Friday, April 4, 2014

The Great Gatsby

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther... And one fine morning —

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

I recently re-read The Great Gatsby. Universally acknowledged as one of the great novels in English, if not in any language, it is one of those rare books that truly deserves all the plaudits that come its way. Published in 1925, this nearly century old book tells a timeless story in a way that can (and has been) interpreted in an almost infinite variety of ways.

I hadn’t read the book in many years, but what struck me this time through was how the story has affected me every time I have read it. When I was in high school, I read it for the love story. When I was in college, I read it because I had to, but loved it although I was too young to fully appreciate it. In my early thirties, a conversation I had with my father led me to it again and my dad, the best teacher I have ever known, and I had a long conversation about it one night over dinner.

This time, I came at the story with much more life experience and the book spoke me in an entirely different way. I have now experienced much of what happens in the book. I have hung out with the über-rich; I have known spoiled, beautiful women; I have known the philanderers and bullies that these women sometimes marry; I have had the misfortune of falling in love with a man unattainable to me.

I found myself less invested in the love story and more in what it represented. The woman who plays two men off each other made me angry; the scenes of the parties filled with drunks making fools of themselves made me sad; I found myself identifying with Nick much more than I ever have as he looks on and comments upon the absurdities around him. I loved it.

The book has been translated to film many times, but the most recent three were the ones I watched recently. The first was the 1974 film version with Robert Redford as Gatsby, Mia Farrow as Daisy, and a very young Sam Waterston as Nick. Highly stylized, it drags a bit. Adapted by Francis Ford Coppola, who loves high drama, many of the scenes were extended beyond what they needed to be. It was as if we the audience could not be trusted to infer the truth of the Buchanan marriage, something Fitzgerald trusted us to do.

Redford is pretty to look at, but he’s not the strongest Gatsby. He tries to show us the danger that lurks beneath the surface, but it feels wrong. His first scene with Nick is so overplayed as to be silly; when he finally sees Daisy again, the two of them stare at each other so long, it becomes ridiculous. In the book, Gatsby is a romantic, bordering on the naive despite what he does for a living. Here, Redford’s portrayal makes him just seem deluded.

Waterston, on the other hand, plays Nick beautifully. In many of the scenes, he is literally in the background. Yet, he has such a presence, we never forget he is there. His reactions to what he witnesses are wonderfully portrayed and never overdone.

Farrow is horribly miscast; her Daisy is annoying to watch. Farrow fails to grasp the subtlety of Daisy, playing the role too broadly. Far from understanding why Gatsby would pine for this woman for a decade, her performance led to me to wonder how the man didn’t understand why he is too good for her.

The other problem with this version is that the art direction took Fitzgerald’s subtle descriptions and ran amok. The Buchanans live in a world that is all light and white; Myrtle and George live in a world that is all dark and ashes. Myrtle is portrayed as so common, it seems impossible that Tom would be attracted to her. Again, it is better when the differences are underplayed.

Overall, this movie fails to capture the spirit of the book on any level. Third of the three.

Second of the three is the 2000 television version. Toby Stephens is a good Gatsby, romantic but with a real air of danger. Mira Sorvino is a revelation as Daisy. She manages both the flighty, spoiled, rich woman and the woman with a soul that Gatsby fell in love with. It is easy to understand why this man was haunted by her for so many years. Paul Rudd is excellent as Nick, taking the character from a hanger-on to Gatsby’s one true friend.

The reason this version works so well is that the producers did not try to reproduce the book, an impossibility without Fitzgerald’s language. What they did was take the bones and the structure of the story, flesh it out, and incorporate as many of the famous lines as they could without forcing them.

In terms of pure spectacle, Baz Luhrmann’s movie version released last summer will be difficult to beat. Everything is over the top, but it works because so were Gatsby’s and the Buchanans’ lives. The parties are lavish; the colors are saturated; the booze flows freely.

