Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, is a fable. It is not a fable now, years after it was written. Fitzgerald structured it as a fable and intended it to be read as such. Its original title was Trimalchio in West Egg. Gatsby is based on a party-thrower created by the Greek satirist Petronius. So, when I hear people talking about Gatsby almost as if it’s reportage on Jazz Age America, I think that they are reading the wrong book. Fitzgerald is not Tom Wolfe or Theodore Dreiser. In creating Gatsby, he worked in the manner of Shakespeare, taking his inspiration from ancient and timeless source material.
The Great Gatsby is a fable and that’s why it’s fabulous. The novel is about huge issues like the passage of time, the endurance of love, the selfishness of well-meaning people, and the prejudices caused by our notions of race and class. In the end, our tragic hero is venerated (and martyred) for covering up the vehicular homicide committed by the woman he loves. We’re in myth-land. The Great Gatsby is hardcore modernism and that’s distinct from psychological or social realism.
This is why Baz Luhrman was a great choice to direct its film adaptation. The knock on Luhrman is that he’s all surface and all show. Well Gatsby doesn’t require hermeneutic analysis and, in fact, would defy any attempt. Gatsby is easy to read and understand and I think one of the reasons that it is so loved by writers is that writers know how hard it is to write something that’s easy to read. The narrative is light and linear. The backstory is all revealed, in due course. The most important gestures are grand.
The critical reaction to Luhrman’s film has been mixed. Negative reactions say the film has no soul. Positive responses seem positively apologetic. Rotten Tomatoes sums it up well. Where’s the big heart of the movie’s source material? I think it’s there, as Fitzgerald attended. It’s a matter of taste, but I don’t think any of that’s missing. The heartbreak of Daisy being married to the wrong man, a boorish polo player, when Gatsby is present, vibrant and devoted is, to me, poignant as ever in the movie.
But, let’s think about Fitzgerald’s intentions and his life. Our author had money trouble. After the Army, he wrote advertising copy to fund his courtship of Zelda Sayre. Only the breakaway success of This Side of Paradise moneyed him up enough to make him marryable. Had that novel flopped, Fitzgerald might have lost his Daisy. Gatsby is about all of this class nonsense that we allow to destroy us and keep us apart.
Luhrman’s pyrotechnics, including the anachronistic score by Jay-Z helped me think about the themes by evoking just a bit of Bertolt Brecht’s alienation technique. No two ways about it, you never forget, watching The Great Gatsby that you’re watching a movie. All of the colors are amped up. Women are hip hop dancing in the speakeasy. To hip hop music. Buchanan’s Manhattan pied a terre is right next to a Harlem rent party. Oh, and Luhrman even amps up the voice of the moralistic narrator Nick Carraway by putting him in rehab, at a facility named for the Scribner’s editor who tried against all odds to dry Fitzgerald out. What some critics are dismissing as gimmicks, I’m calling Luhrman’s whole enterprise a triumph of technique.
I suspect that part of what’s going on is that America’s sensitive culture, such as it is, has long wanted to coddle the memory of Fitzgerald. We’re addicted to an only partially true narrative of a precocious talent who was consumed by alcoholism and unable to please an emotionally and financially demanding wife. We’re told (Ernest Hemingway told us first) that Fitzgerald wasted his talents on money-making short stories. In later life he went to Hollywood, where John dos Passos and Hemingway both claimed that Fitzgerald was further corrupted and further squandered his talents.
I used to believe this. A few things have changed, though. First, my friend, the scholar and writer Jonathan Enfield has argued persuasively that film and working on film had a positive effect on Fitzgerald’s writing and his preferred storytelling structure. The second is that I’ve learned through experience that work leads to more work, not less. The creative mind is nourished by work, not depleted by it. Look, I think that 2 Broke Girls is a pretty badly written sitcom but I bet that the writing staff, driven by deadlines and a competitive work environment, are all razor sharp and at the top of their powers. Work is the best thing. I’m writing this partly so that I can write something else. The worst thing is not to write at all. Neglect is the best way to lose a talent.
Against this backdrop, where those who care invariably believe that Hollywood did Fitzgerald a bad turn in life, any film based on his beloved work is fighting an uphill emotional battle with its core audience. Please, we are tempted to say. Do what you will to Benjamin Button but leave Daisy out of it.
So, we hold The Great Gatsby the novel as something just too precious. Luhrman is the besotted party guest who has overstayed his welcome but insists on banging the piano singing “Dog! Dog! Dog!” as Fitzgerald did in his later Hollywood years. Meanwhile, we are treating Fitzgerald’s memory with the same condescending paternalism that Hemingway inflicted on him in life. It’s not necessary. Fitzgerald’s body of work is strong. Luhrman can add to it, but he can’t detract from it. Gatsby is not sullied in the least by Jay-Z’s music, beautiful 3D, or the Brandoesque qualities of Leonardo diCaprio. I say it’s enhanced. Your mileage may vary, but I think there’s no more reason to worry about the “heart” of Gatsby than there is to worry about the heart of Romeo and Juliet, a movie that earned Luhrman similar criticisms as if a story borrowed from Italian antiquity that had already been turned into West Side Story hadn’t already proven enduring enough that it would never break.
Go see the movie, if you haven’t. And… please, try to enjoy yourself. It’s a good thing that’s happened to our culture, if you let it be that.