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On Screen, 'Gatsby' is Beautiful—and Damned Boring

Five films later, Hollywood still doesn't get Fitzgerald's novel

Warner Bros. Studios

F Scott Fitzgerald’s last royalty check was for $13.13. He died in Hollywood in 1940, a has-been at the age of 44. His young secretary at the time, Frances Kroll, writes in her memoir that when that final royalty statement came through from Scribner’s, “the handful of sales proved that the author, himself, was the only purchaser. He told me about it, laughing bitterly.”

What a difference a few decades make. The Great Gatsby now tops many lists of The Great American Novels and is soldered to high school curricula across the land. “Gatsby” is a trending unisex name on the baby-naming site, Nameberry, denoting “great pedigree,” and, of course, as we can’t avoid, Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby, likely to rake in millions in ticket sales and tie-in products like Daisy Buchanan’s art deco pearl tiara ($200,000 at Tiffany’s) and Nick Carraway’s straw boater ($198 at Brooks Brothers). Tickets in the Washington, D.C. area where I live are $11, which means that, with his last royalty check, Fitzgerald could have bought a ticket to Gatsby, but would have had to pass up the popcorn. Millions and millions just beyond Fitzgerald’s reach, lurching toward that orgastic future. It’s enough to drive a dead writer crazy.

Which is what’s happened to Nick Carraway in Luhrmann’s silly champagne bubble of a film. When the movie opens, Nick is in the “Perkins Sanitarium” (surely a wink to Fitzgerald’s heroic editor, Max Perkins), recovering from “morbid alcoholism” and suicidal depression, brought on by the wretched excess of The Jazz Age. As a cure (!), Nick’s shrink tells him to write things down, and so, like Gatsby, he attempts to “repeat the past.” What spills out of Nick’s fevered brain is a kind of Long Island version of Apocalypse Now—Nick’s vision grows ever more baroque and unhinged. But, unlike the tribute Coppola paid to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Luhrman’s bombastic Gatsby often barely links to the novel. Look: a computer generated model of the Manhattan skyline in 3-D! Gatsby’s West Egg palace as decorated by Willy Wonka! Blowout parties where the syncopated revelers seem to be dancing The Timewarp, rather than The Charleston! This surfeit of spectacle grows boring. The eminent independent filmmaker I sat with during the preview nodded off about 20 minutes into the movie and didn’t rouse herself until Myrtle got run over. (As gruesome a scene in the film as the novel.)

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A portrait of the author in 1925.

The one redeeming feature of Luhrmann’s film is that it restores some of the humor of the novel. Especially in its opening chapters, The Great Gatsby is frequently funny. (In 1925, the only magazine that offered to serialize Fitzgerald’s forthcoming novel was College Humor.) Take a second look at the dinner party conversation in the first chapter where boorish Tom Buchanan is spouting off his one-theory-explains-the-universe racialist nonsense. Daisy is mugging in that scene like Lucille Ball. In the famous Queensboro Bridge passage, New York City is described as “rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money.” Money that doesn’t smell? Manhattan? Surely, Fitzgerald jests. Both times I saw Gatz, the seven-and-a-half-hour reading/dramatization of the novel at The Public Theater, the audience laughed out loud at Fitzgerald’s language; the audience laughed at the screening of the Luhrmann movie, too, though the comedy was visual: curtains from the Buchanan’s float-y living room blowing in our faces; a drenched Leonardo Di Caprio standing in the rain outside Nick’s cottage, waiting to be reunited with Daisy.

But, if Luhrmann recovered the novel’s comedy, he pared down its acute class anxiety. Unlike my companion, I did stay awake till the “boats against the current” bitter end, that’s why I’m pretty sure that Luhrmann cut out Gatsby’s famous description of Daisy’s voice: “Her voice is full of money.” That remark embodies Daisy. It tells us that, pretty enough as she is, Daisy is just an American Dream siren, luring Gatsby to reach out and grasp for all the other goodies—concrete and ineffable—that she represents: money, social standing, success, happiness, maybe even transcendence. Tellingly, Daisy is never described as a knockout in the novel; in fact, she’s not even a golden girl like Carey Mulligan, but dark-haired. (Mulligan, who is English, speaks in a flat accent throughout the movie that’s suggestive of voice coaching, rather than symbolic import.)

People who don’t really know much about Fitzgerald’s work think, as so many of his proletarian critics of the 1930s did, that all he writes about are the beautiful people, buoyed up on bootlegged gin. Fitzgerald certainly bears some blame for this impression: In his heyday, he and Zelda reveled in conspicuous consumption. Fitzgerald’s first job when he came to New York in 1919 was writing ad copy and, at times in Gatsby, he seems to be “selling” the sumptuous details of Gatsbyland to the reader, the very details today’s Gatsby marketing mania extol: “the buffet tables groaning with salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs” and the shirts, most of all, the shirts: “shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel … shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green and lavender and faint orange with monograms of Indian blue.”

