I am a lover of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. So I was fascinated by director Baz Luhrmann’s attempt to recreate one of my favorite novels on the screen. Not only did the director need a movie so much larger than life, he also needed to outshine the earlier movie, starring Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby. He managed to pull it off in the new movie Gatsby, but he also created a realistic portrait of the division between the classes of society that existed in the roaring ’20s and now in the riotous 2000s.
Before I go into why I loved the new movie, I’d like to take a look at the original novel written by Fitzgerald while he lived in Paris. One of his beta readers was Ernest Hemingway of all people. Hemingway, often jealous and bitter toward his fellow writers, read The Great Gatsby and knew it was a masterpiece.
I often reread The Great Gatsby for many reasons.
- The time period – The Great Gatsby captures a period of recklessness in society in this country. After the Great War, the Great Prohibition began. It fueled the concept of the roaring ’20s when lawlessness in dress and decorum ruled. From our perspective today, the time is played at a fast speed, and we know the people of the time were headed toward catastrophe at the end of the decade.
- Where Fitzgerald wrote the book – Scott and Zelda were a part of the 1920’s artistic scene in Paris. It’s actually amazing he could write anything during the alcoholic haze where the artists lived. I love to read stories about the expats during that time period. I wonder at the tight group of artists living in this world in the post-war era. From accounts, the atmosphere was charged with creativity and competition. And from it came some of the greatest pieces of literature of the twentieth century.
- The tight and concise plot – I reread the book specifically to study how Fitzgerald crafted the main plot and secondary plot so they intersect by the end of the novel in a tragic conclusion. Brilliant plotting.
- The characters – Fitzgerald paints portraits of characters chiseled from reality. The shallowness of the rich and the depth of the narrator and Gatsby are universal and remain relevant today. That’s the true standard of classic literature – nearly one hundred years later, I recognize parts of myself and others around me in Fitzgerald’s Daisy, Gatsby, and Nick.
- The deep divide between cultures – Fitzgerald created distinct caricatures of society. East Egg on Long Island is the haven for the old rich who look down their docks across the bay to West Egg where the noveau rich luxuriate in their newly minted wealth. And then there’s the valley of ashes, a dark and dingy spot on the road from Long Island to New York City. It’s here where the ugly work is done to power and fuel the workings of upper classes.
- The indictment of the careless and shallow rich – At first, it seems as if Fitzgerald is glorying in the excesses of the rich, but as the novel progresses that glory turns as dark as the soot in the valley of ashes.
As a result of my love for this novel, I went to the new Gatsby movie on the day it opened. The new movie honors Fitzgerald in many of its portraits of the roaring and shallow 1920s. Fitzgerald and this movie both sneer at the debauchery and excesses of the time period. It’s ironic because Scott and Zelda indulged themselves in that very society. It must be one of the reasons that Fitzgerald lived a rather tortured alcoholic life as he despised the very life he lived.
The movie shouts the debauchery and the chasm between the haves and have nots. That’s not a criticism on my part. Visually, the movie is impeccable and probably plays well in 3-D, but I chose to see it in standard style.
The audience is held in suspense waiting for the first introductions to Daisy, and finally after much anticipation, Jay Gatsby himself. I thought I would be disappointed seeing any other actor besides Redford play Gatsby. But I was not. Leonardo DiCaprio is a brilliant character actor, and from his first appearance on the screen, I knew I was finally meeting the elusive and innocent and romantic Gatsby just as Fitzgerald created him.
Daisy, played by Carey Mulligan, appears much earlier in the movie with some of the same anticipation. White gauzy curtains billow in the sitting room of the Buchanan mansion. A hand lifts languidly from the couch as the curtains unfurl overhead. And then . . . Daisy? Carey Mulligan is not Daisy Buchanan by any stretch of my imagination. Daisy is wispy like the curtains blowing in the ocean breeze; Daisy is delicate and almost off balance; Daisy is dainty and desirable. But Mulligan melts into the background in comparison to her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), Nick (Tobey McGuire), and Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki). The casting for all the other characters is brilliant, but the casting of Daisy did not work. Mulligan is neither wispy, fragile, or a woman described by Fitzgerald, “Her voice is full of money.”
Overall, I loved the movie despite my disappointment of the actress playing Daisy. She might be a wonderful actress in any other role. She had big shoes to fill, but couldn’t step into them in this movie.
When the movie ended at the matinee I attended the day of the movie’s release, the audience stayed in place for a split second and then the partially filled theater burst into applause. It’s a rare occasion when I’ve witnessed that type of spontaneous reaction to a movie. Both my daughter and I joined the rest in giving a “bravo” for a film that took the words and creative genius of F. Scott Fitzgerald and translated it onto the screen in a grand package.
What’s your favorite classic novel and has it ever been into a film?