The periodic attempts may be estimable, but it is hard to imagine that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s poetic and lyrical 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, can be brought over into a movie. Gatsby, delicate but great art, is the epitome of the literary art. Baz Luhrman, the Australian producer and director, fails thoroughly to translate the literary to a movie. His Jay Gatsby, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, seems even more miscast than Robert Redford in director Jack Clayton’s forlorn 1974 attempt. A crucial character, Tom Buchanan, is badly miscast in both movies: Bruce Dern (1974) seems a worse casting than Joel Edgerton (2013), but that gives almost no edge to Edgerton. Fitzgerald’s superb Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker are never captured in Luhrman’s take. Tobey Macguire’s portrayal of narrator Nick Carraway, the voice of Fitzgerald’s story, is downright goofy. Fitzgerald’s uncanny Meyer Wolfsheim, the shrewd and almost graceful gangster who fixed the 1919 World Series, is at best a dull and predictable parody in Luhrman’s movie. More deeply, Fitzgerald’s dark and timeless Ironicle of the American Dream becomes a standard soapy love story in Luhrman’s version.
The essential scene in Fitzgerald’s novel comes early when narrator Nick Carraway visits Tom and Daisy Buchanan one afternoon in their classy (no other word seems as apt) Long Island mansion:
“(Tom and I) walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as the wind does the sea.
“The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”
Predatory Tom Buchanan, an immensely wealthy and leisured young man of thirty-two (“the polo player”), inheritor of an enormous fortune of Old American Money, who is physically and psychologically a brute (“hulking”), a man holding great contempt for poor and middle class people, a reminder with every step of his “cruel body” that Homo sapiens has changed little in thousands of years since the primal setting of the dominant chimp as alpha male–well, this Tom Buchanan, one of the most powerful ends ever to play football at New Haven, dispels on that breezy sylvan afternoon the heavenly cool pale and fleeting illusion of an Edenic refuge of wealth, a high castle in which immortal perfect young women are entowered far above the toiling masses and safely beyond the dust and pain of Earth. Tom doesn’t gainsay that the Rich have their exclusive refuges; but the absent Gatsby, as we soon learn, would imagine the heavenly scene Tom dispels could be an impregnable security if only once reached, a perfect moment forever, an eternal instant everything glorious and engrossing and everything but poor, nasty, brutish and short. But we soon learn Daisy and Jordan, the momentary goddesses, are not angelic but members of what Thorstein Veblen identified as the Leisure Class, a class often nasty and careless yet the envy of most of humanity yet also one whose private experience is characterized as being, in Fitzgerald’s words, neither happy nor unhappy, a fortified life of a searching, wandering restlessness broken sometimes through a tastefully conspicuous consumption in which polo ponies and chauffeur-driven luxury cars and world travel are latter day scalps and hides of vanquished foes and trophies of power in a ceaseless search for luxurious distraction against a mild but not anxious current of boredom.
Here is the crucial passage in the novel about Gatsby’s impossible dream of a refuge made of “non-olfactory” money (symbolic money then on printed lists and today on computerized trading screens):
“He found (Daisy) excitingly desirable. He went to her house (a huge, Old Money mansion in Louisville)…. It amazed him–he had never been in such a beautiful house before. But what gave it an air of breathless intensity was that Daisy lived there–it was as casual a thing to her as his tent out at the (World War One mobilization center) was to him. There was a ripe mystery about it, a hint of bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms, of gay and radiant activities taking place through its corridors, and of romances that were not musty and laid away already in lavender, but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year’s shining motor-cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered.”
Fitzgerald’s central drama is the dispelling of Gatsby’s mysteriously inevitable dream, the endless safety and engrossment on those upper floors. Gatsby’s dream is wrapped in money. Daisy’s voice, thrilling, always promising a beautiful flight like a great line of poetry (if not fulfilling that promise), “sounds like money.” Narrator Nick Carraway pronounces Gatsby’s Edenic dream finally “unutterable,” a wise ending of the matter by the mystical Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby is not least a reluctant betrayal of the American Dream, Horatio Alger version, a lancing made with lethal precision. Every sentence seems the one that should have been written. Every scene seems approved by Occam. Every description seems of stunning poetic compression. It is probably the most successful American novel of understatement. Fitzgerald’s masterpiece is founded on a brilliant literary attack in which the most disheartening revelation of primal humanity is dramatized in a supremely romantic style. Imagine Keats and Darwin joined in one compromised personality.
Here is the principle of the failure of the movie: Luhrman the movie maker with his movie sets is trapped in the physics of our real world. On his painstaking set (with, you suspect, powerful electric fans set on “Full”), it takes two or three butlers to help Tom shut those rear windows to dispel the wind-borne beauty, as you sense would be the actual case according to practicing physicists; but in the figurative physics of Fitzgerald’s novelistic world, Tom alone must end the dream vision, for his metaphorical dispelling is crucially thematic in Fitzgerald’s dark, anthropological tale: in masterful literature like Fitzgerald’s, metaphorical physics is far more important than mere verisimilitude to the ordinary physics of catching a wind in a long, windowed room.
