Baz Luhrman’s new 3D version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s acclaimed novel about the Jazz Age, THE GREAT GATSBY, is an extravagant cinematic vision of some of the basic themes in the book. Ultimately, it tells a tragic, but somewhat sordid, story of how immorality, wishful thinking, gluttony, greed, jealousy, adultery, carelessness, hedonism, and an obsessive focus on material wealth bring tragedy. The movie misses some of the novel’s major nuances, such as the extended reflections and important details surrounding Gatsby’s funeral, but it captures the novel’s spirit while paying homage to the literary contributions of both Fitzgerald and the book.
Basically, THE GREAT GATSBY tells the tragic love story of a poor soldier, named James Gatz, who falls in love with Daisy, a careless girl from upper crust society in Louisville. Having changed his name to J. or Jay Gatsby, he pretends to come from a rich Midwest family. However, World War I intervenes and, still being poor, Gatsby couldn’t return to Daisy right away after the end of the war. So, Daisy marries a wealthy former college athlete, Tom Buchanan.
Daisy and Tom move to East Egg on Long Island in New York. Five years later, Gatsby shows up in Long Island. Now suddenly rich, but probably with bootleg and gambling racket money, Gatsby rents a huge nouveau riche house right across the bay from Tom and Daisy’s, on West Egg. Gatsby holds extravagant parties at his house, hoping that Daisy will come one night, but she never does. So, Gatsby asks Daisy’s poor cousin, Nick Carraway, to invite Daisy to tea at the guesthouse Nick rents from Gatsby’s neighbor, and Gatsby will unexpectedly show up. Nick knows that Daisy’s husband Tom has a mistress, so he agrees to Gatsby’s plan.
Gatsby and Daisy resume their love affair. [SPOILERS FOLLOW] However, Gatsby eventually grows impatient with her. He wants her to tell her husband that she always loved Gatsby, not him. This leads to an angry confrontation between Gatsby, Daisy and Tom in front of Nick and Nick’s casual girlfriend, who’s a longtime friend of Daisy. One thing leads to another, and Gatsby is tragically murdered by the husband of Tom’s mistress.
Narrating this story is Daisy’s cousin, Nick, who’s writing the story as part of his therapy in a sanitarium for alcoholics. The original book by Fitzgerald is full of sometimes cynical, sometimes psychological, sometimes moral, and sometimes social insights and details from Nick. A movie can’t possibly convey all of those insights and details, but Director Baz Luhrman nevertheless does a good job of incorporating some of them. He does a fine job of capturing the more important insights and symbols that lead up to the novel’s famous ending about the flashing green light on the pier outside Daisy’s home.
THE GREAT GATSBY brilliantly bookends Fitzgerald’s tragic story by opening and closing on the logo that Gatsby has fashioned for himself and his house. The art direction and costumes are beautiful, even when they focus on the darker aspects of the story, characters, and setting. It all looks gloriously extravagant in 3D, but the 3D effects draw viewers into the story and characters, something that the book doesn’t always seem to accomplish.
Leonardo DiCaprio does a great job portraying Gatsby, both the mysterious rich man and the hopeful, romantic poor man. If the other actors at times pale in comparison to him, that’s not necessarily their fault. That’s because the mature DiCaprio has become such a good actor himself. This also seems true of the book, however, where, when Gatsby finally reveals the truths about himself and his actions, the reader can’t help but sympathize with him while still recognizing the personal flaws that bring him to his tragic end. DiCaprio IS Gatsby.
Some critics and Fitzgerald fans have criticized the extravagance of this version of GATSBY. Ironically, however, by criticizing the extravagance of Luhrman’s portrayal, which comes complete with lavish 3D images, these critics are missing the point of the movie, and a major point in the book – that the materialistic and emotional excesses of the rich in New York City during the early 1920s brought out the darkness that lurks in the sinful hearts of all people. As the book clearly suggests at a couple points, in the debauched excesses of the 1920s, America replaced God with the daily personal concerns, including materialistic possessions, of private and public life, such as the all-encompassing search for “the American Dream.”
All that said, Fitzgerald is no religious moralist, so THE GREAT GATSBY doesn’t really have a Christian or a biblical worldview. It’s more like a somewhat cynical and disillusioned humanist critique of extravagant wealth, extravagant dreams and extravagant desires. The book’s ending, and the movie’s as well, says that these hopes and goals are unattainable and, even if we do attain them, they will never leave us satisfied. Of course, in the Christian worldview of the New Testament, the only and best attainable hope and goal is establishing a deep and profound personal, and moral, relationship with God through Jesus Christ and His Gospel. Through such a relationship, we are able to establish more fulfilling relationships with our fellow brothers and sisters, love our neighbors as ourselves, get our basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter met, and obtain real glimpses of the wonderful joy we will have with Jesus in Heaven.
THE GREAT GATSBY also contains some foul language, an implied sex scene, a brief montage of implied sex scenes, brief violence, lots of alcohol use, and some scenes of drunken revelry. For example, Tom forces Nick to party with his mistress, her sister and some other friends in the city. Before the others arrive, Nick sits awkwardly in the living room of the apartment Tom has bought for his mistress, while Tom and the married woman can clearly be heard having relations behind the closed bedroom door. There is also a montage of shots showing Gatsby and Daisy in bed kissing, but nothing explicit is shown there. The director has added these shots and scenes, while the book is more PG than PG-13. All this content, however, as well as the cynical, disillusioned, sad comments about unattainable that conclude both the novel and the movie, warrants extreme caution.
The famous ending of THE GREAT GATSBY says that true satisfaction is always unattainable. That is true, BUT only if we seek satisfaction apart from God through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Let us, therefore, as the great apostle writes in Hebrews 12:2, “Fix our eyes upon Jesus” and, as Jesus commands in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the Kingdom [or reign] of God and His righteousness.”