Seeing the Great Gatsby

I have a personal relationship with the novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  That book defines my love of American Literature in a way no other novel does.  But let me back up.

I first read the book as a junior in high school.  I don’t remember much of that experience.

I read it again as an undergrad at Western Michigan University in an American Lit class.  And that is where I fell in love. Hard.

With the Roaring Twenties. With the cynical outlook on The American Dream. With the emptiness of wealth.  With the debauchery and moral-less actions of the characters.  With disliking characters but LOVING the novel.

I went on to teach it every year except one during the past 12 years.  One of those years I had five sections of American Lit meaning I read through the novel five times that year.

I have watched both the 1974 and the 2000 film adaptations of the novel, despising both for a variety of things.  I tend to show the 2000 (by director Robert Markowitz) to my juniors for the sheer ridiculousness of it and because the 1974 version (with Robert Redford, directed by Jack Clayton and with Francis Ford Coppola as a writer) is so boring I would rather watch paint dry.

I think the thing that was most disappointing about both of those films was that I didn’t walk away feeling like I had actually seen the Great Gatsby.  Yes it was a retelling (mostly) of the plot, but the plot is not even primary to the novel.  The plot is not what The Great Gatsby is about.

Both films portrayed a love story…almost a glorified soap opera.  That was not Fitzgerald’s intent at all.  He did not write a story about people loving each other. At all.

When I heard that Baz Luhrmann was working on a screenplay of the novel, I had hopes.  High hopes.

I adore his modern music meets Elizabethan iambic pentameter in Romeo and Juliet and his over-the-top cinematography of Moulin Rouge!  Going in to the movie theater on Sunday, I expected a combination of both.

I was right.

I must also admit to stalking the movie trailers and predictions for months before the film came out.  I waited a week to see it and in that time drove myself batty reading all the fun satires and the scathing reviews.  The critique that I kept hearing over and over was “it doesn’t stick to the time period. It’s not the 20’s.”

Even though I had not yet seen the film I couldn’t help but silently cry out, “You’re wrong. I KNOW you’re wrong.”

Because The Great Gatsby is not a novel about the 20’s.  Although Fitzgerald put as much pop culture in the book as he possibly could.  He was a fan of the boisterous, the loud, the showy…look at his lifestyle and his wife for proof of that.

Fitzgerald was the one to coin the term “The Jazz Age” and use jazz music and the “black movement” in his novel…even though the people around him told him not to do it.  The warned him that it was a passing fad and that it would make his book unrelateable and out of fashion quickly.

Guess who was right?

The choice to have Jay-Z do the score–and include a contemporary “black/street” music injection to the movie–was not just genius, it was exactly up Fitzgerald’s alley.  It was totally Gatsby of Luhramm to do.

Hip hop is not a passing fad, just like jazz wasn’t.

The music also tied the novel to 2013 by showing how much has not changed about greed in America.  We are shown a 20’s setting with music of today and it fits. The 1920’s, especially in The Great Gatsby, were full of debauchery and greed.  How is that different from today?

But it wasn’t just the music I liked, I also liked the casting.

The men were the best cast. Leonardo DiCaprio is a “great” Gatsby.  He has all the created polish and manners that Jay Gatsby worked so hard to pretend to have in the novel.  Tobey Maguire is a good fit for Nick with his wide-eyed worried nature.  Joel Edgerton is by far the best cast Tom of all three movies.  He is aggressive an actually carries himself in the “hulking” way Daisy describes him as.  And Jason Clarke is a perfect George Wilson from his build to his hair to his bright blue eyes.

I was not as impressed with the female character casting. Carey Mulligan is an Ok Daisy. I’m not sure any actress can portray the Daisy Fitzgerald creates with his words.  There is always something lacking, and in this case Mulligan lacked The Voice.  She was too… likable.  I actually found myself feeling sorry for her, which I never EVER do when I read the novel.

