While Baz Lurhmann’s film (barely) remains The Cool Thing About Which to Talk and my desire to step on the toes of literature scholars everywhere has yet to wane, here were my thoughts on The Great Gatsby.
I should note by way of prelude that I am not, in fact, a literature scholar or, for that matter, much a cinephile. My experience with The Great Gatsby, the novel, is not unlike that of millions of other Americans, i.e., I read it in high school. I did recently re-read it just last month, so my memory of it is rather fresh. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I don’t dislike Baz Lurhmann’s movies on principle – I would be lying through my teeth if I didn’t say that I have all of Moulin Rouge! more or less memorised – and had an all-consuming teenybopper crush on Leonardo DiCaprio during the immediate post-Titanic years.
Having said all of that, I went into Gatsby, the film, prepared for it to be an unmitigated disaster. Lurhmann has never been the most subtle of directors, preferring hallucinogenic swathes of colour to austere charcoal sketches, and, for all of the Jazz Age excesses it contains, Gatsby is ultimately a “small story,” as Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out a year ago. The obvious fear was that this adaptation would be all parties, all booze, all overwhelming anachronistic soundtrack. I ended up being surprised by the movie’s faithfulness to the book at a literal level. Well, the first bit of it really was all parties, I suppose, but, compared to the frenetic luridness of Moulin Rouge!, they seemed practically staid by comparison. I was especially impressed by the acting, even taking into account my implacable aversion to Toby Maguire. Carey Mulligan filled Daisy with all the inconsequential charm and painfully internalised femininity I could have wished for in her portrayal, Joel Edgerton was suitably dickish as Tom, and, as for Leo –
There’s a moment in the film, when Nick is at one of Gatsby’s parties for the first time and still trying to meet his elusive host and neighbour. Fireworks are going off over the water, strains of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue fill the theatre, and this happens.
Perhaps it is because I once stood on the streets of New York City and, in a fit of pique, listened to that exact piece of music as my gaze was drawn irresistibly upwards by the tops of skyscrapers, but this was just such a moment that I found myself almost reduced to tears. (In sum, Leo was sublime.)
Yet, for all that Fitzgerald’s story was indeed grafted onto the silver screen with minimal tweaks, that his characters were exactly as I imagined them to be, I found myself at a certain point utterly bored with the film, which is to say that Lurhmann managed to take a 50,000-word novel and transform into a tiresome melodrama. He is hardly the first director to be guilty of this particular sin, but I do believe it represents a substantial problem for the film-as-faithful-and-useful-adaptation because Gatsby’s candidacy for the Great American Novel does rest, in part, on its very brevity (that this also happens to make it a suitable work for high school curricula everywhere is, of course, a happy coincidence). The events of the book take place in the span of a single summer, so Nick’s personal acquaintance with Gatsby cannot have lasted for more than a handful of months. By any reasonable criterion, they were nothing more than strangers brought together for a short time by coincidence and mutual need. So heightened are Nick’s memories of this period, though, that he has assigned to them a gravity disproportionate to their actual substance and, in doing so, he betrays his youth and its feverish insistence that all the manifold joys and tragedies life can be telescoped into a single parenthesis.
In this respect, then, Lurhmann’s adaptation is an accurate one. Certainly, watching it made me see just how tawdry the plot of Gatsby is: Boy is ashamed of his lesser social origins and tries to old sport them into oblivion! Boy falls for girl but girl marries other, much more unpleasant boy! Boy tries to win her back, now that he throws hella awesome parties and wears nice shirts! Girl flirts with idea of leaving husband but is really just a tease! People die! And so forth. It’s nothing that your standard tabloid writer couldn’t fabricate in the face of a looming deadline. The fact that I had to consciously realise this, however, says something quite extraordinary about Fitzgerald’s writing. I liken the prose in Gatsby to a Mozart symphony (and, coming from me, that’s pretty much the highest compliment I can pay to just about anything): to paraphrase that apocryphal quote, there are just as many words as there should be in Gatsby, and, ah, what magic author works with them! Everything is in its right place, and even the most throwaway of phrases carry within them an unstudied charm that lingers for a second before drifting by, a faint tremor of perfume in its wake. It strikes me as almost obscene that Fitzgerald should have wasted such aesthetic beauty on so silly a tale.
Then again, perhaps that was the point all along. In my AP English class, six years ago, my classmates and I discussed – as all American high school students must – what The Great Gatsby had to say about the American dream. This was naturally linked to debates about the symbolism of the green light. I apparently got rather tetchy when someone insisted that it stood for money though cannot remember what I myself believed it represented. Revisiting the discussion now, six years later, I find myself thinking more and more about the obvious discordance between substance and style in Gatsby. The American dream is often a very vulgar thing, reduced to little more than the belief that worth is inextricably tied to material wealth, that we should all be free to pursue and accumulate that wealth, even if it is entirely divorced from what we might otherwise “deserve.” But who can bear to reduce such an aspirational idea to crude fundamentals? There must be some overarching romance to it as well; thus, all the usual trappings about bootstraps and self-made men. Gatsby requires both vulgarity and metaphysics to be great.
I get the sense that Lurhmann understood this too. What other explanation could there be for Nick Carraway’s intrusive voice-over narration and, most eye roll-inducing of all, those lines of text, lifted directly from the novel, that appeared on the screen itself? I can respect that he was trying to bring to the story a certain measure of transcendence, but I am afraid all he managed to do was repeatedly hit the audience over their heads with a proverbial frying pan while shouting, “DO YOU GET IT, HUH? DO YOU GET IT NOW?”