Judging Luhrmann’s Gatsby: Five English Scholars Weigh In

May 17, 2013 | 1 book mentioned 23 6 min read

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.”

coverYou 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.

coverThis 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.

, a staff writer for The Millions, writes the Brainiac ideas column for the Boston Globe and blogs about fatherhood and family life at growingsideways.wordpress.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @kshartnett.


  1. I just had to laugh at Kirk Kurnutt’s “mis-speak” when he said, “What I most hoped Luhrmann would nail is Daisy’s depiction.
    Because, honestly, Fitzgerald didn’t, and none of her previous incarnations did either.”
    Did not Fitzgerald write Daisy’s character in the first place? Come on, folks. Did anyone proofread this article?

  2. Good point, Joe. I should have said ‘other cinematic incarnations.’ Blame it on a 300 word limit.

    But speaking of proofing, the name is Curnutt. C-U-R-N-U-T-T. Get the bellylaughs of superiority out before you pull the trigger.

  3. Curnutt: “I love that Luhrmann lets Daisy attempt to telephone Gatsby at the moment Wilson arrives to take revenge.”

    That’s actually a Luhrmann zinger. We *think*, hearing the phone ring, that it’s Daisy calling, and so, evidently, does Gatsby. Just at the moment when he thinks he’s won, his personal narrative is ended. But then, when all the shooting is over, we see Nick hanging up the phone. Right up to the end, Gatsby thinks he can beat those careless people, but he can’t.

    Thanks to all five scholars for their incisive comments.

  4. Good responses / critiques from everyone. I will say that I agree with Doni M. Wilson regarding Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan. I thought he did a fantastic job with the role and even gave (in my opinion) Tom more depth than is exhibited by the character in the book. The scene where he is staring at Myrtle’s dead body on the table was pretty amazing as you could see all the various emotions playing over his face until finally his control wins out. It was very well done.

    It’s quite a feat to stand out to such a degree when acting in the same film as DiCaprio. I’d hope he gets a “Best Supporting” nod.

  5. Ha, no problem, Joe. All in good fun. Hope I didn’t sound too snotty :) I apologize if I did.

    And thanks, Michael. Clearly I wanted Daisy to make that call so bad I must’ve blinked on the shot of Nick phoning. Talk about wishful thinking!

  6. That the director might have used earlier texts and drafts seems silly. After all, a draft is not what the author finally had in mind. We know the book as it is and has come down over the years to us and NOT variations of other earlier fictions.

    To place Nick in an asylum is just plain dumb. After all, Nick is really the only real character in the sense of a character as one who develops and grows. Gatsby is the vehicle for t his growth. Thus to depict Nick as mentally unstable and also the author of the Gatsby story is to dismiss Nick’s growh from his experience with Gatsby and his crowd.
    And, alas, I miss the funeral preparations when each of the characters tell Nick why he can not attend the funeral and we get to meet briefly Gatsby’s parents, who tell us how Jay as a boy kept the diary, a model, it seems of th eearly Puritan tradition to improve oneself, and the diary also used by Ben Franklin for self-improvement.

  7. I didn’t see the movie, I probably won’t. But the book is so beautiful, the prose so magical, I would like to recast Gatsby.

    1: Nick – okay with Sam or Tobey
    2: Daisy – Kiera Knightly and no wigs. Both Mia and Carey look terrible, neither are beautiful enough, I thought Redford was great as Gatsby.

  8. Luhrmann won me over when, in his recent Colbert interview, he spoke repeatedly, with feeling, about how Fitzgerald suffered at being considered a failure in his own time.

    I know that doesn’t guarantee a good movie; but it guarantees a director with his heart in the right place.

  9. I liked Kirk’s take on Daisy and agree, Fitzgerald doesn’t quite make me feel she’s real and convincing (which I know are vague words applied to a subjective judgment). I think it’s particularly noticeable with Daisy because she HAS to be there for the story to work.

