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 Protests Continue in Ferguson, Spread to Other US Cities

Missouri officials say deployment of more than 2,000 National Guard soldiers helps curb second night of rampant arson and looting in Midwestern town More

Video Ebola, Crackdown on Illegals Hit Business in Guangzhou

Chinese city has largest community of Africans in Asia More

Video Legendary Lebanese Actress, Singer Sabah Dies at 87

Music and film diva, affectionately called 'Sabbouha' by millions of her fans, performed at Carnegie Hall in New York, Royal Albert Hall in London, Olympia in Paris, Sydney Opera House in Sydney More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Changei
X
November 24, 2014 10:09 PM
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Change

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Mali Attempts to Shut Down Ebola Transmission Chain

Senegal and Nigeria were able to stop small Ebola outbreaks by closely monitoring those who had contact with the sick person and quickly isolating anyone with symptoms. Mali is now scrambling to do the same. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Mali on what the country is doing to shut down the chain of transmission.
Video

Video Ukraine Marks Anniversary of Deadly 1930s Famine

During a commemoration for millions who died of starvation in Ukraine in the early 1930s, President Petro Poroshenko lashed out at Soviet-era totalitarianism for causing the deaths and accused today’s Russian-backed rebels in the east of using similar tactics. VOA’s Daniel Shearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests at a Crossroads

New public opinion polls in Hong Kong indicate declining support for pro-democracy demonstrations after weeks of street protests. VOA’s Bill Ide in Guangzhou and Pros Laput in Hong Kong spoke with protesters and observers about whether demonstrators have been too aggressive in pushing for change.
Video

Video US Immigration Relief Imminent for Mixed-Status Families

Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area may benefit from a controversial presidential order announced this week. It's not a path to citizenship, as some activists hoped. But it will allow more immigrants who arrived as children or who have citizen children, to avoid deportation and work legally. VOA's Victoria Macchi talks with one young man who benefited from an earlier presidential order, and whose parents may now benefit after years of living in fear.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Soul Lounge

Avery Sunshine is known for her irresistible combination of soul, jazz and gospel influences. She’s traveled the world entertaining audiences with her powerful voice, inspiring lyrics and infectious spirit. She joins host Shawna Renee on "The Soul Lounge" to perform and share the stories behind her new album, "The Sun Room."