“When I told my students I have a harder time than that shrugging off Hollywood’s misguided adaptations and revisions, one said, ‘Why? Whenever you want to, you can still go back and read the book.'”
“Poor Scott Fitzgerald,” I thought the other day.
Of course, I’m not the first to think that. Famously, one of Ernest Hemingway’s characters thinks the same thing in the short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” In the original published version of the story, Hemingway writes, “The rich were dull and they drank too much . . . They were dull and they were repetitious. He remembered poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, “The very rich are different from you and me.” And how someone had said to him, Yes, they have more money. But that was not humorous to Scott. He thought they were a special glamorous race and when he found they weren’t it wrecked him just as much as any other thing that wrecked him” (quoted in Updike, “Poor Little Rich Boy”).
Hemingway’s character was thinking of “poor Scott Fitzgerald” as he considered how disappointing the rich turned out to be. I was thinking it as I sat in a movie theatre watching the newest trailer for The Great Gatsby. That is, “The Great Gatsby from Baz Luhrmann — Director of Romeo + Juliet — Moulin Rouge — Coming Soon — See It in 3-D.”
Fitzgerald has suffered so many indignities, I suppose it may be fair to ask if one more even matters. But the mistreatment of The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, does seem especially hurtful to those of us who admire Fitzgerald. He, and most literary critics of his time, considered Gatsby his best work. On submitting the manuscript of the novel to his publisher, he wrote a touching letter to longtime editor and friend Max Perkins. It reveals how much Fitzgerald believed he had accomplished in writing this novel and at the same time how deeply he feared he was wrong. “I think that at last I’ve done something really my own,” he wrote, “but how good ‘my own’ is remains to be seen . . . . Naturally I won’t get a nights [sic] sleep until I hear from you but do tell me the absolute truth” (Bruccoli, A Life in Letters 84). Perkins’ reply: “I think the novel is a wonder.” A few days later, after reading it again, he began a letter to Fitzgerald by saying, “I think you have every kind of right to be proud of this book. It is an extraordinary book . . . ” (A Life in Letters 86).
But there was always a catch: Fitzgerald wrote for a living. Throughout most of his adult life, the lack of money often paralyzed him. In the very same letter that expressed the hope that he had done something “really my own,” he calculated what the royalty rates should be and made the case that even though it was a short novel (“only a little over fifty thousand words long”), Scribner’s should still “charge two dollars for it” (A Life in Letters 84). He had been advanced money by Scribner’s and would eventually see very little from the publication of Gatsby. No matter what the critical reception of Gatsby, it did not alleviate his financial problems, and he was constantly negotiating with Perkins, his agent Harold Ober, and various friends for advances and loans. The initial rush of success Fitzgerald had experienced with his first book, This Side of Paradise (1920), was not duplicated by his subsequent novels.
When he died at age 44 in 1940, Fitzgerald was hardly a household name. His obituary in the New York Times stated, “Roughly, his own career began and ended with the Nineteen Twenties. This Side of Paradise, his first book, was published in the first year of that decade of skyscrapers and short skirts. Only six others came between it and his last, which, not without irony, he called Taps at Reveille. That was published in 1935. Since then a few short stories, the script of a moving picture or two, were all that came from his typewriter. The promise of his brilliant career was never fulfilled” (“Scott Fitzgerald, Author, Dies at 44”).
The smugness of that “only six others” is rather astonishing. Of The Great Gatsby, the obituary notes that it “received critical acclaim. In it Mr. Fitzgerald was at his best, which was, according to John Chamberlain, his ‘ability to catch the flavor of a period, the fragrance of a night, a snatch of old song, in a phrase.'” Chamberlain, longtime literary critic for the New York Times, was in other instances slightly more effusive in his praise of Fitzgerald. For instance, he began his review of Tender Is the Night (1934) by describing himself as “one who would rather have written The Great Gatsby than any other American novel published in the Twenties” (Chamberlain, “Books of the Times”).
