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The Great Gatsby

Spoiler alert: Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby is full of surprises, and a few major narrative devices you won’t find in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. If you don’t want to know about them, save this review until you’ve seen the movie! Otherwise, party on!

Anne Margaret Daniel, 02 May 2013

Modern Times: Baz Luhrmann remodels The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is the best-known American novel of the 20th century. Now, Baz Luhrmann has finally made a movie version that approaches the original in its epic sweep and poetic feel. By Anne Margaret Daniel.

When F. Scott Fitzgerald began The Great Gatsby in 1922, he told his editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons, Max Perkins, that he wanted to “write something new – something extraordinarily beautiful and simple & intricately patterned.” Living between a Minnesota yacht club, St. Paul, New York hotels, and Great Neck, Long Island in the early 1920s, Fitzgerald was physically scattered but mentally remarkably focused. He worked hard on the first draft of this new novel, despite recent fatherhood and a wild life of celebrity and excess.

He couldn’t get it done in Great Neck, though, amidst the Broadway producers and literary stars and constant parties. As Zelda wrote to a friend in the summer of 1923, Great Neck was razzle-dazzling in the hot summertime, with all the swimming pools and even the Sound reeking of gin, whiskey and beer. In 1924, Fitzgerald packed up his family – Zelda and their baby daughter Scottie – and headed for a place he thought, pretty ironically, would be quiet enough to get work done, the Riviera. As had been his method for This Side of Paradise, and The Beautiful and Damned, Fitzgerald was already setting his new novel in the place and time he had just left. As he put it, he wanted to “take the Long Island atmosphere that I had familiarly breathed and materialize it beneath unfamiliar skies.”

In the past 40 years, The Great Gatsby has become the best-known American novel in the world, along with Gone With the Wind. Gone With the Wind, though, has been helped by its lone movie version as much as Gatsby has been, so far, hurt by its movie versions. The Great American Novel now has a Great American – well, Australian-American – Movie to translate it for today, and keep it good company.

Now, Fitzgerald’s prose is extremely attractive, and particularly to anyone with a visual imagination. His writing, and particularly in Gatsby, is, quite literally colorful – full of palpable colors, making unforgettable images: golden shoulders and yellowy hair and golden and silver slippers shuffling to the “Beale Street Blues”; Daisy Buchanan’s white dresses; Gatsby’s “gorgeous pink rag” of a suit; the “blue and gigantic” eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg; a woman “like an angry diamond”; a “dust-covered wreck of a Ford which crouched in a dim corner.” Not surprisingly, then, films were made of Fitzgerald's own books and short stories from the early 1920s to today. However, the movies have all failed, and for the same reason.

Fitzgerald’s so hard to film – and I think this is what made it hard for him to write workable screenplays in Hollywood in the late 1930s, too – because his words already have done all the cinematic work. Fitzgerald’s words evoke things that film is not readily fitted to evoke – mental states, for instance – and also they do, at their best, very many things at once: manage to evoke both visual and physical states, a current event and a moment in the past. Fitzgerald’s prose is emphatically NOT utilitarian – he’s not interested in just words that work, but in things considerably more complex and intricate, aesthetically and intellectually. Fitzgerald’s novels are visually stunning, colorful and laden with light, told in language hard to translate onto film. Gatsby is centrally concerned with thoughts and feelings the characters neither articulate openly, nor, most of the time, are able or willing to be fully conscious of, or to investigate directly themselves within their own minds. Fitzgerald’s words give these psychological and emotional circumstances shape and power, and it’s near-impossible to represent a narrative like this visually. The interior resists being made exterior. Could Baz Luhrmann surmount this paramount difficulty with Gatsby? If so, how?

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