Currently, Hollywood studios seem to be developing major literary adaptations with a single-minded strategy for maximum capital: cut the movie in half to ensure ultra-fidelity to the source. From Harry Potter to The Hobbit to The Hunger Games, studios are catering to fans by making Parts 1 and 2 (and more) of their hottest literary properties. The Great Gatsby feels fresh for a number of reasons, not least of which is its ability to fit F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short novel into one viewing period. Yet like those other films mentioned above, it is an adaptation that has been updated and marketed to the same youth demographics, whose familiarity with the novel may come primarily from a high school reading assignment.
Warner Bros.’s The Great Gatsby has become the first truly divisive movie of the summer, netting a better-than-expected $51 million in its domestic bow despite an array of heavily mixed reviews from film and literary critics. Personally, I thought this Gatsby was a great adaptation—both in its respectful evocations of the words and spirit of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece and in its measured aesthetic inventions. Without wading into the murky waters of whether a Lana Del Rey song is an appropriate love theme, I think it may be more pertinent to discuss aspects of Gatsby’s marketing campaign that suggest Warner Bros. may be missing the point, encouraging audiences to similarly misinterpret director Baz Luhrmann’s approach.
On Twitter, the film’s official account (@GatsbyMovie) used the phrase “Summer of Gatsby” to help promote it in the buildup to and days after its initial release. To form a sense of community around fans seeing the film, the social media account encouraged viewers to attend showings in 1920s clothing styles and tweet the photos to the account with the hashtag #GatsbyPics. Westwood’s Fox Theater, which sold over 750 tickets to its opening night showing, took to its Facebook page to praise viewers who showed up in costume and encouraged patrons to continue the trend. Considering The Great Gatsby takes place during the summer of 1922, this seasonal tag—“Summer of Gatsby”—seems very much in line with protagonist Nick Carraway’s experiences, but to encourage such costumed recreations seems to casually forget how the story portrays this gaudiness as dangerously empty.
Anyone who has read Fitzgerald’s prose, let alone anyone who has seen the film, has likely raised an eyebrow at this self-generated celebration of the early 1920s as a promotional tactic. When The Great Gatsby shifted its release from December 2012 to May 2013, the film’s campaign had to be entirely rethought. No longer ostensibly gunning for Oscars or the “quality cinema” seal of approval amid drama heavy-hitters like last year’s Lincoln, it was going to be fighting for its life in a weekend slot crunched between Iron Man 3 and Star Trek into Darkness.
In the film’s first trailer, which premiered in May 2012, the tone fit the darker, more critical tones of the story: the party scenes were shown, but only in shorter glimpses, and underneath Carraway’s self-critical voiceovers. The colors and designs were there to be admired, but the focus was far from the romance and the seduction, planted squarely on the emptiness of the Jazz Age. The second trailer, which premiered in December after the release date had changed, put greater emphasis on Gatsby’s “extraordinary sense of hope” by showing more of Daisy and Gatsby’s romance; the use of rock group Filter’s anger-filled “Happy Together” cover helped keep the tragic tone intact. The third trailer, distributed approximately one month before the film’s release, kept the focus on Gatsby’s romance by including the Lana Del Rey song “Young and Beautiful,” which would become a central theme in the film. The party scenes were still very much limited to glimpses. If anything, the three trailers reduced the amount of space given to the decadent parties to shift focus on the Gatsby-Daisy-Tom love triangle; consequently, the film’s purported genre appeared to be, more than anything else, a doomed romance, with very few nods toward the broader social issues.
While The Great Gatsby is certainly about many things, including said doomed romance, one of its through lines is the emptiness of the Jazz Age’s debauchery: the story is a biting social critique of the fickle swaths of society who assemble in Gatsby’s home to drink his alcohol but cannot, in the end, be bothered to attend his funeral. Part of the film’s adaptation, then, tries to find aesthetic means to make this social criticism applicable to contemporary society, mixing rap/club beats with jazz music to suggest that Millennials and their own proclivities toward decadence are part of the same emptiness. The beat stays the same.
I may celebrate the film for trying to work through that connection, especially since its production and distribution occurred in an economic climate in which Gatsby’s excesses should easily be seen as repulsive instead of celebrated, but it is somewhat befuddling to see not only patrons and theaters but the studio itself encouraging an emulation of that lifestyle (or, at least, its fashions), as if some sort of unrecognized nostalgia for the 1920s (a la Midnight in Paris) has prevented anyone from seeing past the parties at Gatsby’s mansions to what happens in the last act. Granted, this may reveal a problem with Luhrmann’s film. While he does a strong job transitioning among different camera techniques and stagings, as well as muting the color palette as things go from bad to worse for all involved, his stylistic hyperbole may prevent his rendition of The Great Gatsby from ever really developing into social critique. When I asked several people who saw the film during its first weekend what their favorite parts were, almost all answered “the parties.”
It’s hard to deny the seductive appeal of those party sequences. Luhrmann’s skill is obvious in these beautifully arranged confetti-esque spectaculars, and the “Summer of Gatsby” promos have seized on their undoubted allure, suggesting the film is itself worthy of a huge party. Luhrmann is also guilty on the extratextual level, invoking the phrase “Summer of Gatsby” in the profiles and interviews he has done in the buildup to the film. Indeed, by being the opening night film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it will be given a huge gala.
Certainly, then, those patrons who put on their 3D glasses at the Fox Theater, dressed head to toe in their best flapper emulation, are not going to have the rug pulled out from under them halfway through by the abrupt tonal shifts. The Great Gatsby is an excessive film that hides its contemplations beneath its ultra-sparkling surface. But taken either in or out of context, does the song “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody,” featured on the soundtrack during an early party scene, actually come across as ironic or prophetic? It may work as a way of critically using the soundtrack to provide an aural commentary, but there is an equal risk that the point will be missed entirely, that those eager to join the Summer of Gatsby will only hear a catchy pop song.
I applaud this adaptation of Gatsby for all the things it is and tries to be. But it is shrouded by a pattern of paratexts determined to sell the film through the youth markets. It is hard to say that, from a commercial standpoint, this ended up being a bad decision: the film’s opening weekend take certainly attests to a well-timed gamble. For some, the extratextual marketing is definitive “pandering” to youth demographics. Its attempts to commoditize the idea of “Gatsby” are certainly peculiar, considering the work’s staunch critique of capitalism and those who live through their money. This might, unintentionally, be the ultimate lesson of Baz Luhrmann’s film as an event: spectacle and visual excess are marvelous to look at, but we would rather promote those elements than think critically about them. Despite the merits of the film itself, its desire to be a blockbuster has led to a social media campaign that demands celebrating this past instead of engaging it critically.
Even as Luhrmann positions himself as an avid researcher, trying to do everything he can to pay respect to Fitzgerald and to the era his writing encapsulated, Warner Bros.’s campaign seems to have co-opted this research for a summer party. Considering Fitzgerald spent his final years struggling to write screenplays in California and died in the middle of writing a critique of Hollywood culture (The Love of the Last Tycoon), this all feels about right.
James Gilmore is currently a Ph.D. student in Indiana University’s Department of Communication and Culture. He received his M.A. in UCLA’s Cinema and Media Studies program. His research chiefly focuses on how films and other forms of media work to construct, critique, or challenge perceptions of the Nation. He also writes about genre, visual analysis, adaptation, and film history. You can follow his mostly sarcastic observations on Twitter @Jim_on_Film.