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The Great Gatsby: Baz Luhrmann's third dimension to 'unfilmable' classic

Film-makers will get a certain amount of flak when adapting any work of literature, but director Baz Luhrmann did not make things any easier for himself when he chose
The Straits Times - May 15, 2013
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The Great Gatsby: Baz Luhrmann's third dimension to 'unfilmable' classic

Film-makers will get a certain amount of flak when adapting any work of literature, but director Baz Luhrmann did not make things any easier for himself when he chose The Great Gatsby, a classic, and committed the further heresy of setting it to a pulsing soundtrack and filming it in 3-D.

In interviews with Life! and other media in New York last month, the 50-year-old Australian defended these decisions, comparing the novel to Shakespeare's Hamlet, which has been reinterpreted countless times.

"Do I like (Laurence) Olivier's Hamlet? Great. Did I see an amazing Hamlet not so long ago in London, with a young actor? Awesome, completely different. Have I seen Hamlets that are energetic, that are internal?

"Usually there's a Hamlet for the time, a defining performance that has managed to synthesise, through the prism of Hamlet, the time we're in. And I think that's true of Gatsby, because I think it is the American Hamlet."

Unlike Hamlet, however, The Great Gatsby has proven particularly intractable when it comes to reinterpretation.

Written in 1925 and widely considered to be one of the great American novels, it is beloved of generations of Americans who studied it in school. This may help explain why critics eviscerated all four previous screen adaptations, including the 1974 movie starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, which did well commercially.

The story itself is often said to be "unfilmable", with much of the beauty of F. Scott Fitzgerald's tale - about a mysterious millionaire and his pursuit of a long-lost love - lying in its delicately crafted and subtly satirical prose, rather than the nebulously drawn characters or minimal plot.

But Luhrmann, the director behind the 1996 film Romeo + Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, another MTV-friendly update of a classic, ignored the naysayers and pursued the project obsessively for a decade, despite numerous production and financing setbacks and difficulties in obtaining the rights.

After he completed the 2001 movie Moulin Rouge!, a musical starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor set in the Paris cabaret scene at the turn of the century, he found himself listening to an audiobook version of the novel while travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Russia.

"I put it on, poured some red wine and, five hours later, I went, 'I don't know that book, I don't remember any of this, this is like a revelation.

"In that moment I just went, 'This is about us, this is where we are, this is who we are,'" he says of the book's critique of 1920s America.

"When the (financial) crash came in 2008, I became obsessed with it. Fitzgerald predicted his crash, you know? And there was a terrorist attack in Wall Street at the beginning of the 1920s and, the next day, the stock market soared and everything started going up - stock prices, skirts, buildings, planes."

This was accompanied by a "moral elasticity" that saw collusion between the politicians, gangsters and money men, and "the shared hypocrisy" of Prohibition, a nationwide ban on alcohol.

"Sound familiar?" Luhrmann says. "Hypocrisy, you know? It couldn't be a clearer mirror at this time, so I thought, I've got to get in there and do it.

"If I can work out how to release the inner voice of (the book's narrator) Nick Carraway, then there's a different kind of movie to be made here."

It is a big gamble, however, one that the director can ill afford professionally after his last big-budget film, the 2008 romantic epic Australia, bombed.

But he has managed to convince Gatsby's backers that he has enough to warrant a big marketing push for the film, which has been billed as one of the summer's biggest releases, with sumptuous costumes to woo female viewers and a deliberately anachronistic soundtrack to hook the young.

The latter features the rapper Jay-Z, one of the film's executive producers, as well as tracks by Beyonce, Lana Del Rey, will.i.am and Florence + The Machine.

As for the controversial move to shoot a character-driven drama in 3-D, which caused production costs to balloon to more than US$104 million (S$128.8 million) and nearly killed the film, Luhrmann notes that there was a similarly hostile reaction to "talkies", the first movies with sound.

"Sound ruined movies when it first came in. It was a fad, they said; no one will ever want to hear actors speak in movies.

"Then years later, people started using sound artistically. So I think we're starting to see 3-D used in a more artistic way," says Luhrmann, who in other interviews has defended 3-D as more immersive than 2-D.

Ultimately, however, he hopes that Gatsby "plays as well in 2-D".

According to the United States box office, it has. When it opened this past weekend, about two-thirds of ticket sales were for 2-D. With US$51.1 million in takings, it has exceeded the producers' expectations of US$35million to US$40 million for the opening weekend, although some critics have suggested it would have done just as well - and made a bigger profit margin - without the added expense of 3-D.

Whatever the format, Luhrmann stands by his story, saying that he hopes that it is strong enough to work "just as well if you turn the colour off and see it in black and white".

"These are tools," he says of the 3-D and other special effects in the film. "In the end, they don't define storytelling."

Alison de Souza

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