A friend and I were discussing weekend plans, and I mentioned that I might go see the new Gatsby movie.
“But why?” she asked. “You already know it sucks, and it will drive you crazy.”
She’s right, to an extent. And yet, I know I will go see it. Why? I guess because like the title character, I’m an optimist. I want to like it. I want it to get some pieces right where previous attempts failed. I will try to look for the good.
(I suspect I will also fail, given my distaste for Tobey One-Act Maguire and other assorted biases. If the spirit moves me, I’ll post a follow-up with my review, along with my vision of what a Gatsby movie would/could/should look like. Don’t hold your breath, though. I’m overbooked as it is.)
I first read The Great Gatsby when I was in ninth grade, and I became an immediate fangirl. By the time it was assigned reading in 11th grade, I was prepped to write a college dissertation. I knew Fitzgerald’s other works, his wife’s works, their respective biographies, and the stories of characters who ran in their circle, like the Murphys and Hemingway.
In college, I moved on to Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley.
In my early 20s, I emulated the lifestyle. Fitzgerald had convinced me that I might as well put down the pen and not bother trying to create prose, so I did the next best thing and went into journalism, where I spent my time editing other people’s prose. I drank — a lot. I ran around. I had a good time.
(I also acquired a high-bouncing golden retriever that I named Gatsby. He was an unswervingly loyal and adoring dog, and I have always been very proud of how astute that moniker was for him.)
In my late 20s, I realized that drunks were lousy role models, and got on with my life. I confess, I’ve forgotten a lot of what I knew about the Jazz Age and its chroniclers.
But I haven’t forgotten that much. So I have been awaiting the release of the new Gatsby film with a certain amount of trepidation. Partly because I have known all along that the movie will get it wrong, but also partly because of the inevitable flood of Fitzgerald analysis that such a spectacle was bound to generate, both in movie reviews posing as literary criticism and in straight-up academic analysis that’s being trotted out again because it has a shot at relevance.
So here’s my drop in that flood, I reckon. I’m sure these reveiwers and critics are all very clever people and very proud of their viewpoints. But the truth is, a great many of these brilliant conclusions are chestnuts. Nick is gay! Fitzgerald hated gays and women, and was a total racist! The book was a flop when it came out! Gatsby was black! News flash: None of this is news. It is well-traveled ground.
My thinking is, the analysts make the same mistake as the movie makers. They miss the point entirely.
I fell in love with the Great Gatsby because it spoke to me, as a reader. The writing was elegant and poetic. The story — well, what’s not to like? Decadence, opulence, mayhem, murder and true love. Of course moviemakers are drawn to it.
But there’s more to it. Even in my first, green, uneducated pass through that world, I realized the message went beyond gorgeous depictions and dramatic turns. This was a beautiful book about some of the ugliest people I’d ever been exposed to. It was, to quote Fitzgerald, the first time I’d been challenged “to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” On the surface it juxtaposes the black-and-white valley of ashes with Gatsby’s vibrant Technicolor parties. It pits tradition against passion. And then you go deeper and realize it is a love note to something Fitzgerald clearly despised. It offers lush depictions, but comes in at an incredibly spare 50,000 words. Every word counts, and as every writer knows, that’s harder to accomplish than any non-writer might think.
And, as I learned later, it is a creature of its time, much like all Fitzgerald’s works. Gatsby is, in fact, a story of betrayal on multiple levels. I’m not talking about just the plot, I’m talking about its conception. Fitzgerald was sick of being the dean of the Jazz Age, he was dismayed by some of the ramifications he was beginning to see. The hangover was starting to kick in, and he was starting to get tired. The beautiful life – which he always knew wasn’t all that beautiful — had betrayed him. In writing the book, he betrayed those who expected him to keep on the same path of his previous works and his public persona. I’m dating myself here, but remember when Billy Joel switched to classical? Have you listened to any of it? Probably not, because that’s not what you want him to be. Well, people didn’t like this change from Fitzgerald, either.
