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.”