This is all to say that Luhrmann has had plenty of technical practice in grappling with cultural history before tackling that Towering Work of American Literature The Great Gatsby. Yet adapting Fitzgerald is not much like adapting Shakespeare, or even synthesizing a century of pop musicals—Gatsby is a slimmer, more concise work, but slippery and deceptively difficult to grasp and place onscreen. Witness the last theatrical release to reach across the bay at the green light, 1974's soft-focus nightmare (a low-budget A&E production, circa 2000, with the tantalizingly spot-on casting of Paul Rudd as Nick Carraway, remains, as yet, unseen by me). It shares a title and most major plot points and many lines of narration with the book of the same name, but despite fine performances from Robert Redford (as Gatsby) and a young-ish Sam Waterston (as Nick), it proceeds with a deadly, literal-minded trudge. It's tragic for the wrong reasons. Gatsby the novel is rich with memorable characters and themes, but it presents a filmmaker's burden by presenting those characters and themes in sentence after sentence of beautiful, impeccable prose. Beautiful sentences are not cinematic; Hunger Games sentences, unadorned by style or grace or wit beyond their spartan directness, are.
And yet how can you strip those sentences away from Gatsby? That question seems to have bedeviled the 1974 version's director, Jack Clayton, and wunderkind screenwriter, one Francis Ford Coppola, and judging from the new version, it ate away at Luhrmann, too. Despite his taste (and, at times, wonderful tastelessness) for visual dazzle, Luhrmann leaves chunks of text intact, or tries to. It's not always a bad idea; in the dialogue, delivered by a sterling cast, the Fitzgerald phrasing has stylized snap. When Leonard DiCaprio, as Gatsby, delivers his monologue-of-lies backstory to his new friend and next-door neighbor Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) in an automobile speeding out of Long Island toward Manhattan, the breathless (and coming from DiCaprio's mouth, typically insistent and intense) language tumbles out over the visualizations of Gatsby's fabrications (rich parents, war heroics, legitimate business success), keeping pace with each other like one of Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge mash-up numbers.
But poor Maguire, so able with dazed reaction shots, must also read passages from the novel in voiceover. Luhrmann and cowriter Craig Pearce come up with a device, in perhaps the most significant change to the text: the movie opens with Nick in a sanitarium, seeking treatment for alcohol and anger issues, among others. His story of summer in Roaring-Twenties Long Island is told first to a doctor and then, at the doctor's encouragement, into his typewriter. He explains how he came to West Egg, how his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), married to upper-class brute Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), turned out to have a shared past with his new-money neighbor Jay Gatsby, and how Gatsby threw impossibly elaborate parties with the equally impossible task of luring Daisy back into his orbit and reenacting the past he has idealized. The whole story, in other words, is framed by Nick—just as it was in the book.
As such, and given the presence of sanitariums in Fitzgerald's life as well as Tender Is the Night, the device isn't a desecration; it even provides a cue that perhaps Nick is not the stable, upright observer he wants to be. And sometimes, yes, I swooned just to hear Fitzgerald's sentences read over Luhrmann's gorgeous imagery (about which more in a moment). But preserving the literal narrative voice of Gatsby is a fool's errand; lines still need to be truncated, and truncation still results in moments where Nick's verbal explanations step on Luhrmann's visual ones. DiCaprio is an expressive enough actor that we don't need Nick explaining how he feels about Daisy; if his face can't quite take the place of Fitzgerald's prose, well, Maguire reading it aloud isn't going to help.