Posted: August 6, 2013
n the Poetics, Aristotle weighs the importance of plot and spectacle in the success of a play, and concludes that there's nothing wrong with spectacle as long as the plot is well constructed. A test of this insight is The Great Gatsby, the latest screen adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan and co-written and directed by the Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann. With due respect to Aristotle, who can hardly be expected to anticipate 21st-century special effects, this movie heaps so much spectacle on Fitzgerald's elegantly constructed plot that the whole contraption comes crashing to the ground.
Luhrmann has done this before. His 1996 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, set in a modern seaside resort, cut most of Shakespeare's lines in order to make room for an indigestible soundtrack ranging from Garbage (that's a band) to the Butthole Surfers and even Richard Wagner (to squeeze a drop of emotion out of the ending). Luhrmann's 2001 film Moulin Rouge!, ostensibly a treatment of the Orpheus myth set in late 19th-century Paris, is even louder, crasser, and more frantic than his earlier films. It is also more cluttered with the sort of computer-generated imagery that makes Las Vegas look authentic.
But the worst yet is The Great Gatsby. I've seen a lot of terrible movies, but this one made me physically ill. Why would anyone want to inflict such damage on a novel that never did anything to him? Did a teacher of American literature frighten Luhrmann's mother while he was in the womb?
According to Luhrmann, his style is inspired by Bollywood, with its penchant for three-hour, song-and-dance extravaganzas that include dreamlike leaps from location to location and an eclectic mix of emotion known as masala. But you can't blame Bollywood for Luhrmann's mauling of The Great Gatsby. More responsible is the consensus view thatGatsby's been "done" already, and there is no reason to produce another straightforward film of this American classic—because Luhrmann's is at least the sixth, following a 1926 silent version; a 1949 film starring Alan Ladd and Betty Field; a 1955 TV play; a 1974 feature starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow; and a 2000 TV miniseries starring Toby Stephens and Mira Sorvino.
I've seen all but two of these films (the ones from 1926 and 1955 are not available), and while some have good qualities—for example, the best performance in the title role is by Toby Stephens, the son of the great British actress Maggie Smith—none comes close to capturing the sly wit and melancholy beauty of Fitzgerald's masterpiece. This is because none suggests a serious answer to the question posed by the title: what makes Gatsby great?
Just Out of Reach
The answer is not obvious. One possibility is that the word great is meant to be ironic, in the sense that we aren't supposed to admire the main character, the self-made Jay Gatsby. In the novel it is gradually revealed that he was born James Gatz, the son of shiftless North Dakota farmers who apprentices himself to an unscrupulous millionaire and eventually becomes one himself—after serving as an army lieutenant in the First World War and falling in love with a Louisville debutante named Daisy Fay.
This part of the novel is autobiographical, because just as Daisy spurns Gatsby because of his humble background and lack of prospects, so too did the Alabama debutante Zelda Sayre spurn Fitzgerald because his maternal grandfather was an Irish Catholic immigrant who owned a chain of grocery stores, and his ambitions were more literary than financial. Zelda relented after Fitzgerald's first novel was accepted by a publisher, but as he recalled years later, the incident left him with "an abiding distrust, an animosity, toward the leisure class" that was "not the conviction of a revolutionist but the smoldering hatred of a peasant."
When the novel opens in the summer of 1922, Daisy has married Tom Buchanan, the polo-playing scion of a wealthy Chicago family, and the couple is living in a stately Georgian mansion in East Egg, the "old money" section of Long Island (where Port Washington is today). But Gatsby has refused to accept this outcome. He dreams of winning Daisy back, and to that end has amassed a fortune through bootlegging and other shady businesses and bought an ostentatious mansion in the "new money" section of West Egg (where Great Neck is today).
East Egg and West Egg are divided by a small inlet, and the novel's signature image is of Gatsby standing on his own dock and stretching his arms toward the green light at the end of Daisy's. All six films include this image—to omit it would be like putting a grey whale in Moby Dick. But so far, no filmmaker has figured out quite what it means. One thing is clear, however. What makes Gatsby great is his deep yearning for something just out of reach.
For Hollywood it is a no-brainer to make that something Daisy, and to treat The Great Gatsby as a straightforward love story, played out against the vivid backdrop of the Roaring '20s, when liberated flappers flouted Victorian morality by bobbing their hair, drinking bathtub gin, and "petting" in the backseats of flashy automobiles. We see this treatment in the 1974 adaptation starring Redford and Farrow, produced six years after the demise of the Production Code and at the height of the sexual revolution. But by focusing so intently on the love story, this film diminishes the novel.