Literal trueness to a literary work does not a truthful movie make: in fact, it is a bad sign. It is a small literal verisimilitude, not seldom probably an obsession, whose effect on the art-experience of its audience opposes that of literature. Every art has its own secrets. Are Fitzgerald’s closed to movie makers? Certainly they are in any sense of literal translation, literal guidance.
Luhrman goes on sincerely to create characters and movie sets in which alas such imaginative glories as Fitzgerald’s all-telling “rosy-colored space” in which the goddesses Daisy and Jordan are borne up cannot appear amidst real furniture of dark wood hues and the usual wall and ceiling appointments–you’ll notice that Fitzgerald leaves such detail out in his Platonic literary scene and immediately understand why–and in which Platonic literary scene distinct characters beautifully symbolize a class system with stunning immediacy despite its primordial origins in human primatology over thousands of years–Fitzgerald makes that long-gone genesis seem but a moment ago to the action of the people in The Great Gatsby–finally a human condition in which much can be explained by a consuming great longing for Heavenly experience beyond the human travail, indeed a static Heaven (and therefore a contradiction, a huge profundity Fitzgerald leaves unspoken since he has dashed the dream well before such might be pondered [or seems to have done so]).
Well, this problem expands to Luhrman’s full movie. Here and for the rest of the way in his film version, and on all allegorical levels, he becomes simply a literal-minded cinematic appropriator of the general popularity of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, not its art-substance: Luhrman energetically skips over Fitzgerald’s massive insights into America to create merely a conventional soap set in New York and surroundings and “reimagined” to blur the line between the 1920s and today (another bad sign).
And besides all this, there is the baneful influence of contemporary schlock. Gatsby’s parties remind of the Super Bowl halftime show. Meyer Wolfsheim reminds of, say, the Penguin in the Batman stories merged with Robert Newton’s Long John Silver in the 1950 movie version of Treasure Island; Fitzgerald’s wonderful Wolfsheim, who wears his cufflinks made of human molars and eats uneasily with a “delicate ferocity” in that alien WASP restaurant with its “Presbyterian nymphs” as decorations and who recalls fondly the old Metropole and gangland slayings there (for example, the killing of the bravely resigned mobster Rosy Rosenthal), is nowhere to be seen in the movie. Jordan Baker is simply a stock character, not Fitzgerald’s cheating golf champion of dubious character and a signature member of the Leisure Class. Daisy and Myrtle are not richly contrasted as they are, even nominally in their floral names, in Fitzgeralds’s novel: in the book, Tom bruises delicate Daisy’s knuckle but breaks his robust mistress Myrtle’s nose; and the two women’s floral names match their respective personalities as well as signifying Tom’s simultaneous different instinctual predilections; and neither woman is willing to throw Tom over when it comes to the day of reckoning, though Myrtle’s reckoning is final. Gatsby himself in his dream reminds of people today such as a hedge fund founder who is greatly wealthy, has indulged in conspicuous consumption almost unrivaled, has the biggest estate in a place of Old Money, possesses perhaps the essential painting of the post World War Two period, is under severe regulatory scrutiny for insider trading with the government looking to sack him, and in a certain sense hasn’t yet quite Made It To Acceptance and now most probably never will, even though the Old versus New Money class line is eroding: In a scene in The Great Gatsby in which the Sloanes and Tom, out riding from refined East Egg on Long Island on a weekend afternoon, drop in unannounced on Gatsby in gauche West Egg, Fitzgerald quietly says what should be said about the predicament of our hedge fund captain.
There are many more wonders of composition by Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, his greatest inspiration by far. We’ll leave them alive and well in that great book where they are best experienced.
Fitzgerald is close to Jay Gatsby, and Fitzgerald himself lasted but a short time. The people who survive in the novel, people who don’t crack-up, stay in their spheres. Tom and Daisy and Jordan stay in the Old Money; Meyer stays in his adventuresome and dangerous underworld. The middle class and poor people, seen by the snobbish Fitzgerald as vulgar and to be avoided, can’t seem to move up in the iron world of The Great Gatsby. But in a sense, Fitzgerald himself is finally a restless outsider in Gatsby.
Clearly the movies of The Great Gatsby haven’t been created with much of Fitzgerald’s restless vision, that outlook by which he was able to compose such a masterpiece. Here you think of him along with writers such as Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway: In The Old Man and the Sea you might think of Hemingway the writer as himself metaphorically the old fisherman finding indescribable beauty beneath the waves only to have the sharks strip that beauty down to the bones before the fisherman can bring his catch into the Cuban harbor: in short, the problem of the writing, the manuscript–the erosion of purity and beauty as the original vision is transformed into the composition. In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf’s heroine, seeking a respite, a refuge, from the lacerating experience of her times, throws a brave party which proves futile against the thick and growing disillusionment clouding her grim world. And in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald quotes on the title page this verse by Thomas Parke D’Invilliers which thematically captures both himself and Jay Gatsby listening to the money in Daisy’s voice, which is to say: Gatsby’s mansion and parties and stacks of colorful shirts and that magnificent motor car and, really, Fitzgerald’s great stylistic beauty in Gatsby itself:
Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry “Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you!”
There are other visions of America many of us have, and for us The Great Gatsby is perhaps largely an admirable wonder about a vision we may dispute as universal but which we’ll most probably acknowledge plays widely. Fitzgerald got much right about more than a few among us New World dreamers.
He may simply be beyond the movies.