I saw The Great Gatsby a couple of weeks ago, and since then I’ve been pondering why I didn’t like it. I think I’ve got it figured out now. First of all, for those who don’t know me, I should explain my expectations going in. I am an English teacher and, while I haven’t taught this particular book in years, I was looking forward to seeing a new version of it. I hoped that for colleagues who do still teach it, the film would prove a valuable addition to their teaching.
So I knew the book, and I knew some of the literary background: the setting, the motifs, and so on. I had also seen commercials for the movie on TV as well as the full trailer in the movie theater. It looked like fun.
I was disappointed. Certainly they captured the visuals well: the over-the-top exuberance of the “Roaring Twenties,” complete with flappers en masse. The wardrobe people must have had a ball costuming this film. And the cinematographer had a field day as well.
They also made sure to include some of the most important symbolism of the novel: the grim valley of ashes between West Egg and Manhattan, overlooked by the huge billboard eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg; the general decadence of the “old money” and “new money” upper classes; and so on.
There were two things, though, that bothered me enough to spoil the whole movie for me. One was its lack of authenticity. The costuming, as I’ve mentioned, was wonderful, right down to the cigarette holders. All of the period scenery was accurate, at least in an idealized movie-world kind of way.
So why, oh why, did they do what they did to the music? There was rock music! Even worse, there was rap! There were a few recognizable twenties-era songs, but remixed into rock music! Flappers were jitterbugging to rap music!
This sacrilege, I guess, was at least partly due to the fact that Jay-Z, a rapper, is the executive producer. And I’m sure it makes the film more accessible to younger viewers other than the few who actually enjoy reading the novel in their English class. My daughter, who’s 20 years old, didn’t mind the anachronistic music at all.
The other problem with the film, for me, was the acting. It’s not that Leonardo diCaprio and Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan are bad actors. I have no idea whether they can act (though Tobey Maguire will always be Spiderman to me). Perhaps, on the contrary, they’re particularly good actors, because they managed to play their characters as if they were all caricatures: exaggerations of literary characters, characters who are fully aware that every move they make and everything they say has some larger-than-life significance. It was as if the whole film was some sort of over-the-top dream. They were overacting on purpose.
And that’s not what I wanted. I wanted a straight retelling of the story in the novel. I wanted period costumes and period music. I wanted historical accuracy in how the characters behaved. I wanted scenery that evoked how Manhattan and Long Island really might have looked in the 1920’s, at least in an idealized movie-world kind of way.
I wanted to be transported back to another era. Instead I was transported into someone else’s skewed dream of how that era should have looked. And I didn’t like it.
What did you think of The Great Gatsby? Post your thoughts below, and please repost if you like this blog!