I expected to greatly enjoy Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, and I wasn’t disappointed. This makes me an unusual specimen among film critics, who have treated the movie mostly with a preemptive dismissiveness, reacting to Luhrmann’s take on F. Scott Fitzgerald as though they were watching Michael Bay adapt Henry James. Even writers who acknowledge being entertained by the new big-screen Gatsby have often paired that admission with a hasty assurance that they don’t think much of it as an adaptation — the novel being, of course, “inherently unfilmable” (that’s Slate’s Dana Stevens) and “too intricate, too subtle, too tender for the movies” (that’s The New Yorker’s David Denby).
This is the kind of thing that people always say about beloved novels, but it’s a very strange thing to say about The Great Gatsby. When I think of unfilmable books, I think of sprawling anatomies, slim psychological studies, dense stream-of-consciousness immersions, and metafictional experiments. I think of James and Marcel Proust; James Joyce and Virginia Woolf; Moby Dick and Tristram Shandy. Or, to pick a more contemporary example, I think of David Mitchell’s complicated epic Cloud Atlas, which inspired an inevitably failed adaptation just last year.