By Chris Michaud
NEW YORK (Reuters) - It is hailed as "the great American novel," but so far "The Great Gatsby" has defied attempts by some of Hollywood's top filmmakers to bring its lyrically romantic story and tragic characters to cinematic life.
But that didn't faze director Baz Luhrmann.
Luhrmann, known for his lavish productions, assembled a roster of stars led by Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Tobey Maguire in the latest incarnation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's mournful ode to the carefree, hedonistic 1920s and its youthful, wealthy and self-absorbed denizens.
One of the year's most anticipated films, "The Great Gatsby" opens in U.S. theaters on Friday and has been accorded the prestigious opening-night slot at the Cannes Film Festival on May 15.
As far back as 1926, just a year after the book was published, Hollywood has tried to capture and project Fitzgerald's artful prose onto the silver screen. A 1949 version starring Alan Ladd focused on Gatsby's criminal connections and even took significant liberties with the ending.
The last effort, apart from a TV film, in 1974 featured Robert Redford and Mia Farrow atop the marquee. Critics slammed it as lifeless and lugubrious, and the box office was a dismal $20.6 million.
Luhrmann aims to change its checkered history with a lush 3-D production rendered in his trademark eye-popping visual style that first dazzled fans in the surprise 2001 hit "Moulin Rouge," which went on to win several Oscars.
But the challenges of adapting "The Great Gatsby" were mired in both its period source material and its cinematic failures.
MASTERS OF ILLUSION
Jay Gatsby is an enigmatic hero pining for a lost love in the person of the not always sympathetic Daisy Buchanan, played by Mulligan. The tragic love story is built around illusion, but illusion might well be said to be Luhrmann's stock-in-trade.
Due to budgetary restraints, the Australian director abandoned his plan to shoot in New York, where the book is set, and moved the entire production to his native country.
In the end, he said: "It was great plus. We felt that we could create this grand illusion."
Even so, the production was plagued by everything from rain-drenching weather to on-set accidents, one of which resulted in a concussion for Luhrmann and shut down filming while he recovered.
Early on, the filmmakers asked themselves how they could make the classic story, indelibly linked to the 1920s, "feel like it was about now," as producer Douglas Wick put it.
Luhrmann agreed that the challenge lay in making the story relevant for today's audiences, while respecting what DiCaprio called "American Shakespeare ... one of the most celebrated novels of all time."
"I wanted the film to feel like it would have felt to read Fitzgerald's novel in '25," Luhrmann told Reuters, noting that Fitzgerald infused his novel with African-American street music and coined the term "Jazz Age."
"It made ... the book extremely pop cultural, extremely of the moment. It summed up the crazed, intoxicating times," he said of that music, adding, "But it doesn't do it for you now."
Enter Jay-Z, who was executive producer of the soundtrack.
In what Luhrmann called "a great collaboration," Jay-Z brought to fruition his idea of translating jazz into hip hop, with the help of music from Beyonce, Bryan Ferry, Fergie, Lana Del Ray and will.i.am.
Despite the 21st century concept of filming the movie in 3-D and driven by contemporary music, Luhrmann remains confident that Gatsby's story is a timeless one. "It plays in any place at any time. And the central idea of Gatsby is universal," he said.
HOLLOW OR GREAT ROMANTIC?
Even so, it can also be in the eye of the beholder, as DiCaprio said he discovered upon rereading the book as an adult.
"Everyone who reads it has their own interpretation of who these people are," the actor told reporters at a recent news conference, explaining how his own view on Gatsby had changed from his schoolboy impression of a great romantic, to one of a hollow figure of great sadness.
"It's incredibly nuanced, it's existential, and here at the center is this man that is incredibly hollow. He's searching for some sort of meaning in his life, and he's attached himself to this relic known as Daisy. She's a mirage," said DiCaprio.
"That's what's very difficult about making a movie about it. Everyone has their own personal attachment to this book and they feel like they know these characters on a very intimate level."
Maguire, as the movie's moral compass, Nick Carraway, reflected that even without updating, "The Great Gatsby" - which ends with the line "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past" - remains timeless and cautionary.
"In a lot of ways this book predicted the great (1929) crash," he said. "It's a book that talks about great opulence and wealth in America ... and the idea that the future is endless, and that we can keep consuming and living the way we do without any consequences."
"We've encountered it again in our modern era, and it's something that we keep doing," Maguire said.
"And it's not just an American novel in that regard. It's something that's happening worldwide."
"The Great Gatsby," released by Warner Bros., opens in North American movie theaters on Friday and the following week in most of the rest of the world.
(Reporting by Chris Michaud; Additional reporting by Zorianna Kit; Editing by Jill Serjeant and Eric Beech)