By the time Fitzgerald was working in Hollywood in the late 1930s, some of his novels were out of print (A Life in Letters 359). According to biographer Matthew J. Bruccoli, his last royalty statement itemized payments for nine copies of Tender Is the Night and seven of The Great Gatsby for a total of $13.13 (Some Sort of Epic Grandeur 486). But I fear there may be a worse fate than near-obscurity: finding The Great Gatsby on the required reading lists of highs schools across the country. The internet is flooded with sincere, youthful essays on Gatsby and the American Dream (whether the novel embraces the Dream or reveals the flaws in it — take your pick) and on thematic comparisons between Gatsby and Citizen Kane — someone’s brilliant idea for reducing not just one classic and highly sophisticated text to middle-school simplicity but two.
I’ve read Gatsby more than once for college courses. But I first “found” it on my own — probably drawn to it by the famous blue cover. (In my years as a student, paperback book covers were important — I could agonize between a Penguin edition and a Bantam Classics.) What a difference there is between being assigned to read something and discovering it on your own. I feel sorry for the students of mine who will never read The Great Gatsby for the first time in their twenties, when it might make more emotional sense to them. I had assigned the novel in previous graduate-level classes, but hadn’t used it in undergraduate courses before this past Fall, 2012. I was teaching a first-semester Introduction to Film Aesthetics class and thought that, since the students would already be familiar with it (it’s required in the state’s secondary school curriculum), examining Gatsby and its film versions might be a good way to practice the analysis of narrative structure, performance style, etc. we had been working on throughout the semester. I hoped that the imminent release of the Baz Luhrmann version might make it more relevant for the students, and even though the movie’s release date was pushed back to May 2013, I kept Gatsby in the course.
I’m very glad I did. The experience taught me a lot about how students just emerging from high schools have been taught, about how insecure they are about their own academic skills, and about how students can still warm to a story like Gatsby and have complex responses to it even when someone else has already told them what it’s “about.” Only two or three of the 50+ students had never read The Great Gatsby. Many of them had been told precisely what to think of it — the result of either a teach-to-the-test lesson plan or the ever-helpful Spark Notes (which seem to have eclipsed Cliffs Notes for this generation). For some, thinking outside of “the American Dream” box was difficult, and a few never made it. Most, though, were glad for the opportunity to talk about it from other points of view. We primarily debated character and emotional content: Why does Gatsby become infatuated with Daisy (many believed he had never really loved her), and what are her feelings for him (almost no one thought she ever really loved him)? Why does Nick feel so keenly for Gatsby, who pays so little attention to him and primarily uses him as a vehicle to get to Daisy? Who is to blame for what happens to Myrtle, Gatsby, and Wilson? Not everyone was convinced, as Nick seems to be, that Tom and Daisy are the villains of the novel.
The students developed many different ideas about how the novel could be adapted and what choices they would make if they had the opportunity. Some believed that it was imperative to start a movie version with the first scene detailed in the novel, in which Nick visits Tom and Daisy at their home and meets Jordan. Others wanted to introduce Nick and Gatsby first, arguing that it’s their relationship the book is really about. Some believed that viewers should enter Gatsby’s world through one of his parties and be dazzled by the impression Gatsby makes, before slowly having the Gatsby myth chipped away; others wanted to start with Jimmy Gatz writing a list of self-improvement resolutions.
Because they had such varied ideas, and were far more interested in character than the American Dream, I worry about the impulse of readers/teachers to “explain” the book as social commentary. In a previous Bright Lights article, written in 2009 when the Baz Luhrmann version was announced, Suzanne del Gizzo takes that approach: “I believe we are finally ready to tell the story of The Great Gatsby properly,” she says, and argues that Gatsby can be a “cautionary tale” for us as it corresponds with President Obama’s first inaugural address, in which he “challenged an immature nation to ‘grow up,’ to check our adolescent greediness and our self-absorption” and to understand that our actions have consequences (“Can’t Repeat the Past?”).
I certainly agree with del Gizzo that the characters in the novel exist in a state 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,” similarly lives in the past, nostalgic for the clarity with which he could crush the opposition physically (“Can’t Repeat the Past?”). Daisy, del Gizzo points out, also refuses to grow up; though she complains that she’s cynical and thinks “everything’s terrible anyhow,” she basks in Gatsby’s adoration of her, but isn’t willing, in the end, to make the tough choices, and she flees, as Nick says, into the comfortable world she and Tom have created for themselves (Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby 21).
