Monday, May 13, 2013

An English Teacher's Review of The Great Gatsby (2013)

   Over the weekend I saw the new Baz Luhrmann 3-D interpretation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Having taught that novel for twenty+ years, I know most of its lines by heart. Did I mention it's one of my favorites? I've also viewed the '74 film starring Robert Redford probably forty times in my classroom. Make no mistake--I love Robert Redford. That '74 film, however, is ponderous and, at times, poorly directed, but it stuck with the book and its 1920's music is haunting..."What'll I do when you are far away and I am blue---what'll I do?" Love that music. So it was with great skepticism that I watched the new film version.
     I won't summarize the story since you probably know it if you're reading this post. I will say that the English teacher in me has mixed feelings about the film, but the movie-goer in me would still recommend it as intriguing entertainment.
     If you can survive the frenetic, high-on-steroids,
first half of the film, you'll like the second half better as a reader of the book. Luhrmann is giving us a 2013 interpretation of the novel and that means a modern soundtrack that will appeal to the 20-something crowd. I didn't mind the music. His take on 21st century consumerism, invasive media, and scandal-worshipping masses is in-your-face obvious and certainly true of the 20's also. But he would have been wiser to cut back on the parties and concentrate more on the human tragedy at the core of the story.
     The film has two parts and the mood totally changes with the dinner party at the Buchannan's. Where Luhrmann truly succeeds is in showing the illusion and artifice Gatsby has created to win Daisy Fay Buchannan back. His entire life, his false history, and his house are stylish conjurer's tricks, as fake as the unread and uncut books in his library. I wasn't sure I'd like Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, but I thought he was amazing. He captured both the self-confidence and swagger of the character and also his desperation as he sees his dream falling apart. He is a glittering illusion and a handsome and charming one at that.
George and Myrtle Wilson are well done and definitely capture the characters as I pictured them. Daisy, played by Carey Mulligan, is the glittering embodiment of Gatsby's dreams--but other than that, she fades into the scenery. In the novel and earlier film I found her annoying, but she didn't strike me at all in this film. I was not impressed by Tobey Maguire as Nick, but he drew a difficult part to play. He is too muted. His joy at believing in Gatsby and his eventual disillusionment with the whole situation are played on a middle scale without sharp edges.

Three key points were left out--pieces that would have made the tragedy more compelling. Two scenes done with great tension are the dinner party at the Buchannan's and the following scene in a New York City hotel.
The '74 film
In the novel, Daisy introduces her daughter, Pammy, at the dinner. This is Gatsby's first indication that perhaps he can't erase five years. A child is a concrete example of why his dream is doomed. Pammy never appeared at the dinner in the Luhrmann film.

     The second disappearance from book to film was the visit by James Gatz's (Jay Gatsby) father from Minnesota. In the novel Nick has to make all the funeral arrangements because there is no one else. Gatsby's father shows up and confirms for Nick that all of Gatsby's story about his real past is true, including his childhood yearnings to be successful and rich. Henry Gatz accompanies Nick to the funeral where only a few people--mostly servants--attend, revealing how lonely and superficial Gatsby's life really was. It was all about his quest for Daisy. Luhrmann chose instead to eliminate this scene and emphasize the paparrazi pushing each other around Gatsby's casket at the funeral home.
     The last scene--a pivotal one--Luhrmann left out was Nick's meeting on Fifth Avenue with Tom and Daisy the following October after Gatsby's death. Nick finally realizes their shallow lives, their egotism, and their carelessness, and he can't forgive them for their parts in the death of Gatsby and his dream.
     All three of these omissions would have made the tragedy deeper, but Luhrmann chose to leave them out. They bring the reader to Gatsby's side with Nick, but Luhrmann's film is devoid of emotional ties with the characters and is filled instead with the Hollywood version of the 20's.
     Luhrmann added a frame that bothered me at first. Nick is telling--then typing--his story from a sanitarium. While I'd dispute the doctor's diagnosis that Nick is an alcoholic and suffers from mental illness, I did eventually like the reminder that he--Nick Carraway--is truly the narrator of the story. We see it through his eyes. Even Fitzgerald's words occasionally appear and fall off the screen as Nick types them. It is through Nick that we understand the tragedy of Jay Gatsby, and although it's a controversial aspect of the movie, I liked the frame.

