Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry “Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you!”
As I walked out of a screening of The Great Gatsby I tweeted a 140 characters review of the movie concluding that some stories are just better on the page than the screen. The problem with Gatsby is that many of its 172 pages (in my Penguin Modern Classics edition) are taken up with thoughts and descriptions, the very things that it is hard to depict in film. The most notable thing about them is that Gatsby (and all the other characters) only have a voice through our narrator Nick Carraway. Is he a reliable narrator? He is clearly enamoured with Gatsby and disillusioned with the world he lived in. Is Carraway as much the embodiment of author F. Scott Fitzgerald as Gatsby is? The disillusionment certainly lends the new film version a certain relevance and prospective today. The format does however present problems forcing filmmakers to rely on voiceovers and in the case of Baz Luhrmann’s new version words floating of the screen with the aid of 3D.
The only conclusion I can reach about this movie is that it is as good as it can be. The Robert Redford/Mia Farrow version from 1974 (directed by Jack Clayton with a screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola) is very faithful to the book but fails to capture the essence of the novel. And that was the problem, the book isn’t great because of what is going on in the story, it is great because of what is going on under the surface. I wouldn’t even go as far as to call it a subtext, it is more a feeling, an essence. Maybe the abandoned Truman Capote script would have “got it?” we will never know. Made post Watergate, the movie lacks the cynicism you would expect of the era but also misses the heroic but naïve romantic Gatsby of the novel. It lacks both the hope and the despair.
Long considered the “holy grail” of un-filmed novels, JD Salinger described his masterpiece The Catcher in the Rye as “unactable” and refused to let Hollywood adapt it. After his death in 2010 there was a lot of speculation that a film would be made. I have very mixed feelings about the prospect of a film being developed. I think it would be best if it were not made, but if it were I would want it to be the best movie it could be. That is why I would rather have seen the proposed Billy Wilder movie in the 60’s and not a big budget star vehicle made by whoever is fashionable in Hollywood at the time. But can it really be successfully filmed? If the rumours are true we will find out in about two years. If The Great Gatsby is the seminal novel of the Lost Generation, the equivalent for the Beat Generation has to be Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Filmed last year by Walter Salles. Well made, well cast, like Luhrmann’s and every other version of Gatsby it got the look and story about right but lacked the essence of the book, again it was about as good as it could have been for what is essentially an un-filmable novel.
To give my thoughts prospective; I am a movie lover first and don’t hold with the notion that films are inferior to there source material, but I do believe that some stories are better on the page than the screen. And that is the problem with many of these great novels. In the wake of the release of The Great Gatsby I have read and heard many people (including the new movies star Leonardo DiCaprio) say how they read the book at school and didn’t think much of it. Literature is no different to music, film or any other art, it is so much better when we come to it ourselves in our own time. Anyone who reads a novel because they were forced to is going to appreciate it far less than someone who chooses to read it. The conclusion; if you have got as far as to read this last paragraph, you must have some interest in the books mentioned, so read them, if you were forced to read them at school, read them again, but only when you want to!
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.