The Great Gatsby's Creative Destruction: Whether the New Movie Succeeds, Fitzgerald's Masterpiece Still Speaks to America

By Gillespie, Nick | Reason, April 2013 | Go to article overview

The Great Gatsby's Creative Destruction: Whether the New Movie Succeeds, Fitzgerald's Masterpiece Still Speaks to America


Gillespie, Nick, Reason


VERY FEW American novels have demonstrated the remarkable staying power of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Published in 1925, it remains a critical darling, a widely read popular novel, and the scourge of indifferent high school students who suffer through it as that most soul-killing of literary forms, "assigned reading."

Gatsby looms so large in the American imagination that it's already been filmed four times (the first time in 1926, as a silent movie) and will hit theaters yet again in May, with an A-list cast (Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire) and director (Baz Luhrmann). Surprisingly, the new film also boasts state-of-the-art 3D, as if the filmmakers are worried that the story alone--which includes sex, murder, and copious amounts of Prohibition-era booze--isn't quite riveting enough to put asses in seats.

Luhrmann and crew might just be prudently hedging their bets. After ad, the most ambitious adaptation of Gatsby--the 1974 version featuring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow and a script by Francis Ford Coppola--had ad the moxie of a sun-faded Ralph Lauren clothing catalog. Despite decent box office, it was widely panned as little more than a faded fashion statement that attempted to bring back jodhpurs and two-tone men's shirts.

Based on the traders and ads made available so far, the new movie likely errs in the same fundamental way that the Redford version did. That is, it conceives of Gatsby ultimately as a grand love story between the tide character and the object of his obsessive love, Daisy Buchanan. Given the barebones plot of the book, that's understandable but regrettable, as those two are the least compelling characters in the novel. Despite occasional moments of darkness and depth, Daisy works hard and mostly succeeds at maintaining a superficial lightness. Gatsby, despite the whirl of excitement and mystery about him, is an empty suit. Even the novel's adulatory narrator confesses that when he's alone with Gatsby, "I found to my disappointment, that he had nothing to say."

The reason that Gatsby (the novel, if not the character) still has plenty to say to us is that it captures the precise moment that modern America came into recognizable shape. It is about the move from countryside to metropolis, from unum to pluribus, from hierarchy to heterarchy in all aspects of cultural and economic life. It captures a world in which nothing is fixed in terms of status, fortune, and self-fashioning--and it narrates the anxieties by such freedom.

James Gatz, a poor kid from the Midwest, reinvents himself with the help of bootleggers as Jay Gatsby, a mysterious and super-rich figure who throws huge, bacchanalian parties at his Long Island mansion. As events unfold through the eyes of Gatsby's neighbor and Daisy's cousin, Nick Carraway, we learn that Gatsby and Daisy had a torrid, tortured love affair that ended years before with Daisy marrying the oafish Tom Buchanan.

A former classmate of Nick's at Yale, Buchanan has made his money the old-fashioned way: He inherited it. Reunited in Long Island, Gatsby and Daisy take up with one another again, and through a series of misunderstandings, Scotch-fueled showdowns, and arguably the greatest literary depiction of vehicular manslaughter ever, Gatsby loses not only Daisy but his life.

While other U.S. novels written around the same time--Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, say, or Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury--still have their critical admirers and literary influence, they don't inhabit the national imagination as they used to. Novels that once read as modernist masterpieces now seem much more dated, in both their settings and their concerns. (For that matter, so does the rest of Fitzgerald's oeuvre.) But Gatsby still speaks directly to large-scale, ongoing shifts in American society.

Partly set in the fictional environs of West Egg and East Egg, Long Island, Gatsby foregrounds tensions between what passes for old money and new in these United States. …

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