I agree with del Gizzo that the novel can be interpreted that way. Of course, every book, every movie — every cultural text — tells us something about the world in which it was made; Gatsby is no exception. But a novel is not a treatise. Neither is a movie. Books and films don’t become classics because they are about serious moral issues but because they explore those moral issues through compelling and complex characters. For example, we can learn a lot about the cultural and political climate of the U.S. as it entered World War II by watching Casablanca (another text with a mysterious protagonist whose place “everybody” hangs out at and who has been burned in the past by a romance gone wrong). We get there, however, through the characters and their experiences. In his letter to Fitzgerald, Max Perkins states that the book is filled with “characters marvelously palpable and vital — I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him” (A Life in Letters 87).
The only character that Perkins found vague was Gatsby himself. “The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery i.e. more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken” (A Life in Letters 87). Perkins has hit upon a most important truth about Gatsby and is uneasy about it — that Gatsby cannot be understood in ways that characters usually are. In this way, Gatsby really is like Citizen Kane; both narratives provide us with fragmented, sometimes contradictory perceptions of these men but never permit us to know them entirely. It’s important, I think, that Perkins — and I — would not be able to recognize Gatsby if we saw him walking down the street. He’s a man who looks average but is something different to everyone.
Del Gizzo points out this quality about the title character. “It is curious,” she writes, “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” (“Can’t Repeat the Past?”). I believe this results in part from the fact that the novel employs not one character narrator but many. Nick tells us what he knows firsthand but also includes what Jordan has told him — part of which Gatsby told her — as well as the rumors that he hears when he attends his first party at Gatsby’s. Two girls in “twin yellow dresses” share what they’ve heard — “he was a German spy during the war,” one says, and the other confides, “Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once” (Fitzgerald 48). (In another intersection with Casablanca, this sounds remarkably like the rumors about Rick; when speculating about why Rick hasn’t attempted to go back to America, Louie says, “I like to think that you killed a man; it’s the romantic in me.”) These thrilling rumors are given the same credibility as two wildly different versions of Gatsby’s life story told by the man himself, one in which he was raised like a “young rajah” in “all the capitals of Europe” and the other in which he was Jimmy Gatz, who made his money in shady deals with Meyer Wolfsheim.
Perhaps most troubling with regard to Nick’s credibility are the accounts of the events that follow the car accident at Wilson’s Garage, told somehow to Nick, perhaps by Michaelis, the “young Greek . . . who ran the coffee joint beside the ashheaps” (Fitzgerald 143). To get to these events, Nick writes, “Now I want to go back a little and tell what happened at the garage after we left there the night before” (Fitzgerald 163-164). This passage includes specific conversation between Wilson and Michaelis and the chilling detail that Wilson begins to interpret the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg as the eyes of God (Fitzgerald 167). How Nick comes to know all of this isn’t clear. This is not to say that these are flaws in the novel; on the contrary, this is why we — and the characters in the novel — never really understand who Gatsby is. A movie version of Gatsby could employ this technique as well, just as Kane does — multiple narrators, each telling a sliver of the story.
None of the film adaptations to date has been willing to embrace that kind of ambiguity; in fact, they have been extremely conservative. We can only speculate about the 1926 version, which appears to be lost, though the casting of Warner Baxter as Gatsby and William Powell (yes, the sophisticated detective Nick Charles of the Thin Man series) as Wilson may indicate that this adaptation would not prove very satisfying. In addition to the two other movies for theatrical release, in 1949 and 1974, there is a 2000 version made for television by A&E/Granada Entertainment. Some of my students had seen this version in their high school classes and considered it a fairly successful adaptation. Many were pleased with the narrative structure, which starts with the shooting of Gatsby at his pool and then depicts the primary events of the story in an extended flashback. Their argument was that narrative suspense wouldn’t be an issue for most viewers, since almost anyone interested in seeing the movie will have read the novel already. Furthermore, they asserted that the novel’s narration consistently hints that everything has ended badly for Nick and Gatsby, and that Nick has left the East to return home to emotionally and morally recover from the events he’s writing about.