In Fitzgerald's telling, Gatsby cajoles his neighbor, a distant cousin of Daisy's named Nick Carraway, into arranging a reunion with Daisy. Shortly after that emotional encounter, which takes place in Nick's rented cottage, Gatsby confides to Nick that "Daisy comes over quite often—in the afternoons." Upon this subtle hint the 1974 film builds a long, unsubtle sequence showing the golden-haired lovers wafting about the sunlit marble halls of Gatsby's mansion, clinging to each other amid its silken bowers, and finally coming to rest as upside-down reflections in a pool filled with golden carp.
A Rotten Crowd
If this seems fishy to you, it's probably because you recall that The Great Gatsby is not told from the lovers' perspective but from Nick's. Like Marlow in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (a book greatly admired by Fitzgerald), Nick is a witness-participant, disinterested but also morally anchored enough to render judgments akin to the author's own. Nick's most striking judgment comes toward the end, when he tells Gatsby that Daisy, Tom, and their entire social circle are "a rotten crowd," adding, "You're worth the whole damn bunch put together."
Nick delivers this judgment partway through the novel's denouement, which begins when Gatsby announces to Tom that Daisy is leaving him, only to discover that she is too much of an emotional coward to do so. Next Gatsby's yellow roadster is involved in the hit-and-run death of Myrtle Wilson, Tom's mistress and the wife of a gas station owner on a godforsaken stretch of the road between Long Island and Manhattan called the "valley of ashes." As it happens, the driver is Daisy. But Gatsby takes the blame, only to be tracked down and shot by Myrtle's grief-crazed husband, George Wilson, who believes (with an assist from Tom) that Gatsby is not only the driver but also Myrtle's lover. The truth of Nick's judgment is borne out by the fact that he is the only member of the "the whole damn bunch" to attend Gatsby's funeral.
Of all the films mentioned, only the 1949 version tries to impose a Hollywood happy ending on these tragic events, and it does so by distorting the characters beyond recognition. All the others stick more or less to Fitzgerald's plot. But that makes it hard to sustain the notion that what makes Gatsby great is his love for Daisy. She's so clearly not worth it.
In this connection, I should say that the one merit of the 1974 film is Mia Farrow's performance as Daisy. Unlike Sorvino, Mulligan, and every other actress mentioned here, Farrow does not play Daisy as a spoiled, simpering victim. On the contrary, she brings out Daisy's arrogance—what Nick scathingly calls her "carelessness." It's too bad Farrow's co-star is Robert Redford, badly miscast in a role that calls for deep insecurity masked by nervous intensity, neither of which he can summon.
The Great Gatsby is a love story, but only in part. Many critics have remarked on the "surreal" or "allegorical" quality of certain images in the novel, such as the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. Equally suggestive is the "valley of ashes" where Myrtle and George Wilson dwell above their wretched gas station. That benighted place is presided over by a billboard for an "oculist" named T.J. Eckleburg, faded and peeling but still showing a pair of giant, disembodied eyes gazing at the scene through a pair of yellow spectacles.
Valley of Ashes
Despite its surreal quality, the valley of ashes is not a literary invention. On the contrary, in the 1920s it was a very real dumping ground for all the ashes and cinders produced by New York City's coal-burning heating systems. In 1992 Roger Starr wrote an article for the City Journal about how Robert Moses politicked to have the area made into Flushing Meadows Park, the site of the 1939 World's Fair. Starr notes that for Fitzgerald, "the vast cinder dump that accumulated along the west bank of the Flushing River in Corona, Queens" was "a symbol of an unchanging fate."
In this vein, the valley of ashes is sometimes likened to Dante's Inferno, with the eyes on the billboard representing God. "God sees everything!" George Wilson tells Michaelis, the Greek proprietor of a nearby café, on the night Myrtle is killed. George utters this exclamation while looking at the billboard, so Michaelis tells him, "That's an advertisement." Most films (and readers) stop there, regarding George's religious rant as delusional. But Fitzgerald doesn't stop there. Michaelis speaks the literal truth: the billboard is an advertisement. But the name Michealis (Michael) refers to the archangel who defends the righteous against the forces of Satan, and this is the only character besides Nick to serve as narrator. Further, Michealis's message to George is that instead of seeking vengeance he should "call up the church and get a priest to come over."
In a 1925 letter to literary critic Edmund Wilson, Fitzgerald had this to say about the critical reception to The Great Gatsby: "Of all the reviews, even the most enthusiastic, not one had the slightest idea what the book was about." Fitzgerald did not elaborate on what the reviews missed, probably because he thought it unnecessary. His own language makes it clear that Gatsby's yearning is for something greater than the love of a mortal woman, even one less "rotten" than Daisy.
