Why Gatsby is Great


June 8, 2013 by brettdgale

I don’t think I’ve been more scared about anything than I have been in going to see Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby.

Thirty seven years after I first read it and hundreds of books later, The Great Gatsby remains my favourite work of fiction.

It has memorable characters. From the perfectly realized Nick Carraway protagonist and narrator, who is both within and without the novel; through the wealthy brutishness of Tom Buchanan; the guile filled Daisy; to the serene majesty of Jordan Baker through to the enigmatic title character; to have met these people once is to remember them forever.

It has language that at every turn leaps off the pages and wraps itself around your brain.  Phrases so poetic and so surprising, yet so obvious that you can’t but gape in awe at the sheer genius of Fitzgerald’s prose. “I like large parties.  They’re so intimate.  At small parties there isn’t any privacy”.

It has imagery that stays with you long after the final page is turned. The haunting eyes of Dr TJ Eckelburg; the ash heaps reflecting Wilson’s own grey existence; the false grandeur of Gatsby’s house, itself a façade, a Potemkin set hiding a tawdry reality and a doomed dream.

I’ve never counted how many times I’ve read it, but at resonant moments it draws me in.

I reclaim it from its pride of place on my shelf (sitting there like the light on the end of a dock) and once more I get swept along, deep into its rhythm, absorbing its cadences, viewing the world in which I live through Fitzgerald’s prism.

I first read it like so many others have, drafted into reading it as part of the high school curriculum. Which is a shame, because, for some classmates I’m sure it became synonymous with hardbacked chairs and drafty classrooms rather than a window into human behavior.  Students are too often reluctant readers, and reluctant reading too often poisons the will against reading for pure pleasure.  Yet Gatsby always and every time remains a pleasure.

And at 17, more often than not, unrequited love makes up the vast bulk of your relationship experience.  To read Gatsby in this state for the first time is to be hit with recognition that one is not alone.

And isn’t that why we read fiction after all.

To have read Gatsby at 17 was also to reaffirm that, a by then, burgeoning nerdish obsession with the written word was not a waste but a world.  And every time I read Gatsby I’m struck afresh by just how brilliantly Fitzgerald captured the limitless possibilities of fiction.

Much later (some 27 years in fact) I spent a long hot summer in New Haven taking the train into New York City on weekends for a round of empty headed parties that would have made Gatsby proud.  I was almost doing Nick Carraway’s trip in reverse.  For the time it took me to reabsorb its brilliance Gatsby became my travelling companion – my beacon again that I was not alone.

Yet in many ways this is a contradictory response to a contradictory book.

We can recognize ourselves or at least parts of ourselves in Daisy, Nick, Tom and even the great daydreamer himself, yet Fitzgerald leaves us with the most terrifying question of all.

Do we really know anyone?

Most of all, do we really know ourselves?

At the end of the day, except for Nick, each and every character in Gatsby is alone, no one really knows anyone else, or themselves.

It’s contradictory in other ways too,

Reading Gatsby tells us that the possibilities of the imagination are limitless, even as we realise through the events of the novel that the stuff of dreams is shackled to reality.  For all its romanticism, it is reality that ultimately crashes into the dreams of the book’s hero. For all its empathy with the underdog and the daydreamer, it has a dark ending.  For it is the realists, in the form of Tom and Daisy; the cynics in the form of Jordan Baker, who triumph in the end.

Could all this be captured in a movie?  How true to my beloved would it be?

I’ve written before on how seeing a movie treatment of a favourite novel may in particular destroy the image of the characters that existed in your own mind’s eye. This time I was well prepared.  I re-read Fitzgerald two weeks ago for the umpteenth time.  Thus, I was able to cleanse my soul and enter the cinema with the mindset that the movie would be something to judge on its own merits – something separate from Fitzgerald’s masterpiece a (mostly) similar narrative told in a different media.

But still the question remained. How would the, oh so over the top Baz Luhrmann treat this beautiful elegiac tome?

Very well as it turns out.

Indeed, I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps Baz Luhrmann is the only person who could have made a movie of The Great Gatsby.

In many respects the novel is unfilmable. No one can really hope to turn those words into moving images.  No film can hope to emulate Fitzgerald’s language.

Indeed, the hardest parts of the movie to watch were in fact the most beautiful lines from the book.  I suppose like generations of Hamlets have discovered in uttering the simple phrase “To be or not to be” – some written words are so well known that it is almost impossible to say them aloud without either over dramatising them or underplaying them.

While the novel is so much more than its storyline, sensibly, Luhrmann does not try too hard to steer away from what movies do best – tell stories.

Luhrmann takes the visual elements from the novel and draws them out magnificently.  He is to be sure, a one trick pony, all his movies have involved ostentatious visual opulence and cracking modernesque background music.

In this movie those elements work.  Yes the music is out of time, but I imagine if one were an actual guest at a party of Gatsby’s one would have felt out of time oneself.

And Gatsby’s parties were over the top.

There were some things that grated, Leonardo DiCaprio’s‘nobody from nowhere’ accent got on my nerves on occasion but in general, the ensemble casting worked to a T.  Joel Edgerton as the hulking Tom Buchanan brings enormous presence of barely suppressed violence and rage, and one can imagine Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker actually balancing an invisible ball on her chin.  And accent notwithstanding, DiCaprio is Gatsby in a way that poor old Robert Redford was not.

Luhrmann has done something I did not expect.  He has made a thoroughly entertaining film without damaging a classic along the way.

Of course the movie is not the novel.  But then no movie ever is.  And if we are true to our art forms, we wouldn’t want it to be.


2 thoughts on “Why Gatsby is Great

  1. Nick Buchan says:

    Great review, Brett. I have to admit, while I enjoyed The Great Gatsby when I read it in year 10 (11?) I was one of those kids who’s experience of the book was coloured by it being mandated, rather than by choice. I’m not a fan of Baz’s work at all, but I might give it a second look. Or at least read the book again!

    Isn’t it funny how some school reading books live with you? Mine was Christopher Marlow’s Dr Faustus… it was something about the pathos of Faustus’ ultimate demise which grabbed me, and has never really let go since.

    I envy your chance to ‘live’ the Gatsby dream for a summer; I’m crossing my fingers I don’t get the same opportunity with Faustus…



  2. Rod says:

    Brett – I would have been 1000:1 to see the movie but thanks to your review I am now at least a 10:1 shot. Let’s seee if Felicity can now more easily convince me to go! Rod

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