Overall I'd recommend The Great Gatsby as a 21st century re-telling of the story. Even as an English teacher who loves the novel, I found the new film entertaining.


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Revisiting The Great Gatsby

     A little over a year ago I published a post on Fitzgerald's book, The Great Gatsby. This weekend a new film version of the book is coming out to much fanfare and hype. Yes, I plan to see it with some skepticism since I have seen so many wonderful classic books totally demolished by Hollywood. But I will give it a chance. I will even give Leonardo a chance despite my memory of Robert Redford in that title role. In celebration of the new interest in Fitzgerald and Gatsby, I am reprinting the blog I wrote with a few tweaks. Next week I'll post my review of the new film. Warning: if you are one of the few people who didn't read this book--or the Cliffs Notes--in high school, this blog post has spoilers.

March 12, 2012:

... A classic novel with layers of meaning, The Great Gatsby is well worth an adult read because it beautifully describes the human yearning to make dreams come true, often at a terrible price. It also examines the nostalgia for a time remembered and the desire to repeat that long ago memory. And-bonus- it contains only nine compact and enchantingly written chapters.
     In his novel Fitzgerald attempts to answer two questions about the nature of humans: Can you repeat the past? Can you plan and work hard-no matter what means you use-to make your dreams come true?
     The very first time narrator Nick Carroway observes the mysterious Jay Gatsby, he actually sees a shadow, a silhouette of a man, arms stretched out in the darkness toward a green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan's dock.
Beyond that dock live Daisy and her husband, Tom Buchanan, members of the inherited money class, careless people who smash their way through life with total ambivalence toward the feelings of others. Nevertheless, Gatsby remembers Daisy as the golden girl, the love of his life when he first left for WWI. Gatsby believes it is their destiny to be together. Can they repeat the past and make life again contain the innocent love they once had? Can Gatsby climb up those stairs to the world of wealth and privilege to attract Daisy's attention?
Meyer Wolfsheim, Nick Carroway, and Gatsby
      Piece by piece the truth of Gatsby's background comes together in a story woven of fairy dust. He actually came from nothing but had the enormous imagination and determination to remake himself into a glamorous image of weath in order to catch the attention of his former love, Daisy. The story constantly juxtaposes the question of whether, in the corrupt 1920s, a person can actually follow the American Dream of lifting himself up from a poor past to become a success.

Is that dream still possible or has it been defiled by what America has become by the 1920s--a world of gangsters, corrupt politicians, and people of influence with dubious values? Gatsby's will alone pushes him relentlessly on his quest for his lost love. In that plan he surrounds himself with the new rich of the Twenties, scandalous people who had been in prison, bootlegged alcohol, and killed people. But they aid him in his climb to reach the rich, well-guarded plateau that is Daisy's world.
     Can innocence be regained in the morally corrupt world that is America in the Twenties? Can Fitzgerald's rapturous descriptions of perfect love and wonderous dreams live again? 

     In the end, Nick Carroway--the narrator of the story--is left to explain that America was a dream of the old sailors who first discovered her pristine, green, untouched world, and they realized that this New World could become a place of great promise and dreams. By the Twenties, however, reality has changed that dream into a place of moral corruption and hopelessness beneath its Coney Island facade. Gatsby did not realize that sometimes the very best of human yearnings get smashed in the very worst of human nature.
     The Great Gatsby is a literary classic and, as such, causes the reader to consider the nature of his own time. "Classic" means a reader also sees new ideas he didn't discern with the first reading. If you haven't picked up a copy of Fitzgerald's book lately, think about doing so. It's well worth your time.