Filming The Great Gatsby in the 21st Century
All of a sudden The Great Gatsby is everywhere. As an English professor who teaches the novel nearly every year, I am particularly attuned to the waxing and waning of public attention to Fitzgerald’s best-known work. Of course, Gatsby is always there, a convenient shorthand for the American Dream and high living. But this year it is different. References to Gatsby are more frequent and more compelling. Consider Hua Hsu’s “The End of White America” in The Atlantic (January/February 2009). He uses the racism of one of the novel’s main characters, Tom Buchanan, to launch into a discussion of the election of our first black President and the changing demographics of the U.S. Again, in Newsweek, Daniel Gross evoked Gatsby‘s Meyer Wolfsheim with his shady “gonnegions” in an article about the corrupt business practices of Bernie Madoff. Something about our current economic and political situation is calling Gatsby to mind in a new way.
Perhaps the greatest evidence of renewed public interest in Gatsby is that Hollywood is buzzing with a rumored adaptation of the novel by Baz Luhrmann. The time is exactly right to return Gatsby to the big screen. Of course, adaptations have already been tried several times. The most famous is probably the 1974 version starring Robert Redford. But I believe we are finally ready to tell the story of The Great Gatsby properly. Why? Due to the somewhat odd combination of our present economic crisis and advances in film technology. But precisely because we are ready – and because we may even really need to tell ourselves the story of Gatsby right now – there is a lot at stake in this adaptation.
Baz Luhrmann has commented publicly on his intention to remake Gatsby (for example, here). He cited the timeliness of the story as the primary reason for jumping right into filming in summer 2009. (According to the Internet Movie Data Base, the project is expected to be released in 2010.) Luhrmann argues that retelling Gatsby now will provide the public with a “mirror” for our time; it will offer people an “explanation of where we are and where we’ve been.” It can show them that we’ve “been drunk on money,” while softening the message by refracting it through another time period – the safely distant 1920s, when we were similarly intoxicated.
Luhrmann is right. Gatsby’s extravagant parties and lifestyle show us where we have been. But the more pressing question is: what good can Gatsby do us now? After all, save for a few few CEOs and Wall Street players who keep buying private jets, the party is over. The hangover has begun. Forty-four percent of Americans are afraid of losing their job in 2009; American banks and people are not spending money but saving it, much to the chagrin of economists and politicians. Gatsby may be more than the “mirror” Luhrmann envisions; it may also serve as a cautionary tale.
In his inaugural address, Barack Obama crystallized our renewed fascination with Gatsby for me when he advised Americans – citing scripture – that “the time has come to set aside childish things.” The President suggested that we are on the verge of a transformation in American life; he challenged an immature nation to “grow up,” to check our adolescent greediness and our self-absorption, and most of all to overcome the collective underdevelopment of our national pre-frontal cortex that seems unable to make causal connections between our actions and their consequences – like, for example, taking out a loan you can’t afford and then being shocked when you can’t make the payments.
Obama’s call explains why the stakes of a Gatsby adaptation are so high right now. After all, Fitzgerald’s book is about youth, excessive consumerism, self-making through materialism, and unearned success. All this regardless of consequences, such as moral corruption, recklessness, and exploitation (or even murder) of those who get in our way. In this way, the novel speaks directly to our adolescent national character. Contrary to general opinion, Gatsby is not one of the most enduring American novels because it is about the American Dream, rather its legendary status relies on the fact that it is about our adolescent indifference to the corruption of the American Dream. We’re having a good time, right?
If you take a close look at Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s critique of the American Dream is clear. Tom Buchanan, Gatsby’s rival and the victor in their conflict, inherited his enormous wealth and has no occupation (Gatsby introduces him as “the polo player”). Tom’s inherited wealth and sense of aristocratic entitlement directly violate deeply cherished American beliefs in equality and meritocracy. Gatsby, arguably the sympathetic hero of the book, has made his money illegally as a bootlegger, and the main action of the novel involves his attempt to steal another man’s wife. In addition, both men are cases of arrested development. Gatsby is a thirty-year-old trying to live in a persona he created when he was seventeen. Tom, a former football star at New Haven, is described as “seeking a little wistfully for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.” The prize in their competition is a vacuous bubbleheaded woman who is frequently depicted as floating around. Fitzgerald unflinchingly presents readers with the price others pay for this privilege and leisure in the no-man’s land of the Valley of Ashes, the miserable, bleak, gray landscape in which the working-class figures of the book live.