Isla Fisher plays the voluptuous Myrtle, and does it well.  Luhramm has made her into the brightest, most gaudy spot in the desolate Valley of Ashes, just as Fitzgerald does in the novel.

Of all the film versions, Luhramm gives the best impression of actually having read and analyzed the novel.  He gets all the tiny details right: the way Catherine’s bracelets jingle on her wrist in the apartment party, the way the phone book drops to the floor in the hotel room, and the way the clock tips and falls at Nick’s house.

Speaking of Nick’s house, my favorite scene in the novel is when he has Daisy over for tea and Gatsby “drops by,” so when the scene was approaching in the film, I sat forward with my elbows on my knees.

(By the way, this is also where I started to look like a weirdo being e alone in the theater and saying the lines along with the characters.)

Luhramm gets this perfect.  From the way Gatsby is totally distracted, almost angry as he waits with Nick in a room that is packed with white flowers to how tense it is when Gatsby stands against the mantel (and the clock) looking down and Nick and Daisy with unease.

It is exactly…exactly…how I picture it when I read.  In fact, I found myself laughing at Gatsby standing in the rain at the front door the same way my students do when I read that section out loud.

For all the criticism the film is getting–when you do an adaptation of the Great American Novel, you sort of open yourself to it–I think Fitzgerald would have been happy with the outcome.

Of course there are things I didn’t like.  While I like the frame that Nick is writing this story down after the fact (that is true to the novel, by the way.  Nick actually says to the readers, “as I glance over all I have written so far…”), I can’t get behind Nick writing the story from the inside of a sanitarium.

I don’t believe Nick “cracked up” at the end of the novel.

I don’t believe he was an alcoholic, let alone a recovering one.

Nick is one of the most infamous unreliable narrator of all time, but I do not believe he was a boozer or insane.

There were also things Luhramm left out of the movie, and things he added that sort of held the hand of the viewer the way you don’t get when you read the book, but after rolling it all over in my mind, I think it’s Ok.

For instance, I think it’s Ok we don’t get the scene with Gatsby’s dad or the scene of Gatsby’s funeral.  Those points were made in other scenes in other ways and to add these would be redundant to the film.

I was bothered that Jordan’s dishonesty was all but left out instead leaving her as just an aloof, jaded character.  I did like that everyone in the book is a careless driver, and that you only understand the symbolism of that you read the book.

I was also bothered that Gatsby didn’t meet Pammy the way he does in the novel. I think seeing her brings a different kind of twist in his “perfect” plan that Luhramm leaves out almost completely in the film.  He has Nick mention her, but only so Daisy can say the “little fool” line.

In the end, as I repeated those final lines of the novel along with Nick, I realized I didn’t have the same sense of empty delusion that I have when I read the book.

In fact, I sort of liked all the characters in the movie. I don’t think that is supposed to happen.

But maybe it’s because I was so pleased with how they portrayed the characters from the novel.

What I do know is that actually seeing The Great Gatsby is a different medium than reading it.  Images affect me differently than words do.

So I don’t think anyone will ever get a version that is just right.  Because you can’t do in images what you can do in words.  Oh, it’s beautiful and it’s wonderful and it’s a grand movie, but you almost can’t compare it aesthetically to the novel because to do so, you would be discounting something important and special from each medium.

The message of social class difference comes through in both though.  And of carelessness.

And of Gatsby symbolizing a great hope that might very well be pointless.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning–
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

 

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About Katie Sluiter

Just a small town girl...wait no. That is a Journey song. Katie Sluiter is a small town girl, but she is far from living in a lonely world. She is a high school English teacher, college adjunct instructor, freelance writer, mother, and wife. Life has thrown her a fair share of challenges, but her belief is that writing through them makes her stronger.