The students were not impressed with Toby Stephens as Gatsby; they found him rather ineffectual and bland. Neither were they satisfied with Robert Redford in the five or six scenes I showed them from the 1974 movie; to them, Redford lacked charisma. Furthermore, they objected outright to Mia Farrow’s performance, which they considered overly dramatic and hysterical — words they also used to describe the 1974 style with its slow zooms, lingering superimpositions, and an “I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts before” scene that features shirts being thrown all over the room and Mickey-Mousing music accompanying them as they fly about.
Of the actors playing Gatsby, my students reacted most positively to Alan Ladd in the 1949 film. Strangely enough, Ladd was probably the most appropriate actor in Hollywood for this role. In fact, Paramount producer/writer Richard Maibaum claimed years later that he had been inspired to adapt the novel by an incident with Ladd himself, who was showing Maibaum around his new home. Ladd had opened a closet containing “hundreds of suits, sport jackets, slacks, and shoes. He looked at me and said, ‘Not bad for an Okie kid, eh?’ I got goose pimples, because I remembered when Gatsby took Daisy to show her his mansion, he also showed her his wardrobe . . . I said to myself, ‘My God, The Great Gatsby!'” (McGilligan, Backstory 280).
Ladd was one of the most popular stars in Hollywood throughout the 1940s, having become an overnight success in 1942’s This Gun for Hire. As usual, the “overnight success” had been years in the making. Growing up in Arkansas and Oklahoma, he experienced poverty and sometimes homelessness, and was called “Tiny” by classmates because he was small and undernourished. A terrific athlete, he was injured in a diving accident that put an end to his dreams of participating in the 1932 Olympics. As an aspiring actor, he worked as an extra and on radio but had to pay the bills: Ladd was a gas station attendant, a lifeguard, and a hot dog vendor. At the time he married his first wife, he could not support her financially; she lived at home with her parents for a considerable time (Linet, Ladd: The Life, the Legend, the Legacy of Alan Ladd).
No one watching Ladd onscreen would have guessed it. In The Great Gatsby, we see a man who appears perfectly at ease in a tuxedo, giving orders to servants and welcoming hundreds of people to his parties. He seems well educated, soft-spoken, elegant. But all of this has been achieved through enormous self-discipline and hard work; you can imagine that Ladd, like Gatsby, wrote lists of “General Resolves” and kept rigorous schedules — athletic workouts and training, acting lessons, elocution lessons, reading great works of literature. Gatsby was one part Ladd felt he was absolutely right for, and he pushed Paramount to make the movie, despite discouragement from the Production Code Administration, which advised the studio that the basic story was unacceptable.
To meet the requirements of the Code, Paramount changed the story significantly. In the novel, Gatsby’s involvement in bootlegging and gambling and his association with Meyer Wolfsheim are referred to in a rather sketchy manner. In his letter to Fitzgerald upon reading Gatsby for the first time, editor Max Perkins refers to this fine line regarding Gatsby’s accumulation of wealth — how to hint without making Gatsby’s business too obvious. Under the Code, however, hints were not sufficient: the movie would have to identify Gatsby as a crook and therefore ensure that the audience knew it was not supposed to sympathize with him. For this reason, the first images of Gatsby show him in a montage of bootlegging and speakeasies, shooting at rival gangsters from the backseat of a speeding car; this is tough-guy Gatsby — an interpretation my students found very attractive. During the scene in which Nick first attends one of his neighbor’s parties, Gatsby deals with a party crasher — a former associate of his who insists on calling him “Gatz.” We have just seen this man in the crime montage revealing Gatsby as a crook, and just in case we might not get it, the actor is Jack Lambert, who almost always played a second-banana gangster. As Lambert interrupts Gatsby, the latter tries suavely to brush him off, then excuses himself politely and calmly, walks with Lambert just behind some shrubbery, and decks him with a quick right to the jaw. Then Gatsby adjusts his cuffs and returns to the party. My students were almost unanimous in their approval of this version of Gatsby — one said admiringly, “He’s really badass.” Another applied a line here that Daisy uses later in the story to describe Gatsby: “You always look so cool.” In this case, the class decided, “cool” meant both calm and really edgy and tough.
