It’s rare indeed that I find myself quite so far ahead of the pop-cultural curve... but for anyone seeking insight into Baz Luhrmann’s new film version of The Great Gatsby in advance of its Cannes premiere, I can direct them to a long interview I did with Mr Luhrmann for the newly published Picador film tie-in edition of Fitzgerald’s novel.
The pilgrim will find much of interest in Luhrman's reflections, I feel – about the influence on the director of Francis Coppola and Joseph Conrad, also of a journey he took on the Trans-Siberian Railway; on Luhrmann’s compendious research into Fitzgerald’s world and that of the novel; on the bold structural choices he and Craig Pearce made for their screenplay; on his musical collaborator Jay-Z’s opinion of Jay Gatsby’s character; of what Gatsby has to say of its time and to ours; and more.
Our conversation was a privilege for me in more ways than one: on top of his creative accomplishments Mr Luhrmann is a hugely eloquent and engaging speaker, witty and charming, free of airs and, I should say, a gentleman, too. His movie is very keenly awaited, of course. But I’m very struck by what I’ve heard and seen, and I’m certainly wishing this Gatsby all the very best, old sport.
This is how our conversation wound round to its conclusion:
RTK: In their famous interview Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut agreed there was a problem about turning great books into films because the books were already masterpieces, made out of words, which pictures couldn’t emulate. Clearly, having made 'Romeo + Juliet' you’re happy to work with classic texts. But do you feel there is something about 'Gatsby' that you have to try to be ‘faithful’ to, to satisfy the book’s admirers? Or are you content to say to audiences, ‘This is the way I see it...’
Baz Luhrmann: Of course I hear that perspective. But there have been some pretty good cinematic goes made of some great books... There may be people out there with large pieces of wood counting down the days until the movie is out so they can come and hit me... ‘How dare you?’ And I understand that, and I don’t take it lightly. Nonetheless – I love the book too. And I always think great literature is there to be interpreted in many different ways, in different times and by different people – for example, I look forward to the next person who does a 'Romeo and Juliet' movie different to mine. To me, what defines greatness in literature, culture, of any kind, is that it’s able to move through time and geography, it can play in any country and continues to play in any era. And that’s true of 'The Great Gatsby'...
Another thing I must say about this Picador edition is that it’s quite a thrill for me to have some of my words – be they very simple ones – bound up between covers with those of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s and a novel that I, like millions of readers, think of as one of the most brilliantly achieved in English.
It has a special little nostalgia for me because I studied Gatsby for the A-Level English Lit paper I sat back in the summer of 1989. I have before me, in fact, the A-format Penguin paperback that was my text at the time: unusually zealously annotated with pencil-scribbles, a source of amusement to me today, for as long as no-one else gets to see them. I’m reminded, for one thing, that the 18-year-old Me was strongly persuaded of Wilde’s maxim that only shallow people fail to judge by appearances. I don’t think I would want such a judgement levied today – or not on myself, at any rate.
I would, though, stand by the pencilled ‘Genet!’ that I put beside Nick Carraway’s early description of Tom Buchanan’s ‘cruel body’, an interesting way for one guy to look at and describe another guy’s figure. Gatsby is often thought of, or remembered, as a romantic book, as a love story. And yet the ostensible love object, Daisy, is really not such a nice girl – unworthy of all the fuss, you might say. And so the ‘romance’, finally, lies more in Jay Gatsby’s outsized illusions about her and the world (for which he constructs his dazzling facade of a life, and then throws that life away.)
Or does it? Is the biggest romantic crush in the book actually the one Nick Carraway has on Gatsby, in whom he finds ‘something gorgeous’ (above and beyond his pink suit), even after all the shows of ostensible disapproval...? This theme of latency has been explored in more recent criticism of the novel, I believe. I don’t say I go along with it. I only note it.