Comments

  1. I told you I was waiting for your review on this & here I am reading it! I love how you wrote about the movie. I knew you would be a fabulous reviewer of it since you know the book better than anyone else I know! Thanks for the review & now I definitely can’t wait to see it now!! :)

  2. I MUSt see this movie soon. Thanks for the reminder — I love this novel but must admit I don’t remember it terribly well. I should do a re-read first. In my spare time. :) xox

    • The great thing about this version of the film is that you really DON’T need to have just read it to really love the movie. In fact, I would see it first.

  3. One of the BEST reviews of this movie I have seen!!! I agree with you on every point. I’m not a teacher so I don’t revisit Gatsby every year, but it’s one of the few books I have revisited.

    I wish I had seen the movie with you so we could’ve actually discussed it afterwards. My husband liked the movie but never read the book, so the book vs movie part of our post-movie conversation was pretty one sided. He also did look at me funny when I would lip-sync some of the lines or squeeze his hand when I knew things were coming up. LOL

    • aw thanks. I wish we had seen the movie together too. It was weird to leave the theater with so much to talk about and nobody with me. I sort of wanted to be alone with my thoughts for the rest of the day! That is probably why it took me until today to post about it.

  4. I must read the book, THEN watch the movie. Because the book is almost always better than the film version.

    • In the case of this movie, I think you could almost see the movie first. Like I said, they are such different representations artistically, that it’s not a matter of the book being “better”. The book is the inspiration for the film. Luhramm did a fabulous job.

  5. Almost makes me want to re-read the book… almost. :)

  6. I haven’t gotten to the theatre yet!! Gah!

    I’ve been way curious about how you’d feel about it. Now I’m just waiting for Angela Amman’s review. I have been been indulging in a re-read to prepare, and I’m stunned at how differently I’m reacting to it this time. Amazing what you bring to a novel, isn’t it?

    I admit, I’m still kind of baffled by the Tobey/Nick casting, because he’s SUCH an unreliable narrator that I can’t mentally get a fix on him. He changes for me with every reading. Yes, I’ve maybe put too much thought into this ;)

    I can’t wait. Sigh.

    • I am TOTALLY waiting for Angela’s review too! I am DYING to know what she thinks.

      I won’t lie, I see different things every read through of the novel, and I have read that thing over 100 times. Sometimes I hate Nick, sometimes I don’t. I almost always believe Nick is gay and that this is really a love letter to Gatsby.

      Tobey is…wide-eyed and naive and very…Nick.

      I want you to see it so we can discuss :)

      • I am waiting for my own review :) Because I am still waiting to see it.

        You know I love love love the book. Your review made me tear up because I can hear your love for it, too.

        Even without having seen it, I agree so very much with your analysis that BL has presented it in a way Fitzgerald would have appreciated. FSF wasn’t writing a period novel; he was writing a modern novel, and BL seems to have made a modern movie that stays true to the underlying cynicism about what happens when everything we want turns out to be nothing at all. Who are we then?

        • I do love the book so much. SO MUCH. I could have gone on for even longer, really. I mean, I have over a decade of analyzing this novel under my belt! I wish we could go see it together. Although since I have already seen it, I would be annoying, I am sure :)

      • I also think Nick is gay and in love with Gatsby and the movie totally went along with that. Alll that watching!!! ;)

  7. DUDE. Are you in my head? Because so much of this is exactly how I felt after seeing it! BAZ LUHRMANN IS AMAZING!

    Fitzgerald would have loved it. He just would have. The themes he wrote about–disillusionment, dishonesty, greed–weren’t unique to his time. In fact, I’d say things are more greedy, dishonest, and disillusioned than then.

    The one thing I was disappointed with was that the line “her voice is full of money” was omitted. HOWEVER. It makes sense. Because that line in the book almost indicates that that’s what Gatsby wanted from her and nothing more when sure, that’s part of what attracted him to her, but that’s not why he kept pursuing his goal of reuniting with her after all those years. He had money, you know? He wanted money AND her.