The students also agreed that Ladd was the only actor whose use of the phrase “old sport” actually sounded natural. They speculated that it was because the whole movie was stylized and unrealistic, in the way that studio-era movies often seem to them. They don’t recognize the stars so they don’t have any preconceived notions of whether the actor is right for the role; the dialogue, action, and film style all seem distanced and dated. That doesn’t mean the students can’t relate to characters in 1940s films, but they realize that their own notions of “realism” must be suspended. For instance, the very fact that the 1949 film is in black-and-white communicates that this is not a realistic world — therefore, the characters will speak dialogue that isn’t quite like real conversation, and they will display heightened emotions.
I didn’t show them the entire 1949 film. Some things would be too dated and laughable. The scene in which Myrtle is struck by the speeding car, for example, features what looks suspiciously like a cardboard cut-out flying through the air. I suspect that “The Great Gatsby from Baz Luhrmann” will feature some impressive special effects (remember that this is in 3-D) and at least a bit of blood spatter. In the novel, Fitzgerald doesn’t stint on the details (he insisted to Perkins, “I want Myrtle Wilson’s breast ripped off — its [sic] exactly the thing” (A Life in Letters 94)), and, knowing Luhrmann’s other work, I don’t believe he will either. If the trailers are any indication, the cameras will lurch and soar, average shot duration will be in the minus range, and the soundtrack will be crowded with Lady Gaga, Prince, and Jay-Z. As of this writing, the IMDb lists over 80 credits for visual effects and 15 for stunts. The parties are bound to be lavishly and colorfully exciting, and I suspect there will be hundreds of computer-generated partygoers. But the novel makes clear that the parties are, in fact, not the point. The novel is about what’s behind that façade, the secret, the intimate (not exactly Luhrmann’s forte to this point).
The primary question is still, however, how to depict Jay Gatsby. Del Gizzo points this out in her Bright Lights article, arguing that “the principal complication in previous attempts to adapt Gatsby . . . is that, like Nick . . . filmmakers and audiences have been more than half in love with Gatsby” (“Can’t Repeat the Past?”). “This love affair with Gatsby,” she says, “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” (“Can’t Repeat the Past?”). Integral to her argument is the initial relationship between Gatsby and Daisy when, during the war, Lieutenant Gatsby manages to meet and court Daisy even though he, under normal circumstances, would never have moved in her social circles. I agree that our interpretation of these events is crucial to the opinions we form about Gatsby and Daisy both, and about their “love affair.”
In the novel, we hear about this affair in a less than straightforward way: in part as Jordan tells it to Nick, and in part as Gatsby tells it to Nick. Nick then recounts these events for us, saying, “But he knew he was in Daisy’s house by a colossal accident. However glorious might his future be as Jay Gatsby, he was at present a penniless young man without a past, and at any moment the invisible cloak of his uniform might slip from his shoulders. So he made the most of his time. 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” (Fitzgerald 156). Nick continues: “He might have despised himself, for he had certainly taken her under false pretenses . . . [H]e had deliberately . . . let her believe that he was a person from much the same strata as herself — that he was fully able to take care of her. As a matter of fact he had no such facilities . . . ” (Fitzgerald 156).
Students were divided on two significant and related choices made by the 2000 TV-movie in depicting these events: the use of several flashbacks to show Daisy and Gatsby meeting and “falling in love,” and the invention of a new symbol: a pair of cuff links Daisy borrows from someone to give to Gatsby so that he looks good enough (i.e., rich enough) to appear at her local country club dance. These choices directly affect how we see Gatsby, Daisy, and money. The cuff links are a symbol of Gatsby’s unsuitability as a beau for Daisy, one that she recognizes. Therefore, there’s no indication that Gatsby is deceiving her about his economic or social status. Many students believed that this made her far less sympathetic as a character. From their point of view, Daisy is responsible for leading him on; she may find Gatsby attractive, but she knows he is not marriage material.