What’s really intriguing is that despite these aspects of the book, it is still frequently misread as a celebration of the American Dream. We are so distracted by the glitter that we close our eyes to Gatsby’s illicit activities. In fact, Gatsby’s illegal road to wealth plays into our love of the mythical gangster (rooted in another American tradition of lawlessness; Gatsby is from the “west,” after all). And our entire culture regularly celebrates the existence of Barbie Doll women such as Daisy, who most frequently elicits comparisons to Paris Hilton in my class these days. We are not bothered by the characters’ moral shortcomings or lack of substance because they are shiny, pretty people, and we love our shiny, pretty people. Our adolescent national character enjoys the “in-crowd” logic of the story and exults in their ability to shirk consequences. In fact, our love of this kind of illegal activity and unearned privilege may explain the lack of true outrage at CEOs and other “smart guys” who have essentially defrauded the nation. We know they are doing something wrong, but we forgive them until they get caught. Getting caught is the only crime.
If Barack Obama is right and we are ready to “put aside childish things,” then we may be prepared to really see Gatsby on the big screen. I often mention to students in my classes that we can learn a great deal about a particular cultural moment by studying the stories people in that moment were telling – what types of films and books were popular. For example, we tend to tell ourselves horror stories during moments of economic or social disruption and unrest. Where am I going with this? It’s time to see Gatsby for what it is . . . a horror story.
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If Luhrmann’s adaptation of Gatsby is completed, it will be added to the four existing adaptations of the novel for the big screen: 1926, featuring Warner Baxter; 1949, featuring Alan Ladd; 1974, featuring Robert Redford; and 2002’s G, featuring Richard T. Jones (a loosely reimagined Gatsby set in the world of contemporary hip hop music). It is worth noting that none of these films is considered a successful adaptation of the novel. This inspired Peter Bart, editor-in-chief of Variety, to warn Luhrmann in a recent open memo that “Fitzgerald’s gorgeous writing doesn’t translate to the screen.” I’m not sure about that. I know it hasn’t been done yet, but I’m not sure it can’t be done.
Arguably, the principal complication in previous attempts to adapt Gatsby for the screen is that, like Nick Carraway, the narrator of the novel, filmmakers and audiences have been more than half in love with Gatsby. We might love-to-hate Tom, be suspicious of Daisy’s worthiness, but like Nick (and arguably because of Nick since he is our narrator), readers tend to like Gatsby. This love affair with Gatsby is the trick of the novel; Gatsby is the shiny object that distracts readers from seeing the novel as a statement on the corruption of the American Dream. If you fall in love with Gatsby, you tacitly agree that having the “dream” excuses bad behavior.
It is this love of Gatsby that mars the 1974 adaptation of the novel featuring the all-too-charming and all-too-famous Robert Redford. Redford’s good looks and grace made it impossible for Jack Clayton, the director, to home in on the novel’s central critique. Gatsby is a gangster and an outsider; he is garish and artificial; and most importantly, he is an amoral opportunist. A successful adaptation of the film will cultivate these aspects of Gatsby’s character. Even if the film wants to also show us Gatsby’s seduction of Nick, it must allow the audience to witness this seduction without being seduced.
In one of the most disturbing and overlooked scenes in the novel, a young Gatsby is courting Daisy during the war under false pretences – “He knew he was in Daisy’s house by a colossal accident” because his military uniform hides his poverty at the time. Gatsby decides to “take her”; Fitzgerald writes: “He took what he could get, ravenously and unscrupulously – eventually he took Daisy one still October night, took her because he had no real right to touch her hand.” A director of the film should not gloss over this greedy violation of trust. The scene should be depicted as both charming and grotesque; it, like the novel itself, is an outrage and a seduction all at once. It is a vital scene because it succinctly captures the central message of the book (and arguably our culture in the recent past): take what you want however you can get it and worry about the consequences later.
