Saturday, May 4, 2013

Going to the movies with 'The Great Gatsby'

The coming of Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” has inspired a great deal of angst amongst careful readers of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, including me. I find myself expecting both spectacle and disappointment, and not just because that’s usually the feeling one gets in leaving a big-budget Hollywood summer film. It’s the feeling that there is something within “Gatsby” that cannot be translated beyond the page – though it may be attempted a thousand times, there is something about the book itself that not only has eluded the camera, but has never even been glimpsed. 

And why is that? One would think “The Great Gatsby” would be a natural for the movies.After all, many of the guests at Gatsby's parties, we're told, were in the movie business. At least three other big screen versions have been made, yet none of them have been particularly successful. I think one of the reasons “The Great Gatsby” has bedeviled filmmakers is that the book illustrates the fundamental differences between the two media – print and the movies. 

An example: Gatsby is mentioned early, but we don’t actually meet him until more than a third of the way into the book. Then his appearance is meant to pleasantly shock us – Nick Carraway is engaged in conversation during one of the parties when he suddenly realizes he’s talking to the mysterious host. Later it becomes apparent that Gatsby has arranged for Nick to meet him because he wants to arrange a meeting with Daisy Buchanan. To do this, Gatsby invites Nick with him on a trip into the city, and on the way, Gatsby initiates a conversation with the awkward question, “What’s your opinion of me?” The question puts Nick ill at ease, as Gatsby begins spinning out his “origin” story as being the child of rich people, now dead, and relating his career as a haunted scion in the great capitals of Europe. Internally, Nick believes none of it, and we perceive his earlier observation that Gatsby embodies “everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.”  It is only when Gatsby produces a medal from his service in the war that Nick begins to believe some part of his story.

Now, let’s look at how these sets of events were portrayed in the last incarnation of “The Great Gatsby,” the film from 1974 starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. When Nick finally meets Gatsby, it is at a party – but one of Gatsby’s tuxedo-clad henchmen comes to fetch Nick for reasons he won’t reveal. Then Nick is ushered alone into Gatsby’s office – and Robert Redford is allowed to be a star and flash, not the confident but sinister smile of the self-made man, but the Robert Redford star smile, impressive and impressively bland. Then, when he takes Nick, played by Sam Waterson, into the city and explains his past, Nick listens impassively as the tale spins out. We only perceive him as listening without judgment.  

Anyone who has read the book can tell the difference – the fact that we do not sense Gatsby’s simultaneously myth-making and Nick’s skepticism is an immediate, grave handicap. Even though Gatsby in the novel is a thin, barely perceptible character, he is as solid as Mount Rushmore compared to the character Redford embodies on the screen. And herein is the distance between the word and the picture. Great literature does not deal in the exterior, but the interior. Most of the great scenes, and great books, give us characters sometimes acting in direct contradiction to their deepest desires, motivated by social concern for their image, and it is only when we get inside their minds that we get a glimpse of the confusion, and desperation, gripping them. These contradictions, carried simultaneously, are what make them real to us, and both unique and commonplace. There is still no effective way to do this in the movies – voiceover is only so effective, and can only be used sparingly. The screen is invariably superficial as a result, and deals in emotions that can only be expressed visually – and quickly, because we have only a limited amount of time before the audience grows weary.  

Another example: The 1974 movie gamely tries to render one aspect of the book on screen. In the novel, after Nick has established the pattern of Gatsby’s parties, he then gives a long list of the guests who used to come. The list comprises about six paragraphs, and would be boring by itself except that Fitzgerald embroiders the names with little details about some the fates of the individuals once they left Gatsby’s hospitality. One man strangled his wife, while another drowned, while another stepped in front of a subway train. There are mentions of what happened at the parties-one man so drunk a car ran over his hand. And there are the sound of some of the names, which are occasionally Dickensian in their ability to conjure up feelings just by their distinctive sound – Leech, Bunson, Hornbeam, Blackbuck, Whitebait, Flink, Belcher, Hipp, Smirk, and James B. “Rot-Gut” Ferret. It is one aspect of Fitzgerald’s genius that he manages to flesh out the parties, contribute to the myth of Gatsby, and conjure up the Jazz Age in just a few sentences with what, on the surface, might be just a sequence of names. 

