My fiancée and I were sitting on the couch the other night. I was flipping channels on the TV and watching baseball on my laptop, she was poking around on her phone. The trailer for the new Gatsby film came on. Baz Lurhmann, 3D, glitz and glamour, and musical numbers. We stopped what we were doing and watched with interest, because to writers The Great Gatsby holds a special place. When the trailer ended, she laughed a little bit sadly and said, “They made Gatsby into a movie and they missed the entire point of the book.” She thought for a moment. “No,” she said, “they made it into an assault on the book.”
The Great Gatsby towers over most American novels for a number of reasons. There is the joy of its construction, in which each scene and every piece of plotting seems effortless. There is the ineffable quality of the writing, which blazes with what Hemingway called “the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings.” But above all there is the tone of the book. It is, like all great books, an elegy for its own moment, a sounding of its own death-knell. In its story of Midwesterners (Gatsby, Carraway, and Fitzgerald himself) gone to the Coast and destroyed by the horror of the contemporary iteration of the American Dream – its plasticity and narcissism, its insouciance to the annihilations brought on by wealth and glamour – Gatsby set one of the archetypal American literary responses to the modern world. Its lacerating clarity and its great haunting sadness helped shape the best of the American narratives that followed in its wake.
And now comes Baz Luhrmann. A director whose foundational approach is the plastic, the glamorous, the creation of a world of spectacle, who has worked product tie-ins with Tiffany and Prada into the film and shot the whole in 3D with garish colors and computer-generated effects. What my fiancée was pointing to is the deep irony of the movie he will make about the novel. The Great Gatsby was written about an age like ours. Its most savage critique is of the machinery of the acquisitive dream – the blunt, eternally victorious, impervious horror of great wealth; the destruction visited on those who do not have that wealth and glamour and yearn for it. And yet the film that our era makes of this book will be prevented by its very nature from comprehending that critique. Its very modes of expression will be the fabulous and the glamorous. The materials of its construction will be the affectations of affluence and image and surface, the effacing of the simple Midwestern soul. Of course Lurhmann will direct, and of course he will not understand his own material. It is as if that central, elegiac tone of the book is no longer accessible to us, for exactly the reasons that the book decried. It is as if we are Tom Buchanan, and the book we are blathering on about, the book we think we understand in all our profundity but that is entirely beyond us, is The Great Gatsby itself.
I’ll go see the film, and I’ll hope that my fiancée is wrong. (She will prefer not to see it, I suspect.) But I think she will probably be proved right. Moments die, and material becomes inaccessible to us. And perhaps this is fitting. The other night on the couch, the trailer ended and I went back to surfing channels and simultaneously noodling on my laptop, and my fiancée kept poking away on her phone, and in these mechanic and virtual things our world sealed itself up around us again.
Tyler Sage‘s fiction and essays have appeared in Story Quarterly, Barrelhouse, The L.A. Review of Books, PANK, Switchback, and elsewhere. He lives in Baltimore.