    I’m okay with Pammy’s absence because I think the way Leo portrayed Gatsby was much more like Gatsby than any interpretation I’ve ever seen. He had the nervous tics and the inability to sit still and the flying-through-his-story down pat. I don’t think Pammy was needed for Gatsby to have the revelation that his dream was crumbling away.

    I, too, wasn’t a huge fan of Carey Mulligan as Daisy. She was far too…pretty. Or nice? Not damaged enough, I think. She lacked effervescence.

    Okay. I’m rambling. Loved the movie.

    • I love how we think the same. Love it.

      And yes, I can see your point about Pammy. And YES! Leo did the uncomfortable shuffling and twitches and catching himself being “not proper” and even the slip of a mid-western accent every now and then. He was SO DAMN GOOD.

      And I TOTALLY noticed the lack of “her voice is full of money” and I thought the same thing…it didn’t need to be said. HOWEVER, I also didn’t think Carey Mulligan’s voice WAS full of money. There was just something lacking with her. Although I did like her better than Mia Farrow or Mira Sorvino.

      ANNND I could hold an entire discussion on how Luhramm may have left things out, but he got the major symbolism SPOT ON.

      Okay…I am also rambling. Happy Gatsby Sighs…

  8. *happy sighs*

    Yes, yes, and more yes.

    I felt the same way about Daisy. When I read the book – and I have only read it three times, though this last time really hit me…maybe age? experiences? – I don’t like her. I feel a slight distaste for how careless she is with everyone around her and how selfish her motivations are.

    In the movie, I almost felt sorry for her because it seemed as though no one could handle the pressure and intensity of being Gatsby’s obsession. You get the feeling that she’s cracking and you want to hold her hand and tell her it’s okay – which is what Tom does. And no. Her voice was not filled with money. She seemed like a woman who married for wealth and love as is expected of the time period and is having an affair with Gatsby in part because of her anger with her husband’s infidelity. And I didn’t get that at. all. with the book.

    It also bothered me that Jordon’s dishonesty wasn’t mentioned. That’s the thing about the book…everyone and everybody was dishonest in some way, even Nick with his leading the girl back home on. Everyone had a facade, a story they were inventing, ways to get ahead.

    I wish they would have had Gatsby meet Pammy because I think that’s the moment he realizes the flaws in his plan to erase the past.

    BUT all that being said, I loved the movie. The color, the music, the sheer vivacity of it all was bigger than my middle class imagination could have produced. The servants were another thing. They weren’t really mentioned in the book that often, but you SAW them in the movie, silently listening to Tom spout off about his race beliefs, moving through the rooms to create the illusion of perfection for the people living so uselessly in them.

    Having just read the book the week prior to seeing the movie, I loved the fact that the conversations were verbatim, the delivery making the inane chatter take on new meaning, and the small details he kept.

    And Leo. Oh Leo! He WAS Gatsby in an intense, uncomfortable way. He was smooth with cracks in the surface. He was devoted to an obssive degree. His “old sport” sounded slightly forced, the affectation it was, not really natural. I could honestly write for DAYS about my love of Leo in this role. Every nervous twitch, and the scene when he meets Daisy for tea? Brilliant. When he sees her walking up the stairs at his house you can just SEE on his face that this is the culmination of his dreams.

    I can really go on and on. And that’s why I think it was a great adaptation. Because I COULD go on and on about the symbolism, the nuances, the little pieces that popped out. Just like the book.

    • I am in LOVE with this comment. IN LOVE.

      I also loved the verbatim conversations! There were some of my favorite lines that didn’t get said though, “Her voice is full of money” was one of them…and the part where Daisy accuses Tom of hurting her little finger…that is SO telling about her pouty “look at me” personality that didn’t come through in the movie.

      And I loved that Luhramm included the “rich girls don’t marry poor boys” line that is not in the book, but IS from Fitzgerald’s life. However I don’t like it that it was said to Nick by Jordan’s escort at the party. That guy was supposed to be a bored nothing, not someone pulling Jordan away.

