Magazine article The Washington Monthly

Borne Back Ceaselessly into the Past: Why We're Suckers for Remakes of the Great Gatsby

Magazine article The Washington Monthly

Borne Back Ceaselessly into the Past: Why We're Suckers for Remakes of the Great Gatsby

Article excerpt

The story begins with a party at a Long Island estate, "a colossal affair by any standard ... with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy, and a marble swimming pool and more than forty acres of lawn and garden." In its

blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.... On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors d'oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold.... The bar is in full swing and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside until the air is alive with chatter and laughter and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot.

It could be any estate and any party hosted by people whose wealth is re cent and extravagant, for guests they may or may not know but who are irresistibly drawn into their aura. But in fact, or, rather, in fiction, it is a story of and about the 1920s. The estate is leased and the party hosted by Jay Gatsby, the central figure in F. Scott Fitzgerald's much-loved 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, now a Warner Brothers film directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

What remains so compelling about Gatsby that investors have bet an estimated $127 million that this quintessential story about the 1920s will speak to audiences of today?

And not just today: Gatsby has been adapted for film five times in five decades, more than all Fitzgerald's other novels put together. None of the decade's other classics--The Sound and the Fury, The Sun Also Rises, The Age of Innocence, and All Quiet on the Western Front--have been made into films more than twice in the almost nine decades since they were written.

Gatsby's enduring popularity may be attributable to the fact that while it was written in the 1920s about the 1920s, it tells a story that history has repeated over and over ever since. Just as it fits the boom and bust of the 1920s, it could also be about savings and loan executives in the 1970s, tech wizards and entrepreneurs in the 1990s, or purveyors of sub-prime mortgages and credit default swaps in the 2000s.

In fact, this latest film of the Fitzgerald masterpiece was conceived in 2008, as the world was reeling into the Great Recession, and with explicitly didactic intentions: "If you wanted to show a mirror to people that says, 'You've been drunk on money,' they're not going to want to see it," Luhrmann told the Hollywood Reporter when he acquired the rights to Gatsby. "But if you reflected that mirror on another time they'd be willing to."

What has captivated us about Gatsby for so long?

The story's narrator, Nick Carraway (played in the movie by Tobey Maguire), is fascinated by Jay Gatsby from the moment they meet at one of Gatsby's sumptuous parties, where Carraway mistakes his host, a man in his early thirties, for another guest:

"I'm Gatsby," he said suddenly.... He smiled understandingly--much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced--or seemed to face--the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. …

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