The principal issue is how to film such a charming, glittering book as a horror story. The trick, in my opinion, is that the film has to present people as objects and objects as people. The filmmakers must capture the confusion between the objectification of people and the personification of objects in a consumer-driven culture that is at the heart of the novel. It is this fundamental confusion between the animate and inanimate that makes Gatsby a horror story. Such confusion is a hallmark of horror as a genre – think of the “winking” house in Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” or the inch-worming steak in Poltergeist. When things move of their own accord that shouldn’t, it’s spooky. And yet a similar logic can be seen in a consumer-driven culture where objects are endowed with extraordinary, transformative properties – a ring is everlasting love (a diamond is a girl’s best friend), a car becomes a guarantor of virility. Thus romance and horror at least as literary genres are arguably two sides of the same coin. It’s not difficult to see how enchantment can quickly morph into nightmare. In romance we endow objects with magical properties that can serve or hinder people; in horror they cross the line and come alive on their own, often asserting a disconcerting authority over people.
The director and cinematographer must find a way to capture a world in which objects are unhinged from reality and become alive and powerful. In the text, Fitzgerald accomplishes this effect through the use of surrealism. This “gorgeous” style gives us some of the most memorable, synaesthetic descriptions in the novel – Gatsby’s blue gardens, the yellow cocktail music – not to mention unforgettable and unsettling images such as the floating cocktails and a party populated by people with names like “Hammerhead” and “Beluga.” Through such descriptions, Fitzgerald attempts to defamiliarize and make strange Gatsby’s world, which is after all premised on the “unreality of reality.” The visual style of the film should look like the world after about four martinis – charming and sinister all at once. The boundary between people and objects should be unstable. The film should be characterized by shape-shifting with a bit of a wobble between objects and people in the visual field. After all, as Fitzgerald tells us, Gatsby’s world is built on a “fairy’s wing” – certainly not a stable surface.
The greatest challenge, of course, will be in the presentation of Gatsby himself. It is curious that in the novel, readers don’t actually “see” Gatsby. He is always hidden behind his odd, flamboyant sartorial choices (pink suits, silver shirts, gold ties, etc.) and his dazzling, dynamic smile. In other words, to see Gatsby may be to “not” see him clearly. I’m not sure how a director would pull this off, perhaps have multiple characters play Gatsby (as in the recent film on Bob Dylan, I’m Not There) or maybe distort shots of Gatsby so that certain objects or aspects of his appearance distract from viewers’ ability to see him fully. In any event, I hope it goes without saying that a big-name star should not play Gatsby – such casting really undermines one of the essential points of the text – he is an outsider!
So far the only filmmaker to show promise in adapting Fitzgerald to the screen is David Fincher. Fincher’s relationship with Digital Domain, a special effects company, was vital to the success of his recent adaptation of Fitzgerald’s short story, “Benjamin Button.” The artful and subtle use of special effects may be the most promising way to tap into Fitzgerald’s use of surrealism. The right special effects team may be able to walk the line between horror and romance by playing with the stability of objects and people on the screen in subtle, naturalistic ways.
In many ways, Luhrmann is in his element here. He, perhaps better than any other filmmaker, has a directorial style that can capture the carnivalesque, the inverted world, and the conscious staginess of Gatsby. But his ability in this regard is also a danger. Representing the carnivalesque aspects of the text is a bit of a high-wire act because, in order to preserve the real horror of the situation, the inversion and staginess can’t cross the line into the burlesque. Once in the realm of the burlesque the deep connection to reality is gone, and the film itself enters the safe realm of the self-consciously theatrical; it is vital that objects and people seem charming and natural and grotesque and denatured all at once.
Ultimately, the underlying question about adapting Gatsby to the screen is: is film too literal a medium to manage Fitzgerald’s powerful use of figurative language? Fitzgerald’s language stabilizes and destabilizes the images simultaneously, which is why it is so effective in capturing the strange logic of the commodity, mirroring the commodity’s status as both stable object and unstable set of associations. Can film do this? I’m excited to find out.