  10. I would like to ask the esteemed experts on Fitzgerald’s writing, whom have obviously read, analysed and dissected the text on Gatsby 100 times more than I have: where in the movie, was the Power and Carelessness of Beauty accurately and honestly portrayed? Was the limitless, colossal hope of the main character evoked truly, which should grant the viewer a heavy, bittersweet illusion as does the book? Does the movie expose an inextricable link between irony and jealousy regarding the two affairs and the climax therein? All I saw and experienced in the movie was an aesthetic visual account of “love lost”, which can only be appreciated by viewers who will only look into the plot at surface level. Was the “pretty girls don’t marry poor boys” notion accurately portrayed that moves something inside the viewer? Perhaps partially. Was the greatest book ever written, which strikes a different truth in the lives of many readers, exposed in a manner that is timeless, like the book? True, the movie was modernized to appeal to the current generation. However the magical truth of the book, which has struck a chord deep in the reality of readers for more than 80 years, has been diluted, over-dramatized, and adjusted to suit the director/screenwriter’s take on it, which has done nothing other than detract from the value and impact of the greatest story ever written. No, I feel the movie has not done any justice – for in Capote’s words, the story of Gatsby is as true and perfect as an orange. To add or detract from this masterpiece is to dilute the sheer magic and upset the balance by which it was created. Fitzgerald would roll in his grave if he saw it – not because of 3D effects, the acting, or other such semantics – but simply because the story shifts, folds before, and dilutes from the truth and value of what he experienced and the magical truth of which he created.

  11. Dominic, I think you got to the crux of the matter when you asked “where in the movie . . . .” Because this *is* a movie–not a book. Certainly something will always be lost in translation when a literary text is adapted into a Hollywood production. I never thought–and I think I speak for my colleagues when I say this–this would be a true articulation of Ftizgerald’s prose. That would be impossible! I think Luhrmann knows that, too, which is why the movie is not a straight, scene-for-scene retelling of the novel.

    Instead, this movie is big-budget summer blockbuster. And, at that level, it succeeds.

    We, as teachers, hope this flick will generate interest in Fitzgerald, bring people back to the art, and spark discussions about the relevance of this work in the twenty-first century. We want people to start talking about all the features you describe! Because you’re right: no film can capture the scope, nuance, and beauty of the The Great Gatsby. .

    As for Fitzgerald turning over in his grave, I don’t know. The man was a professional author that liked to make money. And to spend money. He had no problem selling drama rights, movie rights, etc. if it meant expanding his readership. I like to think he would be tickled at all the attention.

  12. Ya , a lot of friends who read the book gave me their 2 cent review about the movie . But when I went to watch it , I was in awe .
    C’mon , you cant compare a movie to a book and say it not good enough . Thats simply cos a movie can’t be made long enough to fit everything in …
    My advice is just watch the movie for the love of it and try not to compare it to the book . It soo enjoyable then – the acting , the scripts , the songs , the directing …
    I am a movie addict who watches foreign films , vintage , and diverse genre’s and to me THE GREAT GATSBY was by far one of the most COMPLETE movies , in the sense it had everything a phenomenal movie should have

  13. I read recently that while Fitzgerald was working on the screenplay for “Gone With the Wind” he was told that only dialogue as written by Margaret Mitchell in the novel could be used, and he found this requirement difficult and discouraging. So whether he would be against the changes in Luhrmann’s/Pierce’s screenplay, we’ll never know, but we do know that he understood from his own experience that the concept that what is on the pages of a novel, no matter how revered, might not necessarily translate that well into a screenplay.

  14. Just want to add that I found this article and all of the subsequent comments in the discussion, regardless which side they fall on, most enjoyable. Thanks.

  15. These are all beautifully concise reviews: DuBose is spot on, and his one line sums up what I have been telling my students about the movie; that it is “slightly different from its source, but no less authentic.”

    One talking point for Doni M.Wilson: I actually LIKED DiCaprio’s overdone accent BECAUSE it was so garish and awkward, distracting and feigned; from a linguistic standpoint, no, it is not a particular accent, but an awkward conglomeration of past experience and the man he wants to be. That was a detail I noticed, and I loved it.

    Thanks for all the brief reviews!

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