Like most modern-day Americans, I read The Great Gatsby in high school and half-remember it, which might have been a good thing, because I suspect Baz Luhrmann made the movie with the assumption that everyone read The Great Gatsby in high school and half-remembers it, that certain lines and scenes, if not exactly awaited, are more strongly remembered and anticipated, and will trigger memories, sometimes even things that the reader has forgotten until that moment. In fact, Luhrmann increases the novel’s presence by having a framing story consisting of an older Nick Carraway writing it, giving him an excuse to use the prose as voiceover, right down to the closing passage at the end.
But one major difference between reading the book then and seeing the movie now is not only is one older and finally able to properly understand and appreciate The Great Gatsby, but Luhrmann is willing to make the book’s themes and ideas more understandable to the common reader than Fitzgerald is, plus he has audiovisuals with which to do it. Certainly he can portray the immense wealth and spectacle, and being Baz Luhrmann, he can also make it quickly unreal, and then turn it ominous and not quite right(we saw the 3D version, and the 3D is used to this end as well), and he can showcase the people, and contrast the shiny and artificial-looking wealthy with the dirty poverty of Tom Wilson, and while he’s at it draw a bit of a parallel between Myrtle Wilson and Gatsby, with her all dressed up fancy and in Tom’s pearls, trying to put herself in the world of the higher class to the extent her imagination and resources will allow her to-and of course, ultimately coming to the same fate as him, spit out and mostly shrugged off by the truly privileged. While there are relatively few scenes added that weren’t in the novel because they would be outside Carraway’s point of view, those that are important ones that further flesh things out.
But another thing Luhrmann has is all the time that’s passed since, the history that’s gone by since, and the views and values of our modern age, when the bad driving seems even more shocking, as well as the stockbrokers as villainous than the bootleggers anyway, and he taps in a little to that, and a lot into our music-there was a lot of hip hop on the soundtrack, including two songs I recognized from the noughties. He uses our views of the actors as well, casting Leonardo di Caprio & Tobey Maguire so completely to type our view of them enhances their projection of their characters in our heads. He’s made sure the current viewer is able to identify.
This is one movie I actually would recommend be shown in high school English classes, because I think it really will help students understand The Great Gatsby much better. In any case, it’ll help their memory of it.