The Poetry of Disillusionment in “Gatsby” is Beyond the Movies
The Great Gatsby is a marvelous novel. F. Scott Fitzgerald was at heart a poet of the 19th Century English Romantic type, for that was the literature that clearly inspired him, as he himself said about his only academic focus during his college education (he being Princeton University’s most accomplished and famous non-graduate).
I was not too impressed with the latest (2013) glitzy movie of the novel, by Baz Luhrmann. Gatsby is so much about the poetic and lyrical use of language to convey emotionally, rather than logically (like my good science reports), the psychological states of the characters of the Gatsby tale.
A plot is always necessary of course, but in literary art it can be a mere skeleton on which to hang the real pulsing flesh of the story. Movies present plot first and foremost. The most artistically refined ones can give a sense of the poetry of experience, but this is not typical. The Baz Luhrmann movie was total Hollywood: big, flashy, loud, bombastic, hyper-realistically unreal, and impatient to blast you with a sensation.
Fitzgerald is just the opposite. Sure, there are big flashy loud extravagant background scenes in the Gatsby story, but they are really like painted backdrop curtains to the stage of the imagination on which the compelling psychologically vibrant interplays and soliloquies that fill the foreground of the tale are spun out by Fitzgerald’s prose. So I think a Hollywood movie, especially one intentionally a “blockbuster,” of the Gatsby story is just far from any art of Fitzgerald’s league, even if it has mass appeal as safe-decadent entertainment.
I suppose it could be possible for someone of the caliber of Jean Renoir to make a Gatsby movie that is much closer to the spirit of what Fitzgerald was striving for with prose, but I don’t think such a film masterpiece would have much appeal to general audiences. So, it would never be made because who in the movie business would put up the money to make a supremely artistic, psychologically subtle, and lyrical sure-fire flop?
Every movie of a novel is always a set of excerpts strung together as the filmmaker’s interpretation, or rip-off, of the novel. Can’t be helped. Douglas Sirk (the German director who made iconic 1950s American melodrama pictures with Rock Hudson) said that it was easier to make a good movie from a defective or second-rate novel, because the moviemakers (director and screen writers) could patch and fill the given story as they thought best to arrive at an integrated product that worked well as a mass-market movie. Really good novels had everything about the characters’s make-up and plot factors all tightly wrapped up “perfectly,” so there was no room to adjust the story to make for a popular movie without also degrading the quality of that story. It’s the old “the movie is not like the book.”
Some novels are too good to make equally good movies of. Catcher In The Rye is one, and its author, J. D. Salinger, refused to sell the film rights to any of his novels because he could only see movie versions degrading what he had produced for readers. The ideal prose-to-movie process (for both good prose and a good movie) would be having a superb writer craft tales specifically intended for being made into movies, where that writer was also a superb moviemaker, and who would make the film.
Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame was such a writer-moviemaker. Serling had many beautiful turns of phrase flowing out of his commentary on his Twilight Zone episodes on TV, and mixed into the dialog of the characters in his stories. But Serling’s stories only spun on for 25 minutes (half hour shows) or 50 minutes (hour shows).
Fitzgerald’s novels have much longer and interwoven thematic arcs, and were meant to be absorbed by a reader over many, many hours, probably over the course of days, weeks. Fitzgerald really wrote for pre-TV even pre-movie 19th century hopeful young American minds (like his), but who had lived through the consciousness-shattering experiences and devastating losses of WWI, and were now making their way through the chaotically fragmenting 1920s, maybe sometimes crazy happy times but with many disappointments for most, since most were not rich and would never get to be.
So, I just don’t see how any movie can capture The Great Gatsby or Fitzgerald’s incredible, incredible second masterpiece Tender Is The Night. In my daydream of being a great screenwriter and movie director, I would do the impossible and make a lush compelling epic of Tender Is The Night, something with the cinematic scope of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, and the psychological clarity and depth of Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion.
Perhaps my lack of enthusiasm for Baz Luhrmann’s movie (which I did watch attentively) is the reaction of a reader (instead of a non-reading movie fan) who was enchanted by the spell of Fitzgerald’s poetic and yet amazingly economical outpouring of prose that transmits the deep feeling of the Gatsby tale. I see little subtlety and glaring falsities in, and feel much bombast from the movie. You just fall so deeply into the story as told by Fitzgerald, especially with Nick Carraway as your guide into the lower psychological depths, but you are pushed back so hard and pocked with shrapnel by Luhrmann’s movie. It’s obvious that the brassy blare is what makes the movie “successful,” but that success is the exact opposite of what Fitzgerald gave us. (Yes, the movie would have to have been made by the Jean Renoir of La Grande Illusion and La Règle de Jeu.)
The Gatsby story is about the losses of optimistic illusions about American life and about romantic ideals, and then about attempted nobility failing at life while rich crass ignorance and bigotry triumph in the way parasites triumph by degrading the totality of the lives hosting them. Tom Buchanan is Trump, and Daisy Buchanan then as now is an airhead (not a shrewd careerist Melania), a simple pretty nonentity that has no intellectual depth but is pleasant to look and talk with, and on whom the love, longings and life ambitions of a driven man can be projected as movie myth is projected onto a silver screen and appear to shimmer with magical promise. That may be the most cinematic aspect of the novel, Daisy as a metaphor of the movies, magic by optical illusion and without any substance at all, which if believed in without reservation draws naïve optimistic romanticism to its actual doom.
Well, so much for my babble about Gatsby and movie attempts at Gatsby. As Peter Byrne has told me: “Never judge a book by its movie.”