Not as good as the book. That is the standard dismissal of movies based on novels. It is an easy way to shortcut conversation and proclaim, I read the book! But books and movies are very different media. Translating texts from one form to another is more adventurous than a formula that reduces the equation to x should equal y.
That said, there are some texts that require a heady mix of ambition, ego, talent and craziness to even consider. The Great Gatsby is near the top of that list. But there is a reason for Gatsby madness. Some themes resonate through the years, and texts that express those themes deserve a re-reading and prove too timely and tempting not to bring to the screen again. The fourth screen adaptation of Gatsby hit theaters last Friday, and the timing is perfect.
Critics have had very mixed opinions of Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation. Most tip toward the negative. But that is hardly news. No screen adaptation has satisfied critics.
Poor reviews are in keeping with the response to the novel, which was not well regarded by critics on publication. The Great Gatsby didn’t become the great American novel and a staple of high school and college curricula until long after Fitzgerald’s death in 1940. There are plenty of modern haters of the novel as well as the movies made from it.
But there are many reasons the novel continues to win new fans and remain a favorite across generations. I read it every decade or so, and what it means to me changes as I age, like every great novel.
First and most obviously, a reason for the novel’s enduring popularity is that it reads like a movie, and Americans love movies. Fitzgerald loved movies (and all the pop thrills of his time – cars, jazz, beautiful women, prohibited booze and all the ease and trinkets money can buy), and he understood them.
Before the first chapter has ended, Fitzgerald has Nick Carraway express this about himself: And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on trees – just as things grow in fast movies – I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.
Just as things grow in fast movies is the essence of the comfort and experience of moviegoing. In life and in novels, heartbreak, war and other human tragedies take a long time. We suffer with the characters.
In the movies, time is compressed and collapsed. Sometimes filmmakers have to say three years later, but if a heart is broken with blossoms on the trees and the scene cuts to snow on the ground, we can breathe a sigh of relief. Certainly, the grief will have softened and we will be spared watching that suffering.
We want more and we want it quicker. Fast and Furious 6 is coming to theaters soon. 6! Are you convinced yet? Television has only accelerated the time collapse. Complex human disagreements are solved in a comic half hour. Complex crimes are solved in an hour.
Understanding this dramatic shift in how we consume stories is a remarkable insight. The Great Gatsby was written and published before you could walk into a movie theater and expect color or sound. (There was much experimenting with both in the mid-’20s, confined mostly to shorts and not widely available.) But Fitzgerald could see us changing.
The Great Gatsby is about 150 pages long. You can read it in a weekend, taking generous time off for other activities. But in that brief time, love is found, lost, found and lost again. Five years, the World War, fortunes made and big shifts in society, all in 150 pages.
Nick’s statement also suggests that he is the star of his own movie. Don’t we all do that now? (I do it to David Byrne lyrics. And she was looking at herself. And things were looking like a movie.)
Fitzgerald also articulates the lure of celebrity. Daisy is described as the golden girl. She is rich and beautiful, but when she attends one of Gatsby’s famous parties, she cannot take her eyes off the movie star.
Issues of class and wealth are everywhere in The Great Gatsby, but the novel doesn’t lecture about them. It pokes at them. The old money character is an ignorant, bragging, racist polo player. The current/former bootlegger is a delusional romantic, trying to transition his questionably obtained fortune into legitimate endeavors. The young man looking for a prosperous future goes to work in the financial markets, rejecting offers to get into the fixed side of the business only to learn that his boss has done just that.
Romance, melodrama, glamour, excess and reflections on society make The Great Gatsby a text that can appeal to a variety of zeitgeists, which keeps it fresh. But not quite a century after it was written, isn’t it remarkable how many of these themes are relevant? We’re even living with the effects of a war (on terror this time) that we don’t really understand. This is the perfect time for a new screen Gatsby and for re-reading the novel.
Knowing Baz Luhrmann was behind the new screen adaptation, I knew any of the ambivalence about the rapid changes in society and the possible downsides of adoring wealth and unbridled ambition would go out the window.
Luhrmann is getting praise for using much of the actual dialogue, but in the first scene, he guts the meaning of the opening sentiment of the novel, the statement that hooked me as a teenage reader.
In the novel, Nick begins with advice his father gave him to explain how he became such a good listener. Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages you’ve had. Growing up, this is what many of us were told.
In the new movie, the idea of listening to people is voiced, but why you would want to do it is thrown out. Listening to people is transformed from a process by which you gain understanding and empathy of those different from you to a process by which you gain advantage over them. How apropos of today.
The new on-screen Gatsby does have many charms. It is a gorgeous, sumptuous feast of visual and aural excess, even without 3-D enhancement.
The contemporary tunes are given rich jazz underpinnings. The cast, in nearly every role, is a vast improvement over the 1974 screen version.
Most gratifying is the perfect match of the character of Gatsby and Leonardo DiCaprio to embody him. While few people coming to see this new version may be world-weary enough to sympathize, one particularly wrenching moment of the novel is piercingly brought to life in the movie.
You can’t repeat the past, Nick tells Gatsby. Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can! is Gatsby’s response. He’s wrong, of course, but you want to believe Gatsby because he’s desperate for it to be so, and DiCaprio’s delivery breaks your heart.
You can’t repeat the past, but The Great Gatsby demonstrates another great American writer’s view. The past isn’t dead. Actually, it’s not even past, William Faulkner said. The new Gatsby film proves that a still-relevant text worthy of new readers can be a fast and furious entertainment on screen now.