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

Video China Investigates Powerful Former Security Chief

Analysts say move by President Xi is an effort to win more party support, take step toward economic reforms, removing those who would stand in way of change More

South Africa Land Reforms Still Contentious 20 Years Later

Activists argue that the pace of land reform is slow and biased; legal experts question how some proposed reforms would be implemented More

In Vietnam, Religious Freedoms Violated, UN Finds

Beliefs reportedly prompt heavy surveillance, intimidation and travel restrictions More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Gazans in Shelled School Sought Shelteri
X
Scott Bobb
July 30, 2014 8:16 PM
Israel's air and ground assault against Hamas-led fighters in Gaza has forced many Palestinians to flee their homes, seeking safety. But safe places are hard to find, as VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jabaliya.
Video

Video Gazans in Shelled School Sought Shelter

Israel's air and ground assault against Hamas-led fighters in Gaza has forced many Palestinians to flee their homes, seeking safety. But safe places are hard to find, as VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jabaliya.
Video

Video Rapid Spread of Ebola in West Africa Prompts Global Alert

Across West Africa, health officials are struggling to keep up with what the World Health Organization describes as the worst ebola outbreak on record. The virus has killed hundreds of people this year. U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders are watching the developments closely as they weigh what actions, if any, are needed to help contain the disease.
Video

Video Michelle Obama: Young Africans Need to Embrace Women's Rights

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama urged some of Africa's best and brightest to advocate for women's rights in their home countries. As VOA's Pam Dockins explains, Obama spoke to some 500 participants of the Young African Leaders Initiative, a six-week U.S.-based training and development program.
Video

Video Immigrant Influx on Texas Border Heats Up Political Debate

Immigrants from Central America continue to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in south Texas, seeking asylum in the United States, as officials grapple with ways to deal with the problem and provide shelter for thousands of minors among the illegal border crossers. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, the issue is complicated by internal U.S. politics and U.S. relations with the troubled nations that immigrants are fleeing.
Video

Video Study: Latino Students Most Segregated in California

Even though legal school segregation ended in the United States 60 years ago, one study finds segregation still occurs in the U.S. based on income and race. The University of California Los Angeles Civil Rights Project finds that students in California are more segregated by race than ever before, especially Latinos. Elizabeth Lee reports for VOA from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spat

China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video A Summer Camp for All the World

VIDEO: During workshops and social gatherings, the Global Youth Village summer camp encourages young people to cooperate and embrace their differences, while learning to communicate with people from other countries. VOA's Deborah Block has more.
Video

Video From Cantankerous Warlock to Incorruptible Priest, 'Harry Potter' Actor Embraces Diverse Roles

He’s perhaps best known as Mad Eye Moody, the whimsical wizard in the Harry Potter franchise. But character actor Brendan Gleeson's resume includes dozens of films, and he embraces all the characters he inhabits with equal passion. In an interview with VOA’s Penelope Poulou, Gleeson discussed his new drama "Calvary" and his secret to success.

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

The Hamilton Live

Acclaimed jazz saxophonist Tia Fuller has made a name for herself appearing with such high-profile artists as Beyonce, Esperanza Spalding, and Terri Lyne Carrington. Tia and her quartet performed music from her CD “Angelic Warrior” on our latest edition of "The Hamilton Live."