I finally got around to seeing Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous novel at the $3 movie house. The Great Gatsby with Leonardo DiCaprio has been big hit with the public, but not with the critics, many of whom seem to have trotted out the theses of their A+ high school papers on The Great Gatsby to explain why Luhrmann's version doesn't live up to their theories.
Personally, I thought it was pretty good adaptation, more energetic and emotionally powerful than the tasteful, listless 1974 one with Robert Redford as Gatsby and a screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola, a movie distinguished mostly by Ralph Lauren's elegant High WASP costumes.
But then, I don't find The Great Gatsby (published 1925) as a novel to be all that great. It's very good, ranking with, say, Waugh's four or five best novels, but, unfortunately, American literature isn't really all that spectacular. So, it's reputation gets inflated by American patriotism and by its being on all the high school reading lists.
Putting famous novels up on the screen often exposes them as not really all that. The 1974 version just seemed to reinforce among literati the assumption that Fitzgerald's novel is just so superior that crass filmmakers can't grasp the ineffable essence the way you did while writing your book report in 10th grade.
Interestingly, The Great Gatsby didn't set the world on fire when published in 1925, even though Fitzgerald was already a hot commodity. It didn't take off until the military printed up lots of free paperback copies during WWII. So, even though I've more admired than loved TGG the two or three times I've read it, I appreciate that guys doing a lot harder job than me were knocked out by it in the 1940s.
Here's an idea for a framing device for the next movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby: start with a 19-year-old sailor sweating in his bunk on the U.S.S. Enterprise steaming full speed toward Midway Island. He can't sleep, so to take his mind off the upcoming battle, he starts reading this story about rich people going to expensive parties back before the War and the Depression. He tut-tuts a few times at how superficial and shortsighted everybody was in the 1920s, but mostly he wishes he was at those parties instead of on this goddam flattop. Fade into the movie.
At the end, after the "boats against the current" closing line, we fade to a montage of the sailor, with his well-thumbed copy of the paperback in his back pocket walking down the gangplank into post-war California, going to college on the GI Bill, becoming a high school English teacher, and then assigning his students The Great Gatsby until he retires in 1990. In 2013, his teenage great-grandchildren invite him to Baz Luhrmann's extravant movie version, which gives him a fatal stroke. But just before he dies, he smiles at how much kids these days like his favorite book.
So why the critics v. public disagreement on this year's version?
Luhrmann is an adventuresome populist by intention. He invented a new style, peaking in Moulin Rouge, to please mass audiences. As I wrote in 2008:
Luhrmann worked out a novel set of conventions for his Red Curtain style, the maximalist opposite of Lars Von Trier's more celebrated but less successful Dogme 95 minimalism. Like Bollywood musicals intended to be understood by peasant audiences, the Red Curtain rules stressed blatantly unrealistic theatrical artifice; plots that are time-tested, if not downright hackneyed (in “Moulin Rouge,” we quickly infer from La Traviata and La Bohème that the beautiful courtesan must ultimately die of consumption in the young poet’s arms); and shameless melodrama, all as “a device to disarm oh-so-clever, oh-so-cool people, so that you can have these very direct emotional experiences,” as Luhrmann explained in 2001.
Luhrmann punches up Gatsby's party scenes, which are absolutely central to the story's appeal, to make an impact in hard-partying 2013. I find his occasional use of hip-hop works quite well — the parties start with appropriate 1920s Dixieland music then gradually work their way up to Jay-Z's hip-hop score.
And, Luhrmann does a good job of simplifying Fitzgerald's story down to its core — Gatsby's doomed love for Daisy — so that it will be readily comprehensible to a generation of C students needing to get up to speed on what the assigned book is about without actually reading it. The one thing Luhrmann is stumped by is how to coherently relate Fitzgeralds' strange plot devices needed to get the right people into the wrong cars on the disastrous road trip to the Plaza Hotel.
In showing us exactly what the story is about, Luhrmann dispenses with some of Fitzgerald's vagueness and abstraction that entranced future movie critics in high school.
By the way, it's a commonplace these days to read The Great Gatsby ethnically.
Everybody today expresses gleeful hatred toward the (rather poorly) delineated polo playing bad guy Tom Buchanan, a predecessor for Billy Zane's Anglo-villain in Titanic. Early on, Tom endorses the book The Rise of the Colored Empires by a cross between Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard. (That sailor 17 years later heading toward a showdown with the Japanese Empire at Midway probably wouldn't snigger as much as moderns do at the phrase "rise of the colored empires.")
On the other hand, Fitzgerald's obvious aversion toward Jews and blacks gets overlooked or explained away. There is a whole cottage industry constructing theories about how the beloved Gatsby is really Jewish, black, and/or gay.
Interestingly, Fitzgerald seemed to agree with Tom Buchanan, at least in the early 1920s. (Fitzgerald espoused various ideologies over the years, becoming, for example, a Marxist during the Depression, so one shouldn't take any of them too seriously.) In 1921, he wrote to Edmund Wilson from Europe:
Raise the bar of immigration and permit only Scandinavians, Teutons, Anglo-Saxons and Celts to enter. ... I believe at last in the white man's burden. We are as far above the modern Frenchman as he is above the Negro. ... You may have spoken in jest about New York as the capital of culture but in 25 years it will be just as London is now. Culture follows money ...
Fitzgerald quoted on p. 215 of Paul Johnson's Modern Times
I haven't studied up on Fitzgerald that much, so I'll just speculate on his ethnic attitudes from the novel. My hunch is that as a wealthy, extremely assimilated Midwestern Irish Catholic Ivy Leaguer, he resented the inner-innermost circle of American life: rich Eastern polo-playing WASPs like Tom Buchanan.
In turn, as a young man of the second circle, Fitzgerald looked down upon the third and fourth circles. Judging from the ghastly Meyer Wolfsheim gangster character in The Great Gatsby, the man who ruined the innocence of little American boys by fixing the 1919 World Series ("Tell us it ain't so, Joe!"), Fitzgerald was anti-Semitic. (Luhrmann cast an Indian actor as Wolfsheim to deflect accusations of anti-Semitism, although it just makes the character look even less American.)
Toward blacks, Fitzgerald was, at best, bemused. Nick Carraway observes:
As we crossed Blackwell's Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.
"Anything can happen now that we've slid over this bridge," I thought; "anything at all ...
(Luhrmann has Tobey Maguire as Carraway respond warmly to this vignette, without any trace of the book's distaste for uppity blacks.)
Instead, Fitzgerald rooted for the second circle in American life: Midwestern WASPs like narrator Nick Carraway, Germans like Great Plains small town boy James Gatz, lace curtain Irish like Fitzgerald himself, and so forth. Basically, he like the limited number of ethnicities he would allow to immigrate to the U.S.: "only Scandinavians, Teutons, Anglo-Saxons and Celts," to quote Fitzgerald.