News / Arts & Entertainment

Luhrmann Takes on Challenging Classic With 'The Great Gatsby'

Director Baz Luhrmann attends the Vanity Fair Tribeca Film Festival party  in New York,  April 16, 2013.
Director Baz Luhrmann attends the Vanity Fair Tribeca Film Festival party in New York, April 16, 2013.
Reuters
It is hailed as "the great American novel," but so far The Great Gatsby has defied attempts by some of Hollywood's top filmmakers to bring its lyrically romantic story and tragic characters to cinematic life.

But that didn't faze director Baz Luhrmann.

Luhrmann, known for his lavish productions, assembled a roster of stars led by Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Tobey Maguire in the latest incarnation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's mournful ode to the carefree, hedonistic 1920s and its youthful, wealthy and self-absorbed denizens.

One of the year's most anticipated films, The Great Gatsby opens in U.S. theaters on Friday and has been accorded the prestigious opening-night slot at the Cannes Film Festival on May 15.

As far back as 1926, just a year after the book was published, Hollywood has tried to capture and project Fitzgerald's artful prose onto the silver screen. A 1949 version starring Alan Ladd focused on Gatsby's criminal connections and even took significant liberties with the ending.

The last effort, apart from a TV film, in 1974 featured Robert Redford and Mia Farrow atop the marquee. Critics slammed it as lifeless and lugubrious, and the box office was a dismal $20.6 million.

Luhrmann aims to change its checkered history with a lush 3-D production rendered in his trademark eye-popping visual style that first dazzled fans in the surprise 2001 hit Moulin Rouge, which went on to win several Oscars.

But the challenges of adapting The Great Gatsby were mired in both its period source material and its cinematic failures.

Masters of illusion

Jay Gatsby is an enigmatic hero pining for a lost love in the person of the not always sympathetic Daisy Buchanan, played by Mulligan. The tragic love story is built around illusion,  but illusion might well be said to be Luhrmann's stock-in-trade.

Due to budgetary restraints, the Australian director abandoned his plan to shoot in New York, where the book is set, and moved the entire production to his native country.

In the end, he said: "It was great plus. We felt that we could create this grand illusion."

Even so, the production was plagued by everything from rain-drenching weather to on-set accidents, one of which resulted in a concussion for Luhrmann and shut down filming while he recovered.

Early on, the filmmakers asked themselves how they could make the classic story, indelibly linked to the 1920s, "feel like it was about now," as producer Douglas Wick put it.

Luhrmann agreed that the challenge lay in making the story  relevant for today's audiences, while respecting what DiCaprio called "American Shakespeare ... one of the most celebrated novels of all time."

"I wanted the film to feel like it would have felt to read Fitzgerald's novel in '25, "Luhrmann told Reuters, noting that Fitzgerald infused his novel with African-American street music and coined the term "Jazz Age."

"It made ... the book extremely pop cultural, extremely of the moment. It summed up the crazed, intoxicating times," he said of that music, adding, "But it doesn't do it for you now."

Enter Jay-Z, who was executive producer of the soundtrack.

In what Luhrmann called "a great collaboration," Jay-Z brought to fruition his idea of translating jazz into hip hop, with the help of music from Beyonce, Bryan Ferry, Fergie, Lana Del Ray and will.i.am.

Despite the 21st century concept of filming the movie in 3D and driven by contemporary music, Luhrmann remains confident that Gatsby's story is a timeless one. "It plays in any place at any time. And the central idea of Gatsby is universal," he said.

Hollow, or great romantic?

Even so, it can also be in the eye of the beholder, as DiCaprio said he discovered upon rereading the book as an adult.

"Everyone who reads it has their own interpretation of who these people are," the actor told reporters at a recent news conference, explaining how his own view on Gatsby had changed from his schoolboy impression of a great romantic, to one of a hollow figure of great sadness.

"It's incredibly nuanced, it's existential, and here at the center is this man that is incredibly hollow. He's searching for some sort of meaning in his life, and he's attached himself to this relic known as Daisy. She's a mirage," said DiCaprio.

"That's what's very difficult about making a movie about it. Everyone has their own personal attachment to this book and they feel like they know these characters on a very intimate level."

Maguire, as the movie's moral compass, Nick Carraway, reflected that even without updating, The Great Gatsby - which ends with the line "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past" - remains timeless and cautionary.

"In a lot of ways this book predicted the great [1929] crash," he said. "It's a book that talks about great opulence and wealth in America ... and the idea that the future is endless, and that we can keep consuming and living the way we do without any consequences."

"We've encountered it again in our modern era, and it's something that we keep doing," Maguire said.

"And it's not just an American novel in that regard. It's something that's happening worldwide."

The Great Gatsby, released by Warner Bros., opens in North American movie theaters on Friday and the following week in most of the rest of the world.

You May Like

Multimedia Social Media Documenting, Not Driving, Hong Kong Protests

Unlike in Arab Spring uprisings, pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong aren't relying on Twitter and Facebook to organize, but social media still plays a role More

Analysis: Occupy Central Not Exactly Hong Kong’s Tiananmen

VOA's former Hong Kong, Beijing correspondent compares and contrasts 1989 Tiananmen Square protest with what is now happening in Hong Kong More

Bambari Hospital a Lone Place of Help in Violence-Plagued CAR

Only establishment still functioning in CAR's second city is main hospital More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plainsi
X
October 01, 2014 10:45 AM
It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plains

It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests Draw New Supporters on National Holiday

On the 65th anniversary of the founding of Communist China, Hong Kong protesters are hoping to stage the largest pro-democracy demonstration since the 1989 Tiananmen protests. VOA's Brian Padden visited one of the protest sites mid-day, when the atmosphere was calm and where the supporters were enthusiastic about joining what they are calling the umbrella revolution.
Video

Video India's PM Continues First US Visit

India's prime minister is on his first visit to Washington, to strengthen political and economic ties between the world's oldest and the world biggest democracies. He came to the U.S. capital from New York, the first stop on his five-day visit to the country that denied him an entry visa in the past. From Washington, Zlatica Hoke reports Modi seemed most focused on attracting foreign investment and trade to increase job opportunities for his people.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Border Crossings

Matthew Wade sits down with "Border Crossings" host Larry London to talk about his new CD, “Diamond from Coal,” his fourth album with his band, My Silent Bravery.