Although the party scenes are magnificent and worth seeing on the big screen, what takes this version to my number one spot is the acting. Leonardo DiCaprio is an excellent Gatsby. I got a real sense of what was driving the man to do everything he has done to get to that mansion on Long Island.

Tobey Maguire shines as Nick and manages to convey the character journey from awed observer to cynic beautifully. Luhrmann fleshed out the relationship between Gatsby and Nick to such a degree that when Nick pays that final compliment to Gatsby, you kind of agree with him.

Carey Mulligan is all right as Daisy, but the revelation is Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan. She takes a thankless role in the novel and turns it into the most sympathetic version I have ever seen.

It goes without saying that the costumes and production design are magnificent; the film won Oscars for both. The music is typical Luhrmann, but it works. If you are only going to watch one version, make it this one. If possible, see it on the big screen.

Of course, I would recommend that you not watch it on the screen, but read it. It takes about as long to read the book as it does to watch one of these versions and none of the three comes even close to being as good. Why?

F. Scott Fitzgerald could coin a phrase. There are so many wonderful lines in this book that one could almost reprint the entire thing and call it genius. The following are my favorites. I hope they inspire you to pick up the book and read it whether for the first time or the tenth.

“I hope she'll be a fool -- that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”

“There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.”

“And, I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”

“I wasn't actually in love, but I felt a sort of tender curiosity.”

“You see I usually find myself among strangers because I drift here and there trying to forget the sad things that happened to me.”

“Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead.”

“Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”

“It’s a great advantage not to drink among hard drinking people.”

“Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”

“The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.”

“It takes two to make an accident.”

“The officer looked at Daisy while she was speaking, in a way that every young girl wants to be looked at sometime.”


  1. Very interesting, well written and thoughtful post, Chris. I've read the book and saw the Redford movie, but neither spoke to me. Maybe it was too long ago and I need to revisit the book.

    1. That's the wonderful thing about great literature, Billie. What speaks to some of us doesn't to others. There is more than one classic, beloved by many, that fails to reach me on any level.

      Thanks for commenting, my friend.

  2. Your age-related critique was very interesting. After working at UD for many years, I would have thought one of the profs would have presented a novel in the same way--since many had had tenure +years while I was there (37 years). Your insights are thought provoking. I WILL reread the novel. It's been 35 years since I read it last. I saw the Leonardo DiCaprio film last year and thought the actors were cast well. Thanks ChrisB for taking the time to post your thoughts!

    1. Thank you for your comment, Russell Photos. I think one of the pleasures of many books, this one included, is that there are many ways of presenting them. Each can be enlightening and interesting.

  3. "Farrow is horribly miscast; her Daisy is annoying to watch." Understatement. She totally ruined the movie for me. Carey Mulligan, on the other hand, did such a great job I almost found myself actually sympathizing with Daisy. The "Daisy's changed her mind" scene almost made me cry. Leonardo DiCaprio was just the perfect Gatsby. (Although I haven't seen the 2000 version). Great piece, Chris!

    1. Give the 2000 version a try and let me know what you think of Mira Sorvino as Daisy. I love the way she conveys layers to Daisy that the others seemed to have missed.

      Thanks for commenting, my fellow English major.

  4. I've read Gatsby twice - once in high school (where I rushed through it to meet a deadline) and again several months ago. The book deserves all of the praise it has ever received. The Coppola film was horrible; clearly no one involved understood anything about the story or the characters (and the less said about Mia Farrow the better).

    The new film was a really interesting interpretation that got a lot right, I think - even though Luhrmann's film deliberately over-stylized everything. I love Carey Mulligan - but there's something about her that made it hard to despise Daisy's weakness, which Fitzgerald clearly did.

    I guess now I need to look for the 2000 version. Thanks Chris!

    1. Thanks, Scott, for commenting. I recommend the 2000 version as it is different from the others, but in some ways, more true to the feel of the novel.

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