Film critics divided over glitzy Gatsby

Flawed hero? Leonardo DiCaprio flashes his interpretation of Gatsby’s ‘rare smile’.

A big budget 3D adaptation of The Great Gatsby is poised to take cinemas by storm. But does the extravagance obscure the true message of the ‘great American novel’?

This week, the small, wealthy city of Cannes in southern France will be filled with the cream of the film world – hotly-tipped young directors, powerful critics, established stars. Filmmakers who make a splash at the prestigious Cannes Festival can expect to be showered with attention and awards in months to come.

It’s a glamorous occasion. And this year, the film set to open the proceedings will be a fittingly extravagant affair: Baz Luhrmann‘s long-awaited adaptation of The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald, a work often ranked among the greatest of American novels.

The Great Gatsby is considered to be the quintessential depiction of the 1920s ‘Jazz Age’, a period between the two world wars famous for decadent, illegal parties that flouted the US ban on alcohol in spectacular style. And the new adaptation – flamboyant, star-studded and filmed in vividly colourful 3D – is a lavish attempt to recreate that spirit.

But some critics are concerned that in the midst of this ‘splashy, trashy opera’, the book’s key point has been lost.

Fitzgerald’s novel tells the story of a charismatic millionaire named Jay Gatsby whose past is shrouded in mystery. Gatsby’s parties are indeed wild, and everything he does is driven by his love for Daisy, a beautiful woman whose ‘voice is full of money’.

Yet the book is no straightforward celebration of wealth. Gatsby, Fitzgerald reveals, is in fact a vain, deluded charlatan who has earned his money from illegally smuggling alcohol. His desperate pursuit of Daisy, and the luxurious life she represents, is destined to end in tragedy and disappointment.

The Great Gatsby is usually read as a criticism of the so-called ‘American Dream’: the idea that any US citizen who works hard can eventually achieve material wealth and personal fulfilment. Gatsby believes in this promise – but it leads him into a world that is bereft of morality or substance.

A green light

Some critics feel that Baz Luhrmann’s glitzy interpretation falls into the same materialist trap as Gatsby himself. We should not revel in his decadence, they say: it is a superficial folly grounded in fraud and leading only to disaster.

But there is another interpretation: for all his extravagance and self-delusion, Gatsby’s idealism and vigour make him a hero – ‘a son of God,’ as Fitzgerald writes, ‘in the service of a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty.’ Gatsby’s wild quest to realise his fantasy world may be doomed; but while the quest lasts it feeds a flame that burns brighter than any other character in the book. That, for some, makes his crazy world of excess worth celebrating.

You Decide

  1. If someone is on the road to disaster, does that necessarily mean they should turn back?
  2. ‘There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired’ – F Scott Fitzgerald inThe Great Gatsby. What do you understand this sentence to mean? Do you agree?


  1. Write your own short story about somebody who is pursuing an impossible dream.
  2. Read the final two paragraphs ofThe Great Gatsby(an online text is included in the links) and write a brief analysis. What do they reveal about how the narrator feels about Gatsby?

Some People Say...

“Live fast, die young – but it’s worth it.”

What do you think?

Q & A

A book about rich people in 1920s America has nothing to offer me.
Don’t be so sure. The social world that Fitzgerald was writing about might seem exotic to us, but the themes of the novel – money, aspiration, honesty, class – are still very relevant today. And several critics have suggested that this tale of doomed materialism is a perfect fable for an age of economic disaster and gradual American decline.
I’m not convinced I want to read it.
If the story of The Great Gatsby doesn’t capture your imagination, maybe Fitzgerald’s famously florid prose style will. The book is also a highly original and influential: it has had an enormous impact on American culture: films like The Godfather and TV series like Mad Men all use similar characters and themes. And it’s short!

Word Watch

Baz Luhrmann
An Australian director whose most famous films are Moulin Rouge and a modernised version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet .
F Scott Fitzgerald
Like Gatsby, Fitzgerald had an extravagant lifestyle and was driven by his love for a glamorous woman (named Zelda). The Great Gatsby, published in 1925 when he was 29 years old, and based on his personal experiences of high society New Yorkers, was the highpoint of his literary career. When the Depression struck, Zelda was diagnosed with mental illness and her husband descended into alcoholism. He died in 1940 aged 44.
Jazz age
A phrase popularised by Fitzgerald. Jazz has its roots in traditional African music and first sprung up in early 20th Century New Orleans, but in the 1920s its popularity became more widespread.
Ban on alcohol
In 1920, the US Congress voted to introduce a constitutional amendment banning the production and sale of alcohol. ‘Prohibition’ was neither popular nor effective, and in 1933 the amendment was repealed.
Smuggling alcohol
During the Prohibition era it became highly lucrative to sell alcohol on the black market – a practice known as ‘bootlegging’. The most famous bootlegger was Chicago gangster Al Capone; but a recent analysis suggests that even he would not have been able to afford Gatsby’s extravagant lifestyle.
Superficially appealing but without any real substance.

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