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.
TEXT SIZE - +
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

Analysts Warn of Regional Proxy Conflict in Afghanistan

Analysts warn if Kabul’s neighbors do not start to cooperate, competing desires for influence could deteriorate into a bloody proxy war in the country More

Saudi Intelligence Chief Replaced

Bandar bin Sultan came under criticism for supporting al Qaida, prompting King Abdallah to wrest Syria operations away from him in February, handing them to Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef More

Poetry Magazine editor Don Share talks what makes a good poem with VOA's David Byrd

What makes a good poem? And is poetry as viable an art form as it once was? To find out, VOA's David Byrd spoke to Don Share, the editor of Poetry Magazine. More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Google Buys Drone Companyi
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X
George Putic
April 15, 2014
In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ray Bonneville Sings the Blues and More on New CD

Singer/songwriter Ray Bonneville has released a new CD called “Easy Gone” with music that reflects his musical and personal journey from French-speaking Canada to his current home in Austin,Texas. The eclectic artist’s fan base extends from Texas to various parts of North America and Europe. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin.
Video

Video Millions Labor in Pakistan's Informal Economy

The World Bank says that in Pakistan, roughly 70 percent work in the so-called informal sector, a part of the economy that is unregulated and untaxed. VOA's Sharon Behn reports from Islamabad on how the informal sector impact's the Pakistani economy.
Video

Video Passover Celebrates Liberation from Bondage

Jewish people around the world are celebrating Passover, a commemoration of their liberation from slavery in Egypt more than 3,300 years ago. According to scripture, God helped the Jews, led by Moses, escape bondage in Egypt and cross the Red Sea into the desert. Zlatica Hoke reports that the story of the Jewish Exodus resonates with other people trying to escape slave-like conditions.
Video

Video Police Pursue Hate Crime Charges Against Kansas Shooting Suspect

Prosecutors are sifting through the evidence in the wake of Sunday’s shootings in a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri that left three people dead. A suspect in the shootings taken into custody is a white supremacist. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, he was well-known to law enforcement agencies and human rights groups alike.
Video

Video In Eastern Ukraine, Pro-unity Activists Emerge from Shadows

Amid the pro-Russian uprisings in eastern Ukraine, there is a large body of activists who support Ukrainian unity and reject Russian intervention. Their activities have remained largely underground, but they are preparing to take on their pro-Moscow opponents, as Henry Ridgwell reports from the eastern city of Donetsk.
Video

Video Basket Maker’s Skills Have World Reach

A prestigious craft show in the U.S. capital offers one-of-a-kind creations by more than 120 artists working in a variety of media. As VOA’s Julie Taboh reports from Washington, one artist lucky enough to be selected says sharing her skills with women overseas is just as significant.
Video

Video UN Report Urges Speedier Action to Avoid Climate Disaster

A new United Nations report says the world must switch from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources to control the effects of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the report (Sunday) following a meeting of scientists and government representatives in Berlin. The comprehensive review follows two recent IPCC reports that detail the certainty of climate change, its impacts and in this most recent report what to do about it. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble has the details.
AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Border Crossings

With over five million records sold worldwide, singer-songwriter MIKA is best known for his hit single “Grace Kelly.” MIKA joins "Border Crossings" to perform live and to talk with host Larry London about his latest CD “The Origin Of Love.”