Indeed, the novel contains several passages evoking the soul's longing for transcendence in terms familiar to anyone versed in the foundational texts of the Western philosophical and religious tradition. For example, Nick reports this interaction between the lovers on the day of their reunion:
"If it wasn't for the mist we could see your home across the bay," said Gatsby. "You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock."
Daisy put her arm through his abruptly but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was just a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.
As a point of verisimilitude, it is unlikely that anyone would put a green light at the end of a dock, since green lights are used to indicate the starboard side of vessels moving in open water. But the color makes sense allegorically, if we think of Daisy as a vision of beauty emanating from a higher Beauty, the way beautiful young men in Plato's Symposium beckon the soul toward the realm of the Forms. In the same vein, Daisy can be seen as Gatsby's particular God-bearing image, as Beatrice is for Dante. At the end of the Purgatorio, when Dante finally meets Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise, she is dressed in a cloak of green, the color of hope.
Dreams of Belonging
Was Fitzgerald channeling Plato and Dante? I submit the question to my fellow humanists, and in the meantime note that Fitzgerald did attend several elite educational institutions, and though his academic record was poor, his love of poetry might have sustained him through at least one reading of these classic works. Or perhaps he learned about Plato and Dante from Father Cyril Sigourney Webster Fay, a convert who during Fitzgerald's formative years was a beloved mentor and friend, introducing young Scott to an erudite, cosmopolitan form of Catholicism quite different from the cramped religion of his immigrant Irish grandparents.
I would not go so far as to classify Fitzgerald as a Catholic writer. He proved himself a charter member of the "lost generation" whenever the subject of religion came up, roundly rejecting its claims. Of course, the main thing he and his generation were rejecting was turn-of-the-century American Protestantism's crusading moralism, the religious outlook that called for Prohibition as a way to control the uncivilized behavior of millions of Irish and other Catholic immigrants.
Picking up on this, Luhrmann portrays Gatsby as a bold, amoral gangster defying the hypocrisy and snobbery of America's upper crust. The trouble with this portrayal is that Gatsby dreams of belonging to that same upper crust. In this he resembles his author, the son of an ineffectual father from an old Maryland family with "breeding" but no money, and an eccentric mother from a "black Irish" family with money but no breeding. Further, the attentive reader will find plenty of class snobbery, not to mention racial prejudice and anti-Semitism, in The Great Gatsby. For example, one of Gatsby's business partners, the unsavory, mob-connected Meyer Wolfsheim, is described in such heavily stereotyped terms, Edith Wharton praised the character as the "perfect Jew."
To judge by The Last Tycoon, the novel he was working on when he died in 1940, Fitzgerald shed most of those prejudices. But he was never a political writer. As his friend John Dos Passos wrote shortly after his death, Fitzgerald did better than most at avoiding the perils facing the serious artist in America: first, "a limp pandering to every conceivable low popular taste and prejudice"; second, "a sterile connoisseur viewpoint that has made ‘good' writing...a coefficient of the leisure of the literate rich"; and third (dominating the 1930s), the Marxist's "heady picture of the onmarching avenging armies of the proletariat who would read your books round their campfires."
Fitzgerald himself identified another peril facing the serious artist: "a mechanical and communal art...capable of reflecting only the tritest thought, the most obvious emotion." This is the meretricious non-art of the "Hollywood merchants," grotesquely on display in the current film version of The Great Gatsby. Yet even in 1936, when Fitzgerald made this disparaging remark, the art of cinema had grown by leaps and bounds, and over the next few years, Fitzgerald came to appreciate it. Indeed, he came to appreciate the movies more deeply than a later generation of cinéastes français, for whom the true artist in Hollywood was the director—the auteur. After toiling as a writer in the industry, Fitzgerald modeled the hero of The Last Tycoon on Irving Thalberg, because he understood that the only way genuine art happens in Hollywood is when the producer, the guy with the money, lets it happen.
In twelve years we will observe the hundredth anniversary of The Great Gatsby's publication. It would be nice to think that in that span of time, the right people could get together and produce a film or television series worthy of this marvelous American classic. But to do so, they will have to understand, and find a way to convey, the full power of F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece. Its author did rebel against the stuffy moralists of his time. But his art was deeply moral. And unlike some of his literary contemporaries (the French surrealists, for example), he did not take his symbols from obscure and wholly subjective sources, such as his own dreams. He derived them from the profoundest sources of his own civilization, in the hope of making his story resonate with an objective truth that he himself doubted.