… Or “Why I don’t envy Baz Lurhmann.”
I’ll admit my immediate reaction when I heard that Baz Lurhmann was to direct the first big-screen adaptation of The Great Gatsby since the 1974 Robert Redford/Mia Farrow version was something along the lines of: “Arrgh! But, but, he was responsible for Moulin Rouge! Why would you do that?!” For the record, I have more than reconciled myself with the choice of director (he did have a career before Moulin Rouge, and damn… Those ads look amazing). The other main problem, not just for me but for everyone who loves this book, is that pretty much everyone has their own version of The Great Gatsby in their heads; everyone knows how they’d do such-and-such a scene and with who. The inner frustrated director in most readers will be prepared to hate any adaptation done by someone else who dared to get in there before they did, (because they totally were going to make that film). So what is it about this book which inspires both such cultish blind devotion to it and outright hostility towards anyone who might wish to touch it?
Our narrator and reader-substitute in this story is Nick Carraway; a relatively blank-slate from old money in the Mid-West come to make his fortune on the stock-market in New York. With a view to saving cash, he moves to the small peninsula of West Egg – the less-legitimate of the two “Eggs” in the book – and soon realises that his next-door neighbour is rather less then ordinary. He doesn’t only realise this through the fabulously decadent and meretricious parties which Jay Gatsby throws every week, despite not engaging in them at all himself. He mainly realises it when he seems him staring across the bay at East Egg, more specifically at the green light at the end of the jetty belonging to Nick’s married cousin, Daisy. Beyond that, there is very little I can say that won’t give away anything to do with the plot, aside from that the emerging tale is one of thwarted hopes and dreams, class, money, love and one of the last true idealists of fiction standing against the world.
I love the characters in this book. Not from a point of view of affection, as such – they’re mostly fairly abhorrent characters in their own ways – but more from a technical standpoint. Every character, no matter how walk on their role may be, is given due time and attention and are developed verbally, visually and as a function of the story. You could probably write a thesis on the supporting characters in The Great Gatsby and still get a first. As far as the main quintet is done (Gatsby, Nick, Jordan, Daisy and her husband, Tom) none of them are two-dimensional which could have so easily happened with both Tom and Gatsby, with the first as a philandering villain and the second as a knight in shining limo;all of them have a degree of ambiguity, even Nick whose reliability as a narrator is something which we’re occasionally called upon to question. Although as much as I love Nick* (and yes, I do – I think he’s sweet) and the character development he gets somewhat unusually for a theoretically tabula rasa device, it’s Gatsby who is the key to this book.
Let’s face it, like with Villette, the affection the reader has for this book is usually in direct correlation with that they have for the main character. Jay Gatsby is essentially Don Quixote in spats, and yet there is always this feel of the con-man conjurer about him; he’s too fantastic to be true, his lies are too obvious and badly-made. But for all that he is pure idealism and with surprising sense of innocence and vulnerability behind it; he feels like one of the few characters in fiction who acts like he belongs in the fictional world, a more fictional world than the one which he inhabits. It almost feels as though he has gone through fairy tales and literature and Onegin-like has underlined and made annotations on desirable character-traits and tried to assimilate them into his own personality. Compared to some of the other characters, he comes across as an otherworldly innocent, but it’s heavily hinted that the source of his wealth is illegal and that he’s done some less than chivalric things in his life to reach his current position. See, this is how good the characterisation is: Fitzgerald has me writing about Gatsby like he’s a real person. Gah!
The story’s well-written and concise, alternating between the witty and satirical, and the bittersweet and lyrical in the prose. I would say that chapter one can be a bit hard-going if you’re less than at your focused best, but stick with it – once Fitzgerald gets into his stride he rewards your loyalty by the champagne-bucketful. It is a novella and the chapters are knitted together very tightly, so I would recommend reading it in as few sittings as possible and paying it full attention – it’s not exactly something that you can just dip in and out of. As for your concentration, almost literally everything is relevant either to plot or theme in some way as well as there being a couple of blink and you’ll miss it, and at least one character death you’d miss if you were semi-skimming the book.
So, that’s The Great Gatsby – read it or regret it. The world which Fitzgerald conjures is so vivid, both palpable and dreamlike at the same time, that it’s little wonder that people who love it get so truly possessive and attached to “their” Gatsby. So Baz, good luck mate – better you than me.
*For the record, I completely ship Nick and Gatsby. Go Natsby!