Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Great Gatsby: Book into movie and lit crit wars

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Ever since Baz Luhrmann's version of The Great Gatsby hit the theaters, I've been dying to see it in part because the reviews have been so intriguing. (By intriguing, I don't mean positive, but they've made me wonder about what exactly the reviewers take issue with---more on that later.) For anyone who has not recently read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, I recommend checking it out this summer. It's short, exciting, and if you haven't read it since high school, you need to read it again because trust me, there's a lot in there that went over my head that the adults didn't bother to explain. Yes, I mean that kind of stuff and in a big way. Did you know there's a guy on guy hook-up in there between Nick Carraway and the photographer from the party in NYC? I'll bet you didn't. Unsurprisingly, that part has yet to make it into a film adaptation, and that's probably for the best.




Since we all have too much to read and too little time, I'll give you my mini-review up front and if you want to stay for the good stuff, fine. If not, I understand. My take: Baz Luhrmann nailed it. To me, his version feels true to the novel. The cinematography is gorgeous. The party scenes are dizzying, and the soundtrack is brilliant. Admittedly, some of the contemporary songs pulled me out of the period somewhat, but the choices made sense in the interest of preserving the true feeling of the story. Also, I really appreciated the playful use of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor as a segue from Nick's invitation through the first few minutes of the party as Nick tries to figure out what he's doing there.

For now, I'm going to focus on some places where I disagree with NPR's review on Monkey See, Loving 'Gatsby' Too Much and Not Enough. I should have known I wouldn't be crazy about the review with a title like that, but I was on the site at the time and wanted to know if the movie was good or bad. One of the most frustrating qualities of this review is I couldn't tell if the reviewer thought the movie was entertaining. She seemed completely preoccupied with how loyal it was to the book.

First, movies cannot recreate novels. Even a simple novel has too much going on in it to make a good movie that anyone wants to watch and remain completely true to the text. Ambiguity in characters does not translate well to the big screen because there just isn't time to deal with all the subtlety. Second, reviewer Linda Holmes takes issue with Carey Mulligan's portrayal of Daisy Buchanan. According to Holmes, Carey Mulligan plays the part of a woman who is emotionally tortured and feels trapped rather than "Daisy Buchanan" who is frivolous and just "keeps on dancing" while her lover lies dead in a coffin. Interestingly, while Holmes is fine with going on about how Daisy is portrayed as too sympathetic in Baz Luhrmann's version of the story, she totally misses the fact that in this version, her daughter is completely absent except at the end when her mother explains that they are going away on a holiday.

Daisy is an interesting character, and if you last read this book in high school this becomes clearer on a second read through. She is married to a rich husband who abuses her emotionally by cheating on her with just about everybody, and probably abuses her physically as well. We know he breaks Myrtle's nose and in the book, Daisy mentions that he injured her early in their relationship because he was being a "brute." In one of her first conversations alone with Nick, she alludes to her ambivalence about being a woman in high society because the only way to survive is to be a "beautiful little fool." In other words, between her brush with depression and Nick's arrival, she is seeing her life anew and finds that the more she thinks about it, the more it hurts. Up to that point in time, nothing has actually been based on what she wants in part because what she wants has never been a priority. She has spent her life living up to the expectations of her position and her reward is an absent husband and father who only shows up to regale her with his sermons on the superiority of WASPS and inborn inferiority of everyone else.

In my eyes, Carey Mulligan's performance and Baz Luhrmann's interpretation are spot on. Maybe what is more difficult for fans of the 1974 version of the film to deal with is that Mulligan seems to be made of tougher stuff than Mia Farrow. I have no idea how Linda Holmes feels about that version, but I know some of my friends preferred Mia Farrow's performance to Carey Mulligan's. I love Mia Farrow and Carey Mulligan, so this isn't a commentary on either actor's abilities, but in terms of the interpretation I prefer, I would have to go with the current one. Actually, I think that the perception of Daisy in Baz Luhrmann's film has more to do with the director omitting the last scene of the book than major differences between the ways Daisy was portrayed in the book and previous films. Time and special features will tell if Luhrmann ever tried to work with the awkward ending sequence of the novel, but in terms of the theatrical release, omitting it makes a big difference.

Regarding the quibbles with Nick Carraway seeming too innocent, okay, yes, he seems innocent, but this is another place where Nick Carraway's backstory probably wouldn't serve a cinematic interpretation, and nobody has touched it, so Baz Luhrmann isn't alone in that. In the end, I don't think it matters. Baz Luhrmann's version of Gatsby portray's Nick as a young man in a line of work that he knows is shady, but he's at the awkward stage in his career where he can't be choosy about where he works, what he does, or where he lives. On the bright side, he is young, single, and happens to live in party central. Nick is at the crossroads many of us have visited during transitions throughout our lives where we aren't quite out of the life we were in, but not quite in the one everyone thinks we should be in. With this outsider's perspective, we can't help wondering if that other life is really worth having. For Nick, Daisy's life is a preview of coming attractions. His natural next step would be to marry a nice girl and have a family, but he soon realizes that her life is kind of horrific. His natural inclination seems to be to just stay where he is and wait for something to happen rather than put the effort and energy into moving on to whatever the natural next step should be. Of course, Tobey Macguire plays this part extremely well. No surprise there.

Meanwhile, Jay Gatsby wants his life to always be on an upward trajectory, but he's willing to make whatever sacrifices necessary because he is in love with Daisy.  Here is another place I take issue with Linda Homes. She claims that Gatsby's love for Daisy is delusional and that's a flaw on his part and isn't romantic or redemptive in any way. Well, I don't know if it ever was redemptive. I'll leave that debate to people who have enough time on their hands to get graduate degrees in English Literature. However, for the purposes of the story, and dramatic interest, at least that love is a real and sincere human feeling, and clearly Gatsby loves Daisy even if he is deluded. Maybe we all get kind of deluded when we're in love. Actually, you know what, there's no maybe about it; we do. Even Jordan Baker describes Gatsby as looking at Daisy "in that way every girl wants to be looked at." So Baz Luhrmann plays up Gatsby's willingness to sacrifice everything to be with Daisy because under all the glitz and lies and deceit, that love is real and sincere even if it is misguided. How is that not true of the book? How is that not tragic? Linda Holmes claims it's not supposed to be tragic in the book. Really? Granted, I am saying this as one of those people who usually bombs standardized tests on reading comprehension even though I read all the time and seem to understand what I'm reading, but there could be something I missed.

As for the romance between Daisy and Gatsby, even in Baz Luhrmann's film, I think it's clear that Daisy is not as absorbed with Gatsby as he is with her. Tom is a brute and he cheats on her, but he also represents her known world, and, like all cheaters and wife beaters, he insists that this time things will be different.

Does Baz Luhrmann's film capture the deep and symbolic threads of Fitzgerald's critique of the struggle to achieve the American Dream? Actually, I think it is the best effort so far in that regard, but I'll leave the more sociologically inclined to fight that one out. I think he wins when it comes to staying true to the emotional tone of the book. This is definitely my favorite out of all of Baz Luhrmann's films.