Ain’t No Party Like a Gatsby Party
REPEAT OFFENDER: The Great Gatsby (2013)
THE REVIEW: My first introduction to Baz Luhrmann was when I was in middle school. I had a high fever and watched a little film called Moulin Rouge. It was one of the trippier experiences I’ve had. The mind behind Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet is not known for subtlety, restraint, or playing it safe. So when I discovered that Luhrmann would be making a big budget adaptation of The Great Gatsby, I was alternately baffled and intrigued.
An American classic Gatsby certainly is, but it’s not exactly a gripping page turner. For all its meaningful commentary, the book gets so bogged down in its pacing (and English teachers hell-bent on spending more time contemplating the book’s every nuance and symbol than Fitzgerald ever did) that the scathing indictment of a classist society and realization that the American dream is a hollow, unattainable lie are often lost on many a disinterested student.
And, though it has garnered me many a disappointed look from my incredulous fellow English students, I am the first to admit that I was one of them. The Great Gatsby has some excellent writing. It has enduring themes. But I didn’t care. Not the first time I had to read. Not the second. I have a few friends from Great Neck who were forced to read the book so many times that they have an inbred hatred for it.
The problem, besides ineffective teachers pushing it as gospel, was that it was boring. It was slow. It was all through the eyes of Gatsby fanboy Nick, whose opinion clearly could not be trusted, so why bother? And I did not care about any of the characters (except Tom, who I hated). I don’t need to like characters. I don’t need to approve of their choices or want to be friends with them or think they’re good people. However, I should feel something (even if it is just hating them). I should be invested in the story enough that I could care less what happened to them or how the book ends. But I couldn’t care less whether Gatsby was able to buy his way back into Daisy’s secret garden or how someone’s mistress died or whether the green light we eternally covet and strive for was just a hollow dream that meant nothing once it was attained.
So, while this movie has been panned by many for losing the soul of the book, it managed to make me care about the characters far more than the actual book ever did. Though its his own inability to be satisfied with what he has that destroys him, I felt bad for Gatsby. I wanted him to succeed. I thought Nick was more than just a hipster fanboy. I felt like Daisy was a person with feelings and motivations and conflicted desires instead of just a pale little bauble for Gatsby to want (though he still views her that way). I even felt like Tom was a person (a bad person, but a person nonetheless). I saw that he was a man frightened of change, clinging desperately to his waning power and way of life (not unlike many a modern politician). Thus, when the paper palaces they’ve built come crashing down around them and all their dreams were lies all along, I felt something. I was sad when Gatsby died. I was angry when the old money WASPs scapegoated him for all their sins. In short, I cared. Which is more than I could ever say before.
For Baz Luhrmann, this was actually a very mellow film. You either love Luhrmann or you hate him and the first five minutes of his movies are usually a test of which one, as he assaults the senses with a near orgiastic fireworks display of color, drama, and over the top stylization. So I was thrown when the first five minutes of The Great Gatsby were rather calm. Perhaps not even Luhrmann can fight the plodding pace of the book.
However, Luhrmann’s style is exactly what Gatsby needed. The glamorous, upwardly mobile feel of the roaring 20s comes to life through a mix of old footage, outlandish costumes, and Long Island beach goers. From the literally overflowing excess of Gatsby’s house party bacchanalia (not sure where Gatsby got all those inflatable pool zebras, but I want one) to the 20s equivalent of The Fast and the Furious (the fact that no one got hit by a car sooner is nothing short of a miracle) to the homes of West Egg and East Egg to the sheer amount of scenes in which people vapidly chronicle their vapidness with photographs, the whole thing reads more like Rich Kids of Instagram than a dusty classic.
Which is brilliant.
It’s all too easy to dismiss the book’s indictment of society’s excess, classism, and carelessness when it takes place long ago in a novel far, far away. But the seemingly anachronistic glitz and glamour drove home how releveant Fitzgerald’s themes of desire, corruption, and desperation to keep up with the Jones are today. I was half expecting Occupy East Egg to show up. The distinctly modern soundtrack (who’d’ve thought we’d ever see dubstep Gatsby) may have ruffled some purist feathers, but this movie’s resistance to being pidgeon-holed as a period piece makes it all the clearer that it’s not the sins of the 20s Fitzgerald is laying bare but ours as well. Wealth disparity. Indifference of the privileged to those without privilege. Impending economic collapse. Anxiety over a shift in social norms and “traditional” values.
It’s actually quite depressing how much nothing has changed. The new money of Gatsby’s day is the old money of today, those scapegoated as “other” then are doing their share of scapegoating the new “others” now, but it seems no one has learned anything. A walk around modern day Long Island (or any number of places in America) might not be as stylized as Luhrman’s vision or as well-articulated as Fitzgerald’s prose, but the same issues explored in The Great Gatsby are all too topical.
It was just how timeless Fitzgerald’s timeless themes were that made the ending, where Gatsby cannot let his ideal vision of what was and should be (read: what never was and never will be), where the green light is just a light on a dock, where the American dream is exposed in all its futility and falsehood, where ‘careless people retreat into their money and carelessness’ so wholly damning and potent.
I just kept thinking about what Littlefinger says to Sansa in this season of Game of Thrones, “It doesn’t matter what we want. Once we get it, we want something else.” I never would have imagined Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire and The Great Gatsby had much of anything in common, but it occurred to me that Littlefinger is just a self-aware Gatsby. He’s Gatsby if Gatsby knew the green light could never be grasped, no matter how much we sweat, yearn, lie, schmooze, plot, and sacrifice for it. Don’t believe me? Take a look at Littlefinger’s speech about how only the ladder is real. Just replace “realm” with “American Dream” and it sums up the themes of The Great Gatsby better than most school curricula ever manage to.
To wrap things up, I found the stylized and anachronistic nature of the film to be a great asset, making the themes of the book fresh and accessible while not an orthodox and straight translation of page to shot. The narration of Nick/Fitzgerald’s words worked at times and failed at others, especially when the words themselves were actually superimposed over the screen. At the very least, this adaptation is a visual feast that high school literature courses could use to get students engaged in the sometimes wearisome material.
Lastly, can we agree that the young Gatsby in the flashbacks is nothing short of mystic sorcery?
THE CONTROVERSY: It seems concerns over The Great Gatsby did not extend to the silver screen, as the only controversy I’m aware of is from those who revere the book. Given that more copies of The Great Gatsby sold in one week before the film’s debut than in the entirety of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life, one might think lovers of the book would be happy, or at least weigh the cons against the pros of drawing in new interest in and appreciation for classic American literature. However, since the trailer first came out, I have heard no end of complaints about the film, the cast, the director, the rise of Gatsby parties, school tie-ins that admittedly miss the point, and even the book cover. As these complaints about its soullessness and failure came long before much of anything about the film was known, it comes across more as the railings of hipsters than anything else.