My first encounter with The Great Gatsby was not with the novel itself but, alas, with the 1974 film adaptation starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.
It was playing on the tiny little television screens on a bus taking me from Boston to a Model UN conference in New York my freshman year of high school, and I half-watched it while doing something else, at least until the unfortunate climax, when Redford crashed dramatically into that pool and Farrow left town, seemingly unrepentant. I was appalled: my friend and I agreed that Daisy was the worst of all possible creatures, hated her with the particular intensity that teenage girls feel for all the seemingly imperfect members of their sex. We decided, mulishly, to never read the book, even though people insisted that it was a classic — the story was stupid, the characters were stupid, and we weren’t going to be stupid enough to fall into their traps again.
It was not until my senior year of high school that my favorite teacher — to whom I had repeated some version of the above story years before, and who was appropriately horrified — forced me to read the book, in an independent study that mostly consisted of her giving me random books she thought I would like and me reading them dutifully. I discovered that Gatsby is, in fact, a perfect novel — I am not intellectually original enough to find faults with it, or to insist that it is not really all that — and when I read it again, in college, the depth of its perfection seemed even more profound.
The story is, of course, incredibly compelling, in a Greek tragedy kind of way, but as anybody who has had to read it in a tenth grade English class knows, that is not the reason nearly every teenager in America is forced to read it: we read it because it is a uniquely American book, a book specifically about our ideas about ourselves, which have changed surprisingly little in the past ninety years. It is no accident that Gatsby was featured prominently in an episode of that masterpiece of twenty-first century American fiction, The Wire: as drug dealer D’Angelo Barksdale said, “he frontin’ with all them books. But if we pull one down off the shelf, ain’t none of the pages ever been opened. He got all them books, and he ain’t read one of ‘em. Gatsby, he was who he was, and he did what he did, and ’cause he wasn’t ready to get real with the story, that shit caught up to him.”
The new adaptation of The Great Gatsby has been subject to an incredible amount of anticipation, most of it negative: we have watched the trailers for the movie with a kind morbidly fascinated dread, wondering what has Baz Luhrmann done now? We have looked forward to Gatsby, that is, in much the same way people look forward to a natural disaster: like a California earthquake or a late August hurricane, we know it’s coming, and have braced ourselves for the impact.
Perhaps the strangest thing about Luhrmann’s Gatsby is that it is not a disaster at all. Unfortunately, that’s just about the best (and worst) that can be said for it. The trailers emphasized the movie’s visual pyrotechnics, which will be familiar to everyone who’s seen Moulin Rouge! or Romeo + Juliet. But for all the aesthetic bravura of the film — those costumes! those sets! — its narrative is shockingly faithful to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. With one or two relatively minor alterations – Nick is writing the book from a sanatorium; Jordan Baker fades from view after the first half-hour — the story is unchanged. The foregrounding of Nick Carraway is at stark contrast with the Redford version, though this strategy would work better if anybody but the woefully miscast Tobey Maguire were playing the part: he is much too old for the role, and plays it too buffoonishly.
More successful is the characterization of Gatsby as less a romantic hero than a genuine lunatic whose pursuit of his old flame is both crazy and, from her perspective, more than a little frightening. Leonardo DiCaprio seemed like a poor choice to me until I saw how he and Luhrmann were approaching the character: nobody currently acting has specialized in insanity quite like DiCaprio, and he turns in his best performance in years in the movie, while Carey Mulligan makes Daisy into a remarkably sympathetic creature, less the classic, uncaring bitch than a woman stuck between a rock and a hard place. She looks so hunted in the climactic hotel room scene where Gatsby tries to force her to tell her husband (Joel Edgerton) that she never loved him that it’s impossible not to feel sorry for her.
The real problem with the film lies not in the details — Maguire’s insufficient performance, the slightly anticlimactic staging of a certain late-in-the-game car accident, et cetera — but in the simple fact of its existence. It may sound crotchety to say this, but what I got from the Gatsby movie most of all is that adapting The Great Gatsby for the screen is, quite simply, a futile endeavor.
I was a little surprised by my own reaction: I am not a purist, and was never too bothered by the idea of Luhrmann grafting his own aesthetic onto Gatsby in lieu of Fitzgerald’s relatively spare, melancholy prose. But the problem lies not with Luhrmann’s over-the-top visual style but with the fact that that style is all he has added to the story. His movie is so faithful to its source text that I wondered why it needed to exist at all: mostly, I found myself wanting to read the book again. I will never forget that book, but as enjoyable as the film was in the moment, I felt myself forgetting it even as I walked out of the theater.
Because despite sticking so close to the letter of Fitzgerald’s narrative, Luhrmann’s film never quite grasps its central premise, which is the intoxication and inherent emptiness of the American Dream. I’m sure Luhrmann himself would disagree with this assessment: after all, Gatsby’s origin story remains unchanged, and he still dies in pursuit of a phantom. But in this movie, Gatsby and his fate feel more like a single character’s specific neuroses rather than a broad indictment of the entire psyche of the nation. It turns out that you cannot so easily divorce style from substance: in some ways, there is no difference between the two. Fitzgerald’s prose is not so disposable, nor is the slightly off-putting slipperiness of his narrator: Gatsby may yearn for Daisy, but Nick yearns for an idea of America that he believes Gatsby embodies, and which dies along with him.
DiCaprio’s Gatsby may be chasing a dream, but for all his madness, his goals never seem quite empty: who wouldn’t enjoy these over-the-top bachannals? Who wouldn’t want this Daisy, with her big sad eyes and her giddy smile? His failure feels more like a tragedy of circumstance than an inevitability. But Gatsby’s failure is inevitable, because the country’s failure is inevitable — or at least, the country’s dream is inevitable. The dream of perfection, of endless wealth, of a self created out of nothing, will always be proven nothing more than that: a fragile, ephemeral dream, gone in the harsh light of day.