Gatsby madness began as soon as it was known that the Australian film director, screenwriter, actor and producer Mark Anthony “Baz” Luhrmann was green-lighting a 3-D adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (FSF) iconic 1925 novel The Great Gatsby (TGG), set in 1922. The hype then accelerated, like Daisy Buchanan in Gatsby’s car, barreling down on Myrtle Wilson, when the December 25, 2012 release date was suddenly killed. Movie-savvy cynics attributed the delay to financial concerns (Oscar competition?), rather than to last-minute editing considerations, as Luhrmann claimed, despite previews that were already running in theaters in late fall. Whatever the reason, the new spring date seems more Gatsby-appropriate, though summer (“the green Sound, stagnant in the heat”) would have been ideal.
Luhrmann’s film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire and Joel Edgerton, with music by Jay-Z, looks to be the most audacious cinematic interpretation yet of this iconic American novel. Scholars and pop critics have been weighing in almost daily, while society and media celebs are planning Gatsby-themed parties. The brouhaha about the book’s different covers, bookstores report, only increases sales. So it’s more than likely that when the film opens on The East End, not far from Gold Coast Gatsby country, seats will go fast.
If the buzz over the forthcoming movie (the sixth adaptation) creates new or renewed interest in the book, that would be “Great” because it might well encourage discussion of TGG’s cinematographic features and a comparison with earlier films, notably the much maligned 1974 production with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. TGG purists should not get excited over another transfer from page to screen, however, since the manuscript FSF repeatedly submitted to his editor underwent significant changes, including the title. Fitzgerald originally called TGG “Trimalchio in West Egg” (the reference is to the Satyricon by Petronius, and the phrase “his career as Trimalchio” opens chapter 7 of TGG.) The novel says a lot about the role of editors and friends in helping shape literary achievements, but in this particular case also about the careful, obsessive revisions good writers inflict upon themselves.
TGG seems to have always generated strong reactions—being hailed over the years as an American masterpiece that brilliantly captures the ambiguous culture of the Roaring 20s. But it has also been called an over-praised, albeit seductively atmospheric, exploration of The American Dream—the quest for love and acceptance and for the power that comes with money and fame. Its appeal may lie in just that theme, today too frequently advanced in cynical narratives and mannered prose, and in Fitzgerald’s great ability to have fashioned a protagonist whose yearning, however misplaced, tugs at the heart. For all Gatsby’s criminal activities and excessive pursuits, he was, as the narrator of TGG says of him, “worth the whole damn bunch put together.”
“Phenomenon” would not be a misplaced word for TGG, considering that few works of fiction have provoked so much interpretation, especially of the novel’s last line that numerous admirers have committed to memory: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” What’s significant, however, is that this line belongs to the narrator, Nick Carraway, the moral compass of the book, whose recollections, observations and musings open and close TGG, framing the story and filtering it through an ethical perspective that is as ambivalent as it is sensitive. Arguably, TGG could be said to be more Nick’s story, not Gatsby’s, but in any case this complex point of view, not to mention Fitzgerald’s wonderful prose, makes the book a challenge for filmmakers who keep trying to get this American literary classic (box-office) right.
What makes for a classic? The movie may well prompt the question if viewers are moved to (re)turn to the novel to judge for themselves. Good books read us, it’s often said, meaning that what we bring to them and what we take away changes over time, as we change. TGG is certain to attract an older audience, many of whom read it a long time ago. We think we remember it, but we also think we remember our own lives. We may get some facts wrong, but the classic reminds us of the way we were emotionally. Literary icons draw us back (“ceaselessly into the past”?) again and again. We reread them, these novels set in time and place because they transcend time and place as explorations of the human condition, the world’s and our own. The nostalgia at the heart of
TGG proves you can and cannot go home again.