The Great Gatsby has been made into a movie. Again. For the fifth time. I remember the last time they made this film as a big budget production back in the seventies. That filmed version featured Robert Redford as Gatsby. This one has Leonardo DiCaprio. Both of these men are great actors. But the problem might be that the material remains the same.
Can it be that one of the quintessential books of the twentieth century, one of the Great American Novels, is just not good movie material? That’s what I’m thinking….
Here are the two closing paragraphs from Fitzgerald’s book, “The Great Gatsby”
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter-tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And one fine morning-
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
In the short story, The Rich Boy, Fitzgerald expands upon this theme of the rich as careless and consciously embracing class warfare with this famous passage: (It contains the sentence which his biographer, Bruccoli, calls Fitzgerald’s “most promiscuously misquoted sentence”:
“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves”
The two stories, The Great Gatsby and The Rich Boy, both deal with the careless rich; those who have plenty. Fitzgerald manages to hold up a ruthlessly accurate looking glass to the lives and psyche of the very rich. A quote from Fitzgerald himself says it all, “I have never been able to forgive the rich for being rich…”
Sadly, one of the take-aways from the life of Fitzgerald may be that he himself was the ultimate model for Gatsby. The character of Gatsby met a tragic end and died in obscurity. The Golden Girl that was Daisy was shown to be little more than a callous and shallow object of desire, unworthy of such intense devotion.
In reality, Zelda Fitzgerald, a lionized symbol of the age of flappers and the newly-emancipated woman, died in a fire after enduring years of treatment for mental illness. And Fitzgerald died in Hollywood, an alcoholic who was living in relative obscurity after being feted as one of the golden darlings of the Jazz Age and the Modern Era of Literature .
As stated earlier, Gatsby has been filmed before. This will be the fifth film, the first one starting out as a silent picture. Zelda said of that first movie: “It’s rotten and awful and terrible and we left. (Hollywood).” In the seventies I recall also that the big budget spectacle with Redford and Mia Farrow was panned as a fairly rotten and awful disaster. This time around, again some of Hollywood’s elite players have gathered together to tell this simple story that defies the cinematic art form.
Could it be that the Great American Novel was never meant to become the Great American Film? I believe the honorary title of “Great American Film” goes to “The Godfather”. The original Godfather, or to be precise the trio of films surrounding Coppola’s masterpiece, gets to the heart of the American Dream far faster and much more effectively than does this beautifully written novel.
Fitzgerald is telling a tragic tale about the limits and capacities of the American Dream. In The Godfather, there is no moral compass and no limits beyond the immediate family. Gatsby kept a list of resolves as a young man that serves to illustrate his transformation. In The Godfather, the head of the Corleone family simply puts forth offers that no-one can refuse. Both men, Gatsby and Corleone, operate outside the law. Both are bootleggers and lawbreakers. In Gatsby’s world, there is an unspoken code that doesn’t allow vulgar new money to infiltrate the ranks. In The Godfather, the family unit is the only boundary that is found to be worthy of protection. Michael Corleone shields his wife and children when the bullets infiltrate the walls of his home. With Gatsby’s death, the violence is swept under the carpet and he is simply brushed aside.
In Gatsby’s world, there is the green light. In The Godfather, the light has been shattered. We identify with those who fashion their own destinies in The Godfather. Much as Lawrence of Arabia glowingly decreed a decade earlier. “Nothing is written” and as Americans, we know we must shape our destiny. This was the theme of The Godfather. In The Great Gatsby, the will is crushed, the memory is swept away and there is no justice or retribution. We are left as helpless bystanders without hope. With Gatsby, there is not the overwhelming feeling of power shown on screen in which we feel this new immigrants (the Corleone’s) need to shape destiny. That is not found in the film or in the book version of The Great Gatsby.(Gatsby is not a new immigrant, but he is infiltrating a different class)
Fitzgerald had it about right when he spoke of the rich. In the same sense, we have seen the abuses of power and money that have taken its toll on our society in the last decade. However, the films that endure are the ones that suggest hope, or at the very least, they project hopelessness in a manner we relate to as Americans and/or as a cog in the wheel of society, i.e., the middle class.
In Gatsby, we see a world of privilege, a glimpse of helplessness and a wave of despair. There is no “there” there for us. That may be the biggest problem. No matter what, it always turns out the same. The green light still shines brightly for no apparent reason. We need a reason to believe in the green light.