Gatsby and the great American dread

The film adaptation of "The Great Gatsby" is rapidly approaching, now the question is will it live up to the book or sully its name?

Image By: By Dylan Moriarty

Travesty. Tra-ves-ty. Noun. Plural: –ties. A false, absurd, or distorted representation of something.

Used in a sentence: “The new ‘Great Gatsby’ movie is going to be a travesty.”

There, I said it.

Yes, it appears I am preemptively censuring Baz Luhrmann for adapting one of the 20th century’s finest novels into a movie, precipitating F. Scott Fitzgerald’s long tonic dream into a film redolent of glissaded glamour. And now you’re expecting me to spend the rest of this column lashing out a dangerous diatribe against the whole project.

It’s not going to come to that. Frankly, it’s a losing battle trying to adapt any book, especially one as ingrained as Gatsby. What Baz has done is nothing new, and I can’t think of anything to term his attempt—Luhrmannsanity? And I’m too old for sour grapes and spoiled milk on the matter. If people want a movie, they can have one. They’ve had one, too.

In 10th grade, we had to watch the 1974 adaptation of Gatsby. Sam Waterston (sexy beast) was a preternatural Nick Carraway, and Robert Redford pulled off Gatsby pretty well. The rest of the movie was inane.

My main paranoiac strain is people will see the movie and assume it’s a faithful rendering of the book, or that the two are on the same footing. Because, just from watching the trailers, I can already see where the movie deviates or just makes things up. I can point out the dialogue not spoken in the book, the scenes not scripted by Fitz, the attitudes that are glossily amplified. There’s one scene where Nick Carraway emotes. If you’ve read the book you know the idea is outrageous.

I have not seen it yet, but I know for sure there’ll be movie tie-in book, and if I really felt like indulging my paranoia receptors, I’d be afraid they altered the book to suit the movie—interpolated their own addenda and agendas.

I tried to find a passage worthy of parodic meddling, some passage where Gatsby could dual wield pistols and blow up a truck or something. I didn’t find anything like that. The closest I came to making my point was by altering the scene where Nick Carraway talks about Jordan Baker’s habitual dishonesty and delivers one of the book’s most important lines:

“Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known. Bitches be cray, yo.”

And so parody, yon tender blossom, wilts.

My reaction to this movie will forever be rooted in my love for the book, and the fear that the movie will wrongly eclipse the original novel. It’s a bit of a silly sentiment, since “The Great Gatsby” has been a cornerstone of American letters since its publication in 1925. It’s the perennial high school read. I have not heard any legitimate objections to the book’s existence/style. The only criticism I’ve heard of Gatsby is that it’s plotless or overly diffuse, to some people.

In my mind, “The Great Gatsby” is a profound and ethereal book. It is like a tonic (I invoked this earlier) but it’s more than that. It’s got a gin aspect to it. Its prose has a botanical freshness; it laps over your mind in vapors. “The Great Gatsby” reads like a gin and tonic, but it doesn’t leave you drunk, it doesn’t tighten you up.

This isn’t a slight against drinkers or readers of drunken books. Plenty of books will try and envelop you and dull your senses, but very few authors can write a book that flushes you like a drink but doesn’t rob you of your senses. That kind of writing takes practice, or miracles.

If I could isolate what it is I like about “The Great Gatsby” so much, it would be how spot-on the book is on the subject of loneliness. If Fitzgerald, at the bottom of one of his gin fizzes had decided to call it “The Book of Human Loneliness,” all pretensions aside, he would have been right.

Nick, Daisy, Tom, Myrtle, George, the party goers—the book is populated by lonely people, lonely for very different reasons. But Gatsby is the prince of human loneliness. That is his character, and that’s something people seem to miss. The upcoming movie certainly missed it. Gatsby is not a hero. He is not a winner.

The story of the movie will be that he built an empire out of nothing but his dreams, and incarnated an emperor out of a hardscrabble boy; he will vie for Daisy, the resplendent empress, only to have his fate sealed by jealousy, madness and murder. It will be a tragedy.

The story of the novel is he built a façade out of nothing but his dreams, and incarnated a gesture out of a hardscrabble boy. He vied for Daisy, moneyed voice, and his fate was sealed by jealousy, madness and murder. It is a story.

I imagine the movie will be good in its own right, even if it’s an unmitigated travesty of one of the world’s most ineffable books. So maybe I do have sour grapes towards the movie. But at least I can always make wine out of that.

What’s that, wine and “The Great Gatsby?” I can dig it. Tell Sean you can dig it at sreichard@wisc.edu.

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