Furthermore, the seduction in this version is played in several flashbacks, one of which features Nick’s narration; the others appear to be Gatsby’s memory. It is difficult to read Gatsby in any of these as manipulative and deceptive. At the country club dance, the young Gatsby says uncomfortably, “I don’t think I’m going to fit in here.” Daisy tells him that’s “nonsense” and dresses him for the part, putting a white scarf around his neck and borrowing the cuff links from a country club member “to help our boys . . . in the war effort.” Putting the cuff links on him, Daisy says, “There you are — Now no one can tell the difference.” It’s she who has dressed him for the part she sees him playing, the poor boy she can elevate, the outsider she can bring in.
The TV-movie does not, then, depict Gatsby as the “amoral opportunist” del Gizzo believes he is (“Can’t Repeat the Past?”). She also argues that this “love of Gatsby . . . mars the 1974 adaptation of the novel featuring the all-too-charming and all-too-famous Robert Redford” (“Can’t Repeat the Past?”). From del Gizzo’s perspective, Redford’s “good looks and grace” make him wrong for the part, and I was surprised, when I looked back at reviews from 1974, how many film critics expressed similar opinions. In my flawed recollection, there had been great enthusiasm about Redford as Gatsby — but it seems I was only remembering the enthusiasm of the girls I hung out with as a 15-year-old. Though the movie was a box-office success, critics were not on the whole impressed with the movie or Redford. The New York Times was in the habit of printing a scorecard of critics’ responses to current movies; this helpful column noted in April 1974 that The Great Gatsby had received 2 favorable reviews, 6 mixed, and 14 negatives (“The New Movies”). In contrast, the Terrence Malick movie Badlands had received 15 favorables and 1negative, but certainly wasn’t the popular success that Gatsby was.
Suzanne del Gizzo’s criticism of Redford as Gatsby is particularly interesting in light of what Redford himself has said about his career and the parts he has chosen. In reviewing the 1974 film, Roger Ebert wrote, “When the casting of Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby was announced, I objected because he didn’t fit my notion of Gatsby: He was too substantial, too assured, even too handsome” (Ebert, “The Great Gatsby“). This was the kind of reaction Redford worried about. In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, he sometimes expressed a real lack of comfort with his looks and a concern that he might be considered too good-looking to be taken seriously. His acting choices in this period of time reflect a reluctant effort to use his looks if he must, but also to play characters who are flawed, weak, and unlikeable when he got the chance. After years of guest spots on TV shows such as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Perry Mason, and Dr. Kildare, Redford got his Hollywood break in the mid-1960s and by 1969 had appeared in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the movie that really made him a star. But in the following years, he chose to play a selfish and ambitious skier in Downhill Racer as well as the idealist-turned-opportunist in The Candidate.
When cast in The Great Gatsby, Redford was arguably the biggest star in Hollywood; in Adventures in the Screen Trade, screenwriter William Goldman stated that at this time, “He was not just the biggest star in the world. He was a phenomenon . . . . No star, at least in my time in movies, has ever had such heat focused on him” (208). Almost every review I’ve found of the 1974 film mentions how good Redford looks. He doesn’t seem to be able to give us a clue as to what goes on inside the handsome shell of Jay Gatsby; it’s a static performance. In reviewing Michael Feeney Callan’s 2011 biography of Redford, Film Comment contributor David Ehrenstein sums up the problem that the star faced on The Way We Were: “Callan reports how Redford brought in writer David Rayfiel to beef up his scenes . . . so desperate was he to make his character someone active rather than the passive love object . . . It was in no way needed. All Redford had to do was stand there and bask in Barbra [Streisand]’s enraptured gaze” (Robert Redford: The Biography Reviewed). In Gatsby, Redford seems to have capitulated; he stands around looking gorgeous and giving us no indication of what it is about Daisy he loves. We don’t feel the desperation; we don’t see the “work” he has done — legal and illegal — to reach this point where he believes he can win her.