Simultaneous with Fitzgerald’s delight in fine commodities, however, there’s always a vigorous resentment of those who don’t have to work hard to acquire them. Throughout his writing, Fitzgerald betrays the scorn of the poor relation, the self-made man, railing against—and envying—those trust fund babies who take their privilege for granted. Nick cautions readers against identifying with this smugness on the very first page of the novel, telling us that his father always reminded him of the obligations of the rich to the less fortunate. Fitzgerald may not have been overtly political in his life or writing the way that contemporaries like Hemingway, Dos Passos, or Edmund Wilson were—he quietly voted for Roosevelt and privately recommended Das Kapital as extracurricular reading to his college-aged daughter, Scottie—but his class-consciousness was intense and enduring. In his 1931 essay, “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” the Fitzgerald of the Great Depression anticipates the rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street when he talks about the “upper tenth”: “It [The Jazz Age] was borrowed time anyhow—the whole upper tenth of a nation living with the insouciance of grand dukes and the casualness of chorus girls.”

The Great Gatsby brilliantly expresses all the modernist anxieties of the 1920s—Tom’s fear of hordes of dark others (this is a book published only a year after the Congress effectively limited immigration to the U.S., and the KKK emerged as the most powerful influence within the Democratic Party); and the professional golfer Jordan’s exemplification of the new, sexualized, yet also aggressively “mannish” woman. But, subsuming even those great themes, The Great Gatsby is America’s greatest novel about class. In fact, it’s the only one of its canonical peers (Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird, Invisible Man) that foregrounds class, instead of race. Gatsby ruthlessly questions whether the meritocracy exists and, if so, how fast we common folk have to run, how far we have to stretch out our arms to actually get what we think we deserve. Money alone isn’t enough. If it were, The Great Gatsby would end happily with Daisy in the arms of her nouveau rich lover whose closet is stuffed with all those “beautiful shirts.” Birthright and breeding tells. That’s why, in the novel, Gatsby is always anxiously calibrating his actions and speech and, frequently erring on the side of trying too hard to impress. (DiCaprio’s Gatsby isn’t self-conscious enough; he’s insufficiently awkward. The only hint that he’s not comfortable in his own skin is his affected speech pattern in which consonants are dropped. “Old sport” distractingly comes out as “Old Spore” throughout the film.) Even in one of the lushest, most romantic moments of the novel—the reunion of Daisy and Gatsby in Chapter V—Fitzgerald wedges in a comment about class differences. Gatsby is showing Daisy around his mansion and calls in Klipspringer, the freeloading houseguest, to provide background music on the piano. What song does Klipspringer bang out (after he finishes a rendition of “The Love Nest”)? The 1920 foxtrot, “Ain’t We Got Fun,” with its line that jokes: “The rich get richer and the poor get—children.” That quick bit of class commentary is excised from Luhrmann’s movie, too.

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Lois Wilson as Daisy Buchanan in the silent 1926 Gatsby adaptation.

The five films that have been made of The Great Gatsby, to date, all seem to exalt the parties over the worries. (Only the lavish trailer from the 1926 silent version exists.) The one movie version that comes closest to Fitzgerald’s skeptical vision of American social mobility may be the 1949 version starring Alan Ladd, which is something of a noir. (The first time we see Ladd’s Gatsby he’s leaning out of a speeding roadster, machine-gunning his rivals in the bootlegging business.) Unlike Luhrmann and the Gatsby filmmakers who’ve preceded him, Fitzgerald wanted to stress how near impossible it is to swim the marathon distance between West Egg and East Egg. “Americans should be born with fins,” he wrote in a short story of 1929 called, “The Swimmers.” “Perhaps they were,” he continues, “perhaps money was a kind of fin.” The tale of Jay Gatsby explores what it takes to keep “a nobody” in America afloat before he inevitably sinks. The moneyed coasts, contiguous with dark waters, are places where the ambitious and their ambitions go to drown. Only the heartland, to where Nick returns following Gatsby’s death, promises a sanctuary from excess. Fitzgerald undermines the coarse materiality of the rich in a detached poetic style in which ordinary American language becomes unearthly.

Not everyone is on board with that estimation of the novel or finds the mesmerizing distance of its language powerful. In a widely circulated essay in New York Magazine, shrewd contrarian Kathryn Shultz has confessed that she’s read the novel five times and stills finds that very language “insufferable,” even especially in that most quoted of last sentences. C’mon, whisper that last sentence with me: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” In one sentence, Fitzgerald nails who we want to be as Americans. Not who we are, who we want to be. It’s that wanting that runs through every page of The Great Gatsby, a novel where everyone—not just Gatsby—is stretching out their arms for something or someone beyond reach. Gatsby’s fall from grace may be grim, but the novel itself is buoyant. The American Dream may be a mirage, but Fitzgerald’s words make that dream irresistible and heartbreaking all at once. Those words are finally what we might call the omniscient American voice. Kathryn Shultz: read them again. Maybe the sixth time will be the charm.