scene, the film sizzles. When there are fewer, it drags. Overall, Luhrmann has assembled an eclectic movie that may not be great, but is certainly Gatsby.
3. Joseph Fruscione, George Washington University
He did it innocently, but a student gave me a spoiler a few days before. I knew that the framing device would be Nick Carraway — in a sanitarium. Whether it was for physical or (more likely) mental health I wasn’t sure, but this colored my expectations.
I was cautiously optimistic. Gatsby is not easily adaptable, yet Luhrmann — like his style or not — is skilled and creative. We know we’re going to get edginess, hyperactive visuals and sounds, and the same “grand vision” that Nick ascribes to Gatsby’s entire persona.
The film is very impressive. I knew Luhrmann was drawing from the novel and draft, Trimalchio, such as during the second party. And the institutionalized Nick frame? It’s bold, but it smartly conveys his unreliability and shows him writing the story. Except for a few disappointing cuts — say, Gatsby’s father and the funeral — Luhrmann deftly merges his style with Fitzgerald’s, such as in the first Gatsby party or the alcohol-fueled tension at Myrtle and Tom’s apartment. Luhrmann excels in adding visual details in the spirit of the novel: the “JG” insignia adorning virtually everything in Gatsby’s home, or the “ad finis fidelis” (“faithful to the end”) on the property’s main gates that echoes Fitzgerald’s description of Gatz–Gatsby.
The strongest scene was the Gatsby–Daisy reunion. It was awkward, funny, garish — and spot on. DiCaprio and Mulligan captured the reunion’s tense yet tender nature, and Maguire just as nicely played the straight man in Gatsby’s engineered scene. Equally strong was Joel Edgerton as Tom, who embodied his smug, entitled, and controlling personality, particularly during the Plaza confrontation.
Separating the teacher-scholar in me — especially one who specializes in American literature and adaptation — from the reader–moviegoer is tricky. Yes, Luhrmann’s Gatsby is dynamic, loud, different, and vibrant. It changes scenes and language, leaves out some, and adds others. It’s also brilliant.
4. Sara Kosiba, Troy University; Program Director of the 12th International F. Scott Fitzgerald Conference
Critics have said for years that The Great Gatsby is an un-filmable book, and I’ve largely been in agreement. My love for Fitzgerald’s book stems from the poetry of language and the descriptions on the page. When word of Baz Luhrmann’s new film began to circulate and included the detail that it would be filmed in 3D, my fellow Fitzgerald aficionados and I began to joke of “Eckleburg eyes” leering out from the screen. I am pleased to say that my recent viewing of the film was not nearly the potential nightmare I envisioned.
Luhrmann’s film maintains a strong sense of the highs and lows in Fitzgerald’s original. Unlike the well known 1974 version starring Robert Redford (which I always found washed out and flat), this new incarnation of Gatsby captures the vibrancy and richness of Fitzgerald’s fictional world. The 3D technique adds to this richness by never seeming gimmicky or false.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan do an outstanding job of capturing the inner conflict within Gatsby and Daisy. One of my quibbles would be with Tobey Maguire’s Nick. I think it may be more the script than the acting on Maguire’s part, but one of the details I love in the novel is Nick’s unreliability as a narrator, something that does not come through as clearly in this version (although the sanitarium framing device works well, and the insider reference to celebrated editor Max Perkins in the title of it is a nice touch).
Despite seeing other pros (the costumes) and cons (some of the settings), I do find this the best film version of Gatsby to date. Luhrmann’s intentions are in line with the soul of the novel, although I hope that it will not become a modern replacement for the actual poetry of the original.
5. Doni M. Wilson, Houston Baptist University
Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby delivers in the categories that viewers might expect: the settings, the costumes, the slick and stylized look that accompanies all of Lurhmann’s visual pyrotechnics. All of the hype about the music faded away as the film progressed: it just seemed to underscore the excitement of the Jazz Age without being an anachronistic distraction. It wasn’t your parents’ Gatsby, but why should it have been?
Once I got through the shock of Nick Carraway writing his retrospective book from an institution, I was able to concentrate more on the entire reason I was excited about this film: Leonardo DiCaprio. Now let me say, no one can pull off a pink suit like Leo, and he looks the part, but I just did not understand the accent. What was the accent? Why did it change from scene to scene? Why did he have to say “Old Sport” like “Ol Spore,” dropping his ds and ts? Why why why? Other than that, he was perfect. I don’t think he should have screamed quite so loudly in the Plaza Hotel scene, because it made it seem like Daisy was rejecting him for anger management problems, but perhaps I quibble here.
Carey Mulligan’s Daisy Fay Buchanan was definitely a step up from Mia Farrow, but she didn’t seem to command the attention of the other actors, and it made me want to see more of Jordan Baker and Myrtle Wilson on the screen. Tobey Maguire as Nick was a pleasant surprise, and his understated portrayal made sense.
But the absolute, hands-down, best actor in this film is Joel Edgerton playing Tom Buchanan. His physical presence and spot-on delivery convinced me that he understood Fitzgerald’s vision the most acutely, and he should win an Oscar for this role.