In the novel, we get those hints of what he has done — working with Meyer Wolfsheim, selling, as Tom accuses him, “grain alcohol over the counter” (141). He has used people to accumulate the money and the things he believes (probably rightly so) will appeal to Daisy. The problem with interpreting Gatsby as an “amoral opportunist,” however, is that in the novel everything we know about Gatsby comes through Nick. Nick describes himself in the very first pages of the book as a man who reserves all judgments, but I would argue he doesn’t so much reserve them as make them and then revise them. It’s Nick telling us that Gatsby “might have despised himself, for he had certainly taken her under false pretenses . . . ,” but it is also Nick who tells us he has “always been glad” that the last thing he said to Gatsby, in the aftermath of Myrtle’s death and Daisy’s abandonment of Gatsby, was “They’re a rotten crowd . . . You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together” (6, 162). Any conclusion we reach about Gatsby is subject to revision. Even to Nick, Gatsby is never a static character. Nick finds him by turn impressive, improbable, disappointing, frightening, and pitiable. At times contemptuous of his behavior, Nick nevertheless ends up feeling a desperate sense of loyalty after Gatsby’s death: “I wanted to get somebody for him. I wanted to go into the room where he lay and reassure him: ‘I’ll get somebody for you, Gatsby. Don’t worry. Just trust me'” (Fitzgerald 172).
My students were reluctant to blame Gatsby for the disasters of the novel, for Myrtle’s death or his own, though they admitted his weaknesses and what many described as his complete idiocy for not comprehending that Daisy “just wasn’t that into him.” In a fictional world that features a habitual adulterer (who breaks his current mistress’s nose), a self-involved perpetual debutante, and an unscrupulous golfer, Gatsby’s moral lapses seemed more explicable and forgivable. It wasn’t that they believed he was right to act as he did, but that he more than paid the price, and no one else was willing to. This extended to their impressions of Nick, whom many students blamed for sitting on the sidelines and enjoying the show. We discussed at length the crucial point that, despite Nick’s assurances, he is an unreliable narrator. He describes himself to us as “one of the few honest people that I have ever known” (Fitzgerald 64) — after having just admitted that, during the Summer of Gatsby, as we might call it, he had been “writing letters once a week and signing them ‘Love, Nick'” to a young woman he knows in the Midwest while “seeing” Jordan Baker and also having “a short affair with a girl who lived in Jersey City” (Fitzgerald 61). Some of my students pointed out that at least Nick is being honest with us as he reveals these things, but others were not convinced of that, and still others concluded that it didn’t make up for his being dishonest with the three women.
So Gatsby may be an “amoral opportunist,” but that’s not all he is; there are more layers to his character. Fitzgerald himself addressed the impulse to want to understand Gatsby’s behavior and like him in spite of it. In writing to Max Perkins as revisions of the Gatsby manuscript were in progress, Fitzgerald admitted, “My first instinct after your letter was to let him [Gatsby] go + have Tom Buchanan dominate the book (I suppose he’s the best character I’ve ever done . . . ) but Gatsby sticks in my heart” (A Life in Letters 91). Even for Fitzgerald, Gatsby is a chameleon: “I had him for a while then lost him + now I know I have him again” (A Life in Letters 91).
This is true not only of the character but of the novel itself. The students in my class were laughingly apprehensive about this upcoming film, but they weren’t as disturbed by it as I think previous generations of readers/moviegoers would have been. They’re accustomed to revisions and transformations of fictional characters and fictional worlds. Of course, Hollywood has always produced adaptations and remakes and sequels and franchises — but today the turnover is much faster. Michael Keaton as Batman is ancient history for my students — thanks to DVD, they’ve seen him play that part, but they’ve also seen Val Kilmer and George Clooney and Christian Bale play it; Spider-Man was Tobey Maguire a few years ago and now he’s Andrew Garfield. They believe that Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is probably going to be disappointing or even infuriating (they don’t have much faith in Leonardo DiCaprio or Tobey Maguire), but then a few years later there will be another version that might be better. When I told them I have a harder time than that shrugging off Hollywood’s misguided adaptations and revisions, one said, “Why? Whenever you want to, you can still go back and read the book.” In that way, I suppose I may experience what Fitzgerald was describing when he wrote to Perkins, “I had him for a while then lost him + now I know I have him again” (A Life in Letters 91).
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Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Collier Books/Macmillan, 1992.
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McGilligan, Patrick, ed. Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
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Updike, John. “Poor Little Rich Boy.” The Guardian online, 20 June 2003. Web 2 January 2013.http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/jun/21/featuresreviews.guardianreview34