“The Great Gatsby is so close to poetry,” said film scholar Louis Giannetti recently, “that any film version does violence to its metaphoric quality.” That’s a problem that Baz Luhrman’s stunning new adaptation strives to avoid – with some success – though it does end up equating the U.S. with The Big Party. But this film loses sight, as all adaptations of Gatsby have, of the novel’s complex moral rebus.
Turning a classic novel into a film always involves narrative compression. The question is usually which sub-plot to leave out. Since sub-plots provide us with character motivation and narrative conflict, the result is usually simplification. If the subplots are tactically introduced by an omniscient narrator, like Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway, they pause the headlong rush of his story at key moments, filling in Gatsby’s past, connecting him to an American autobiographical tradition of “great men” that stretches back to Benjamin Franklin. Or they rush ahead: action and suspense, belief and disbelief – Fitzgerald was a master at keeping the moral issue alive. But Luhrman, eliminating a visit from Gatsby’s father and compressing other background info into a short voice-overs, sacrifices Gatsby as a “study of American character,” which had been the received reading mode for the last 80 years. That’s a loss, because Gatsby had been about a certain devolution of “American character,” which was not rooted in the “Roaring ‘20s,” as Luhrman presumes, so much as in World War I.
Also key to the novel was a conflict between regions of the U.S. — the West and the East. That was quite sharp in Fitzgerald’s day, and he became an amateur ethnographer when he went for military training in the South, where he met Zelda Sayre, the model for Daisy Buchannon. The South, he discovered, was foreign to the Midwest (Minnesota) where he came from. The “West” became Fitzgerald’s measure of moral rectitude, against which the permissive East was found wanting. Nick and Gatsby live at West Egg, the decadent Buchannons at East Egg. The symbolic egg is associated with Christopher Columbus and other hopeful Fabrege-like ornaments. But this moral compass has meaning only for Americans, and in declining numbers, as regional differences decline. Luhrman has preserved it, however, by having Nick take a “writing cure” at a sanatorium in the snowy Midwest.
The real moral complexity of the novel resides in its three parallel romances, all of which involve infidelity: Gatsby and Daisy, Tom and Myrtle, and Nick and Jordan. In the novel, Nick’s moral pronouncements are undercut by the ambiguous status of his relation to a girlfriend in Minnesota; meanwhile he dates a professional golfer who cheats in tournaments. She two-times Nick with Yale students a decade younger, but he seems to expect that: after all she’s named after a car, the Jordan coupe, which was marketed for those young women known as ‘speeds.’ Myrtle, who is “faintly stout, but carried her flesh sensuously,” is more than a match for Tom’s voracious materialism. This makes the naivete of Daisy and the narcissism of Gatsby look almost virginal, but beware: there are no roses in this bouquet.
All of this, and the lore of green lights and wedding cake ceilings, is interwoven in a dense 150 pages, so the novel usually takes me four or five class sessions to unpack. It is not surprising that much gets lost, or that in conclusion I have to explain that “so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” is really a very conservative view of class and social mobility. When Fitzgerald wrote that “the rich are different from you and me,” he meant something almost genetic. Aspiration and hope are magnificent, but don’t believe that you are going to become rich with clean hands.
Which brings us to Tom Buchannan, the secret center of the novel, played superbly by Joel Edgerton. Tom is a football player (not a tennis star), a bore, and a serial philanderer. But he is the only character seen reading a book, and the book he reads, The Rise of the Colored Empires, alludes to a real book and theory with which Fitzgerald was more in tune than the novel or film inform us. In fact, its metaphors about dams, dikes, flows, and tides is the likely source of Gatsby’s water imagery. Like most white Americans in the 1920s, Fitzgerald himself was a casual racist, his letters filled with references to “niggers” and “kikes” and “darkies.” Unlike Hemingway and Faulkner, he did not move easily among races and classes, but he did study the relation of social power to financial success. He understood charm as a tool of power. The real Tom is not a buffoon (as Bruce Dern played him in the 1976 film) and Baz Luhrman understands this. The real Tom has a will to power, a charm, and determination to defend his women, his house, and his wealth. He is closer to the bling-bling backers of this film than Luhrman can afford to represent, given his embrace of Political Correctness. The real Tom was still a Master of the Universe at the novel’s end – that was one reason Nick left town.
