Monday, May 13, 2013

A Reel Opinion: The Not-So-Great Gatsby

This past weekend, the latest adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s acclaimed novel The Great Gatsby was released in theatres. Although the film performed well at the box office ($51 million; good enough for second place domestically), it is struggling in critical circles. Movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 48% of critics gave it a positive rating (based on 152 reviews), and Metacritc reflects a score of 55 (out of 100); indicating mixed or average.
This is the second big-screen, big-effort to bring Fitzgerald’s book to life with mixed to dismal results. Considering the book’s stature in American literary history, and the pieces-and-parts involved in the adaptation attempts, the mixed results are a head-scratcher. A 1974 version, starring acting heavyweights Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, was a critical and financial flop despite the top-notch cast and a script written by Francis Ford Coppola. This new version stars the 2013-version of Redford in Leonardo DiCaprio, and is directed by Baz Luhrmann…whose MOULIN ROUGE (2001) was nominated for several Oscars and Golden Globes. With such a great novel to pull from and so many talented names involved, why can’t The Great Gatsby find success on the silver screen?

It all comes back to the source material. Gatsby just might be an un-filmable novel. Despite being ranked among the greatest works of American literature and of all-time, its core story is kind of pointless. The book succeeds on themes more than story, and those are hard to get across on film. Gatsby is a book which isn’t concerned very much about its characters or what they have to go through; it’s concerned about teaching lessons about idealism and excess…things which are just as important now as they were in the book’s time period, The Roaring Twenties. Thematically, Gatsby is great, but the slim story does not lend itself to the movies. Decades ago, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, like Gatsby, was also considered to be un-filmable. But RINGS wound up succeeding because its ultimate objective was simple: destroy evil, save the world. Now, ask ten different people what the ultimate objective of Gatsby  is, and you’ll get ten different answers and one fistfight.

We are in a frustrating Hollywood age where studios are afraid to take chances on new material and would rather remake a 20-year old movie with a familiar name than to try something original. The world of classic literature feels like an untapped gold mine waiting to be discovered. Hopefully the studios will leave certain ones on the shelf. A lousy adaptation doesn't help the movies as a whole, and certainly won't encourage anyone to go read it.

What say you?



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