In the movie, this is inserted later in the script, when Daisy finally shows up at what inevitably is Gatsby’s last party. As she and Tom enter the festivities, Tom begins to point out the people there, mentioning the same names as in the book. But the effect isn’t quite the same. We aren’t paying attention to the names or the people. Tom’s recitation draws attention to him, not them. And when he states them, he is merely restating something we already knew – important people of high and low society come to Gatsby’s.  

This illustrates again that the movies are a different experience than the printed word, and filmmakers are usually conscious of the difference. When passionate readers of a particular book are disappointed that this or that detail doesn’t wind up on a screen, it is usually because it can’t be rendered visually. Not only that, it does not move the narrative forward, since every frame of a movie reveals producers and directors panicking that the story is not progressing fast enough to its conclusion. One of the best bits of the book is when Nick and Jordan wander through Gatsby’s party and encounter strange characters, much like the list, such as “Owl Eyes,” who seems flabbergasted that the books in Gatsby’s study are real. In the book, this underlines the fact that there is something fundamentally dishonest about Gatsby’s character which even casual guests perceive. 

Because the movies deal in image, they compromise Gatsby’s character almost fatally when he is portrayed on screen. The character Fitzgerald creates is a criminal – a bootlegger living on the proceeds of criminal acts, who probably has killed more than a few men, planning an elaborate adultery and ultimately shielding his mistress from possible charges of manslaughter. Yet, as Nick writes, “there was something gorgeous about him,” and we are carried away, as he is, by the “foul dust that floated in the wake of his dreams.” It is Gatsby’s quest and his own self-creation that endear him to us, his personal sense of gallantry, and his obliviousness to the fact that reality inevitably will snuff out his long-held dreams. When the movies render this, they give us the dash of Gatsby’s manners, the cut of his clothes, the polish on his automobiles, but they only hint that all of this is a mirage.

For example, take in Nick’s description of Gatsby after his meeting with Dan Cody, and the first intimations that he might leave the home that has frustrated his self-conceptions:

“He was a son of God — a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that — and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.”

The 1974 film desperately wants to render some of that language on the screen, but once again, it must deal in images. To highlight his character’s dilemma, Fitzgerald invokes the image of Christ, and intimates that there is something almost God-like about Gatsby. He is a singular creation, his passions and exploits are divine in nature and worthy of awe, and like Christ, he will ultimately suffer in pursuit of his mission. But Fitzgerald in the same short passage makes it clear that there is something phony, childish, and even morally wrong about Gatsby’s incarnation, and those qualities in and of themselves somehow only add to his greatness.  Here we see the contradictions of life, how our lives and ambitions can conspire to cancel each other out a dozen times, yet we continue on, as Nick concludes, “boats against the current.” 

How would we render such a thing on screen? One might look at another period film, “The Godfather,” the apex of filmed art for the era. (And remember, Francis Ford Coppola wrote the screenplays for both “Godfather” and “Gatsby,” and both are adapted from novels, though Coppola says his script didn't get made into the final film.) We know that Don Corleone is a bad man, but we see him at his daughter’s wedding, doting on his children and those who depend on him, and we are touched. It is still necessary to see the blood of the horse’s head on the sleeping movie producer to know that if necessary, the Don will kill mercilessly rather than be disrespected. It is necessary for us to “see” the evil in the Corleone crime family to understand the depth of the man, and the scene exists in the book. With Gatsby, it might be necessary for a film to invent such a scene and make Gatsby's morality real to us, but no one wants to add to Fitzgerald’s novel, for any host of reasons. (It also helps that while “The Godfather” is a novel, it is nowhere near an equal to “Gatsby” on the printed page. Coppola’s genius was in knowing what to cut out of a lurid, pulpy thriller, no matter how exalted some portions of it are.) 

In some ways, it is fitting that there is something frustrating and elusive about “The Great Gatsby,” just as the book itself illustrates the way our dreams evade our understanding and our ability to grasp them. Perhaps Luhrmann’s film will somehow give us a Gatsby alive on the screen and allow us to glimpse him as Fitzgerald did. Or maybe such a thing is like the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock – taunting us across the bay - something we stretch out our arms toward, knowing against our better selves that, sooner or later, we will grasp hold of it. Like everyone else, I'll be watching.

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