The rest of the film’s depiction of racial attitudes of the 1920s, one of the United States most xenophobic periods, is pure fiction. The gangster Meyer Wolfsheim was a very white Jew, modeled on the famous Arnold Rothstein. By no stretch of the imagination did Fitzgerald intend him to look like Amitabh Bachchan, although the latter’s resemblance to the recently convicted Wall Street trader Raj Rajaratnam is a brilliant bit of ethno-political fun. Nor were party-goers listening to much black music of any kind: their “jazz” was mostly white, big band music: think Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. As for black house servants, dream on Baz and J Z. No jazz trumpeters blew soulful notes on fire escapes in midtown Manhattan; blacks were effectively segregated to Harlem and a few outer neighborhoods. The “Harlem Renaissance” began after Gatsby was published. In the early 1920s, when Fitzgerald was writing, nearly all domestic help in the North was white – white Eastern Europeans, like the “muttering” old Finnish lady who tends to Nick’s cottage. And yet Luhrman gives a skillful bit of historic context by using black and white “still shots” that echo Lewis Hind photos of industrial workers and Dorthea Lange Dust Bowl migrants. That was a brilliant idea.
Film can add something to a novel, and I’m happy to say that Luhrman has made 3D effects contribute to this contextual photo montage. When Daisy rips off her pearl necklace, the shiny beads roll toward an eye-level camera with astonishing materiality. The camera flies through the gridwork of the Queensborough Bridge like a seagull, rising to a view of the night-time Manhattan that many repetitions make us understand is a multiplication of Gatsby’s green light. The 3D also lends the Valley of Ashes the opalescent darkness that Fitzgerald could only express by comparing it to El Greco’s painting. Then there is the house, and the parties that equal it. Part castle, part Disneyland logo, Gatsby’s abode is sometimes a cathedral, filled with organ music, and sometimes the Playboy Mansion, filled with chorus girls. Fireworks and champagne erupt at the camera, but you stop ducking after the second shot at your head because this is pure party, much as the jungle was pure jungle in Avatar.
Luhrman wants to leave us with The House as symbol of American excess, so it’s only fair to note that Fitzgerald himself never owned a house. His model for Gatsby’s mansion was a high school girlfriend’s house, which he combined with a mansion he and Ring Lardner used to speculate about as they sat drinking one summer on Long Island. His sarcastic description of Gatsby’s mansion – “factual imitation … spanking new … thin beard of raw ivy” – suggests the transparent stupidity of The House as a status symbol if one doesn’t have the right Capital. A McMansion does not get you entrée into the world of Tom and Daisy Buchannon.
This quibble aside, I liked the film. The novel has been filmed five times, and this is by far the best version. All the important stuff is here, beginning with the acting. Leonardo DiCaprio is a more convincing Gatsby than Robert Redford (1976) was: forget about Toby Stephens (2000) Alan Ladd (1949) and Warren Baxter (1926). It helps that we know him from a number of Horatio Alger-ish roles, from Titanic through Gangs of New York, Catch Me If You Can, and The Aviator. Di Caprio introduces a note of self doubt that was missing from Redford’s portrayal. Joel Edgerton is the best Tom Buchannon ever. Kat Mulvany is serviceable as his wife Daisy, the kind of woman whose shallowness dawns slowly on the audience, until they see that she would indeed run down Myrtle Wilson (played wonderfully by Isla Fisher) without a pause.
By film’s end we get it: yes “the rich are different,” as Fitzgerald noted, and the difference, as Hemingway replied, was that “yes, they have more money.”