Fitzgerald did not come to praise Trimalchio, but to bury him, and all Romanesque hedonism. But somehow that salient point often seems to get lost in all the beaded splendor and picayune details.
Is Nick gay? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think he has a drunken dalliance that Fitzgerald includes to further underscore his view of the moral decay and decline taking place around him. (Was Fitzgerald a homophobe? Uh, probably? It wasn’t an unusual position to take back then and letters bear out he was a bit rough, although he seems to have developed a bit of tolerance as he got older and a bit more sympathetic. Does that translate to homosexual panic? I doubt it. Either way, I’m not sure this is a case where the author’s predilections necessarily had a huge impact on his work.) Nick refers to himself as “one of the few honest people [he’s] ever known,” yet he opts to leave out the details of his encounter with Mr. McKee at the end of Chapter Two. I don’t know enough about the early drafts of Gatsby to know if there was ever a scene included that was cut, but I don’t think there was. And it’s also conceivable that Fitzgerald didn’t actually have any personal experience to draw upon here, so he simply opted not to sketch the event at all. But I think the point here is that your honest narrator couldn’t bring himself to be honest about what occurred there, so he resorts to a sin of omission – but not complete omission — and in so doing, lumps himself in with the rest of his corrupt environs.
This should be an indication that the feminists who come down on Fitzgerald as a terrified hater of women have also got it a bit wrong. Fitzgerald doesn’t single women out – he’s an equal-opportunity hater, if that’s the word you prefer. Men, women, dogs, most of the things he’s writing about are objects of disgust. Race and class are disregarded, all get the same scrutiny and all come up wanting. Nick says he’s reserving judgment, but the entire book is one condemnation after another. When Jordan turns the tables on him, he hasn’t much to say.
Is Gatsby black? I suppose it’s possible. There’s no concrete description of him. Fitzgerald’s editor, Max Perkins, pointed this out in his first reading of the book, saying something to the effect that Gatsby was hard to get ahold of in one’s mind, and that while he assumed this was intentional, it was a distraction nonetheless. Fitzgerald fixed that with some talk about Gatsby’s smile and his tanned features. But the whole point is that Gatsby is a chameleon. He is who you want him to be. So if you want him to be black and passing, OK, he is. If you want to believe he’s a Minnesota farm kid like the vast majority of Minnesota farm kids from the early 1900s, he is. Again, it’s not the main point.
The point of this book is not in the personal details that academic analysis is so fond of picking apart. And it’s not in the racy and dazzling story that draws in the moviemakers. The point of the book is in the implications, the unspoken judgments of others, the overall sensation of a worn-out, world-weary, cynic trying to find a scintilla of beauty and, on believing he has found it, sees it snuffed out.
In my 40s, I understand that weariness a lot better than I did in my 20s. I understand how you can hate someone who has irreparably damaged you yet still love them enough to wish things had been different and remember all the things that attracted you in the first place. I understand the characters more than I did – yes, Daisy is unsullied white on the outside and corrupted by gold on the inside, but she is also struggling – between her husband and her first true love, between her traditional upper-class roots and the current come-as-you-are culture of emancipation, between what is and what could be. She absolutely possesses all the negative characteristics you want to heap on her – careless, selfish, bratty, shallow, I give you everything. But as an old person, I find myself coming at her these days more in sorrow than in anger.
The sign of a truly great work of literature – and of art, I suppose — is that you find something new in every reading – not because the book has changed, but because you have. That, I think, is why it’s such a hard thing to translate great literature to the screen. A movie adaptation is a snapshot of one person’s interpretation at one moment in time. A good movie adaptation should be as capable as the book of pulling a viewer in and letting them discover new things with each viewing, but it’s a lot harder to pull off. And yet, I keep hoping it will happen, so I will keep watching them.
(And probably hating them, but in my better moments, loving them for what they could have been.)