The Latest Gatsby
The newest film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, starring Leonardo Dicaprio and Carey Mulligan, is a disappointment -- but a disappointment with diagnostic value.
Clearly, director and co-writer Baz Luhrmann, in his film adaptation, does not pretend to offer literal fidelity to Fitzgerald's work and interprets it in an unapologetically idiosyncratic and often modern way. Nevertheless, the film's flaws are revealing. They reflect certain of our cultural failings and mistaken cultural assumptions far more than Luhrmann and his co-writer Craig Pearce perhaps intend.
The damage is most evident in the portrayal of the narrator, Nick Carraway. Precisely because Fitzgerald's Nick is so admirable and so vital to the novel, the film's quite different portrayal is noteworthy. As the book begins, Nick speaks to the reader calmly and simply. We learn that he graduated from Yale, shortly thereafter fought in World War I and came east, from his native Midwest, to work in the bond business. We also learn, almost as an aside, that he has now returned to the Midwest. Without any drama, he states: "When I came back from the east last autumn, I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever..." He, or Fitzgerald, is telling us Nick has certain immutable standards and that his vision is a moral one. Joan Didion once famously remarked that many modern readers take fictional narrators too literally and that such readers often do not imagine a narrator would lie to them. Fitzgerald is telling us that Nick, as narrator, can be trusted. He won't lie to us. His version will be clear-eyed, sparing no one.
Contrast Fitzgerald's Nick with Luhrmann's. As the film begins, we encounter Nick, played by Tobey Maguire, at a sanatorium, having apparently been diagnosed with depression and anxiety. One infers that the frenetic life in the east, coupled with his disillusionment after Gatsby's death, caused his breakdown. His narration is a form of therapy. At his psychiatrist's suggestion, he writes of his experiences. Thus, he does not speak to us from a singular wellspring of deeply felt -- but lightly worn -- conviction, as does Fitzgerald's Nick. He does not even speak to us of his own initiative. He speaks, or writes, at the direction of his therapist.
In his portrayal of the Jazz Age, Luhrmann unwittingly gives us a 21st century truth: the therapeutic vision has replaced the moral vision. Right and wrong recede in the wake of trauma and recovery. And the narration is entirely self-referential: it is for Nick's own well-being, not for the education of others. Further, compare this Nick with Fitzgerald's Nick who, at 30, is a mature man. He has already come of age at Yale and in the war. Fitzgerald's Nick is not in the least destabilized or traumatized by the excess and vulgarity he witnesses. He is merely disdainful. By contrast, Tobey Maguire's Nick is alternately confused, intimidated, and dazzled by Gatsby's world, and Tom and Daisy's too. While still possessed of the same biography as Fitzgerald's Nick, he has all the gravitas of a freshman at his first frat party. At 30, he is a charming adolescent.
Corruption and language can mutually reinforce -- as Orwell, among others, has taught us. Distortions of language can both reflect and create moral distortions. Luhrmann casts aside not only Fitzgerald's resolute and subtle moral vision but the beauty of the language that depicts it. Fitzgerald's delicate, poetic narrative slowly underscores and draws us into Gatsby's tragedy and makes him a more compelling and sympathetic figure than a more prosaic account might render.
Image and metaphor weave into the plot and dialogue. Layer by layer, Fitzgerald's elegant, subtle language renders the fullness and complexity of Gatsby's world -- hope and loss, effort and futility, vacuity and substance, a life and society at its most febrile -- and on the brink of destruction: the green light, ashes and an ashen landscape, Daisy's white dresses ...
Unfortunately, in Luhrmann's hands, Fitzgerald's language and imagery is simplified to the point of crudeness. Language is flattened, truncated, and reduced to so many moveable parts. The imagery is oversized and obtusely underscored. Some of Fitzgerald's finest passages are placed on the screen so that we see them as Nick's typewritten prose. Thus, words and paragraphs are cut and pasted; lines can be moved here, no, wait... maybe there, oblivious to the resulting dissonance and dislocation. For example, Fitzgerald's chapter three begins with the poetic introduction that captures the superficial vitality, but also the transitory, ephemeral quality of a world borne of Gatsby's imagination: "There was music from my neighbor's house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars." In the film, this language becomes part of the therapeutic/drafting process scene in which Nick clumsily hashes out the final version. In addition, Luhrmann's Nick claims that his neighbor, Gatsby, watches him all the time; it is actually the image of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, in the valley of the ashes, that Fitzgerald's Nick claims watches over everything.
The party scenes at Gatsby's are so shrill and crass, with the additional dissonance of contemporary music, it is as if Lurhmann doesn't trust a coarsened 21st century audience to recognize vulgarity without stage whispers. In Fitzgerald's hands, the party scenes are not nearly as shrill, while still capturing the excess. They are Gatsby's failed effort, but an effort nonetheless, to impress and to lure Daisy back to him. There is still a dream left to lose, or so Gatsby thinks. Finally, Luhrmann's Nick even uses late 20th century vernacular when he states that he is "without a clue" as to how he arrived home after drinking too much during an evening with Tom and his mistress. In addition to the dislocating effect, Luhrmann again misses the essential truth of Fitzgerald's Nick. He is not "without a clue"; he is utterly self-possessed, if still quite human. He does, after all, fall in love with Jordan.
Gatsby may have lost his life, and nearly his soul, in part to the casual cruelty of a world he tried vainly to seize, but the beauty of Fitzgerald's language helps to signal the gravity of this loss -- a human life -- and the pathos of his doomed effort. Deprived of Fitzgerald's poetry and Nick's authority, Luhrmann's cinematic version deflates and conflates. There exists no larger sustaining vision and everyone participates, if some more easily than others, in the rather impersonal, frantic excess.
The film's misuse of Fitzgerald's language and imagery is symptomatic of the loss of his moral vision. Such a vision is necessarily a coherent one and coherence is created and communicated by order, clarity, and symmetry. The sometimes trivializing and discordant use of Fitzgerald's language tells us that this is a completely amoral vision; no one is possessed of the truth. In Fitzgerald's portrayal, Gatsby's dream, the American dream, however illusory or corrupted, is -- tragically -- a dream for which people die. In Luhrmann's film, it's just a party.
Then again, it is possible that this crudeness of character and language is not a flaw at all. It is possible that Luhrmann intended to distort Fitzgerald's work and for precisely these effects. It is possible he intended to portray, not 1920's culture, but our own. Still revealing, of course.... but in a different way.