      Ah! Yes I could totally talk about this FOREVER!

  9. I loved this and yes, I’ve been waiting for this just like others! And I haven’t seen the movie yet either…

  10. We had it as a set work for English at varsity, so I am looking forward to enjoying the film. Thank you for your excellent review, I’m glad it did the book some justice.

  11. Reading this really makes me want to see the movie. I have been thinking about re-reading the book, since I barely remember it, as it was one of the first books I read in English when my English was just so so. I remember certain scenes but can’t form a clear picture. I love how your enthusiasm shines through in this piece! :)

    • What a DIFFICULT book to read when you’re English is still in the beginning stages! My 11th graders have difficulty with the vocabulary in it to the point that I read almost the whole thing out loud so they don’t miss the subtleties due to skimming over words they don’t know. If you do re-read, please let me know what you think! And if you see the movie DEFINITELY let me know what you think!!

  12. I loved it, but I REALLY missed the scene with Gatsby’s dad at the end. While Leo did a fantastic job adding “layers” to Gatsby, I really feel like that scene adds an entirely new view of him, and his early life. I don’t know why they would not include an opportunity to create even more depth. I also really dislike Tobey Maguire so I didn’t think he was as perfect as Leo was. On the other hand, I found Daisy to be fabulous. I DO feel sorry for her in the novel, at least in the first half, so I thought she really played it up well.

    • Isn’t it funny that we both loved it but for different reasons and we both missed different things that were left out? I love that about books..and movies…we both like and feel differently.

      I have to say Daisy annoys me in the novel from the first moment she opens her mouth and asks if Chicago misses her. :)

  13. I hope that we can still be friends after I admit this but, I have never read this book but you have made me want too.

  14. Oh I read it all and loved the post. I know I’ll love the movie especially because I did feel sympathy for Daisy in the book even with her carelessness. But I’m a black-hearted softie and don’t you tell anyone. I felt both sympathy and frustration with everyone as I recall, which is probably why I like Tender is the Night better. The Great Gatsby is an exhausting way to live. I also like reading Zelda Fitzgerald because she doesn’t let F Scott get away with anything.

    • Yeah, I did not love Tender is the Night. But I was also annoyed by every single person in the novel, Daisy the most, actually. From the first scene with her pouting about Tom hurting her little finger…ugg. I want to smack her. It’s funny because when I read books I often relate or don’t relate to characters based on whether I could be friends with them…could I stand to be around them? In The Great Gatsby the answer is NO to every character.

  15. This production house owes you for this review, because without question you have boosted attendance through this remarkable and passionate review. Thank you for inspiring me to re-read the book AND see the movie! (You know, once hell freezes over, we have a babysitter and the energy to go to a movie…)

    • Aw…thank you! I get so fired up about anything Gatsby.

      Go to the movie alone! That is what I did! First time I ever did it and I loved it. I left the hubs home with the kids and just went off on a Sunday morning for a couple hours :)

  16. Reading this was the perfect end to my night! I just came back from seeing the movie all alone too. Unfortunately I haven’t read the book in many many years, since college so I wasn’t as familiar with some of the lines. The movie has inspired me to go out and get the book ASAP! I think the male cast was outstanding too! Leo made my heart flutter and did such an amazing job portraying Gatsby! I also loved the costumes! I bet that lone will get nominated for an award. Anyway, great review Kate! I’m glad I held off reading it until I saw the movie.

  17. I loved the movie. Not a huge fan of the music but I did appreciate that it made sense in the scenes it was in. Oh Nick The big ole fat liar. I liked Luhrman’s portrayal of him.

  18. Awesome review, you honestly took the words right out of my mouth… I loved it and tilted my head in confusion at all of the same places you did. I can’t wait to see it again.

    I heart FSF and have read Gatsby four times. I would love to sit and discuss it with over wine for hours. With a little Jay-Z playing in the background.