The Great Gatsby still presents a decent look into the ’empty’ lives of the ruling class, but Baz Luhrmann’s sanitised past is hamstrung by an inconsistent attempt at modernisation.
Scott Fitzgerald’s novel seems to be dear to a great number of people – to the extent I am almost ashamed to say I have not read it. However, what I have discovered after at last flicking through, is that celebrated as it might be, the book is undeniably anti-Semitic.
The tone of the narrator goes to great lengths to get across Meyer Wolfsheim’s ‘Jewishness’, in so far as he caricatures him as a big-nosed, beady-eyed, shifty swindler. He can’t be trusted, never gets his hands dirty, and worst of all, he cheated the great American past-time – fixing the World Series trophy final playoff, or whatever that dull, dull sport does to decide who ‘won’.
It’s odd to have discovered this now, after so many of my otherwise spot-on lefty friends have raved to me about the brilliant critique of vacuous ruling-class life Fitzgerald supposedly presents. In the run up to the release of the latest screen adaptation, and indeed after seeing it, nobody seems to want to talk about race, religion or indeed gender issues in Gatbsy.
I’m probably not the best person to read into the silence on the anti-semitism in the book, being an illiterate as I am. However, I will comment on the film. Perhaps it is not such a surprise with regards to ‘after’ viewing, people are so mute about the issue of vilification of Jews, as one of the most notable things Baz Luhrmann’s team have done is to utterly sanitize the source material regarding race. By sanitise here, I don’t mean it is totally removed, but rather recontextualised. The anti-Semitism now lies not with the narrative from the lovable Nick Carraway (Tobey McGuire), but with the loathsome Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).
As far as I could tell, there were no direct references to Wolfsheim being a Jew in the film – however others who have watched claim Buchanan, the villain of the piece, refers to Wolfsheim as a “kike”. This comfortably resituates the bigotry of the initial text as being the preserve of horrible elitists, the destroyers of other people’s lives and happiness, rather than the rather more disturbing assertion, that sometimes protagonists might be bigots too.
“Fair enough,” you might think, “if you want a modern audience to sympathise with your story, you can’t tell it from the perspective of Walt Disney.” However, by placing the questions of racism and anti-semitism in such a ‘safe’ good vs bad binary, Luhrmann and Co. unintentionally raise a few troubling questions.
Firstly, is it worth altering a text to make it “21st century friendly” – why not just write something ‘new’ inspired by it? Surely it’s wrong to change history to help you sell it to your audience’s morals. I find “Mein Kampf” thoroughly hideous – would it be palatable to cut out all the racist bits in order to make a 3D feature film out of it? No, probably not. Of course that is taking things to an absurd degree, but frankly it feels dishonest and distasteful none the less.
Secondly, if you are going to wrestle with that issue successfully, surely you have to modernise the text’s attitudes in their entirety? If you’re going to make bad guys racist and good guys tolerant, why not also change the extremely dim way the story seems to view women? They aren’t so much treated as human beings, more shuttlecocks batted back and forth between competing strains of masculinity. This takes on both figurative and literal forms.
First with the doomed Myrtle Wilson, Tom Buchanan’s mistress, the woman is physically beaten as men contest possession of her. Tom brutally slaps her down during one of the film’s first booze-fuelled romps. When her husband George discovers she’s having an affair, he too draws blood with a blow to the head we never actually see. Then, figuratively, the diminutive Daisy (Carrey Mulligan) is tugged and strained between her husband and Gatsby as they argue angrily over who she loves, like warring siblings squabbling over the rights to Stretch Armstrong (remember that piece of rubbery crap? Now that’s how you do rose-tinted reminiscence, Baz).
The scene is totally surreal in that each man takes it in turns to tell the other “she never loved you”, and so on, whilst Daisy remains relatively mute. The fact that Daisy doesn’t really have a character of her own becomes unnervingly clear – and besides having a pleasingly symmetrical face and cute hair, you’re left wondering why Di Caprio’s Jay Gatsby is actually so obsessed over her. She might wear nice dresses but has all the personality of a pillow.
The biggest problem then, is perhaps not that Luhrmann has altered the attitudes of the source material at all, but rather that he has done it inconsistently – by suggesting that the anti-semitic tone needed changing, but not the grossly reductive role of women in the piece, the film seems to be making a statement that this is somehow normalised – historically proven to be natural.
The other uncomfortable question Luhrmann’s alterations raise is what effect might these inconsistencies have on the reception of the film’s message? Rather than a biting critique of the trappings of fame and wealth, or being about the discovery of the aspiring poor that being rich is hollow and pointless despite the glamour, the film seems to have sparked thoughtless admiration amongst many.
The score, unashamedly modern, includes an uncomfortable amount of Jay Z’s self-assured, decadent swagger, linking it with a whole host of assumptions about the lives of the famous, to which anyone can aspire if only they believe in themselves. I can see a million “Gatsby” parties emerging off the back of this, all including Jay Z blaring in the background – look, we’ve made it too! Fashion trends meanwhile are shifting toward “20s glamour”, and flappers are speculated to be on the come-back – but wasn’t the point supposed to be these are people we don’t want to emulate?
Because rather than a coherent criticism, or an unflinchingly authentic portrayal of 20s society, Luhrmann’s film comes across as glitzy, sharp and in glorious THREEEEE-DEEEEE – it puts style before substance, and it does it to the detriment of whatever message it once contained. As one of my friends put it afterwards, “It’s like Baz Luhrmann wanted to direct a music video for Lady Gaga set in the 1920s, but got lumbered with this job instead.”
The film does a lot right, it passes quickly, it’s sharply written, well acted and it still tells an engaging story with an – albeit confused – moral that money, even in vast quantities, can’t change the past. It’s a lesson that clearly didn’t put off Luhrmann from trying to rewrite Fitzgerald though.
Gatsby then, good, but not great.