Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby lacks the sly, subversive quality of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original novel, but it still captures its essence, retelling it in Luhrmann’s flashy, theatrical style.
Imagination is one of the most important human qualities; it is how we overcome problems, navigate our futures and—perhaps most importantly—empathise with people around us. The Great Gatsby is at its core a film about the power and folly of the human imagination.
Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, widely regarded as one of the finest examples of American literature, is set in and around New York City. Although the novel is famous for its critique of 1920s excess, Luhrmann is clear his film isn’t only making commentary of the hedonistic Roaring Twenties. The Great Gatsby’s anachronistic flourishes, particularly the modern soundtrack, pull the Jazz Age firmly into the present.
The aspirational Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an enigma to everyone who knows him. (“He’s a German spy!” “I heard he killed a man!” “He’s certainly richer than God!”) Gatsby has made real all his imaginings in order to woo back his former sweetheart Daisy Buchannan (Carey Mulligan). His sprawling house, opulent parties and mysterious persona have all been created—seemingly from nothing—with this goal in mind.
“Was all this made entirely from your own imagination?” asks Daisy.
“No,” says Gatsby, “You see you were there all along. In every idea, every decision. Of course if anything is not to your liking I’ll change it.”
“It’s perfect,” replies Daisy, “From your perfect, irresistible imagination.”
But Gatsby and Daisy do not love each other for who they really are. Gatsby’s love is purely nostalgic; Daisy’s is socially opportunistic. As the fiction upon which their love is based begins to crumble, so does Gatsby’s elaborately-constructed persona. It is clear: everything that can be imagined can be created—except love. Love cannot be imagined into being, it can only be given.
These are often unlikable characters seeing only skewed, funhouse mirror versions of everyone else around them. Whether distorted by nostalgia, money, power or spectacle, not once does any character see the others for who they really are. Only the godlike gaze of an oculist’s billboard seems to pierce these illusions.
The Great Gatsby urges us to try and know people for who they are, not simply imagine them as who we’d like them to be. Without a complex imagining of the people around us, we too can fall victim to Gatsby’s fate.