Skip to main content

Why Gatsby gets us in our gut

By Gene Seymour, Special to CNN
May 11, 2013 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gene Seymour: How can any director translate beauty of Fitzgerald prose in "Gatsby?"
  • They keep trying, he says. Lurmann film comes close to touching novel's emotional spirit
  • The book is thin, its characters distant, and that's precisely the point, he says
  • Seymour: Reverent, literal adaptations don't capture novel. But Lurmann's succeeds

Editor's note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post.

(CNN) -- "If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promise of life, as if he related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the 'creative temperament' -- it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No -- Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men."

― F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Seriously, now ... how can any movie director achieve a stretch of moving images that can even sneak up on the ineffable beauty, the limpid grace, the near-magical intersection of metaphor and tone found in such prose? You'd be just as well off trying to "adapt" one of Keats' odes or Wordsworth's pastorals into a filmed version. "Rosetta Stone: The Movie," anyone?

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour

Again, seriously, why can't filmmakers let "The Great Gatsby" be? Mostly because the rest of us can't. Though F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 masterwork was regarded as something of a failure in his brief, sad lifetime, it has since the 1940s steadily risen in the kind of popularity broad enough to take in generations, cultural backgrounds and whole nations.

There have been five attempts to make a movie version of Fitzgerald's Jazz Age tale about a wealthy young man with a mysterious, vaguely sinister past and how, having reinvented himself, sets about trying to reinvent his romantic destiny.

Australian Baz Luhrmann's turn at bat with this Great American Novel opened Friday with Leonardo DiCaprio playing the eponymous Jay Gatsby, Tobey Maguire as his circumspect neighbor Nick Carraway and Carey Mulligan as Nick's moneyed cousin Daisy Buchannan, the glistening, potential fulfillment of Gatsby's dearest (or, maybe direst) wishes.

Reviews, saying the least, have been mixed, with some, like the Miami Herald's Connie Ogle declaring it a "failure" and the Philadelphia Inquirer Steven Rea describing it as "audaciously miscalculated" while others, notably the New York Times' A.O. Scott and New York magazine's customarily finicky David Edelstein, admit being entertained by what Scott characterizes as a "splashy, trashy opera."

News: 'Unfilmable' novels? No such thing, says Hollywood

Such impressions seem to have been anticipated because of Luhrmann's reputation for mounting such gaudily apportioned accounts of thwarted love as 1996's "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet" (which also starred DiCaprio) and 2001's "Moulin Rouge!"

Gatsby mania: Opulence is back in vogue
DiCaprio to take a break after 'Gatsby'

Even those who praise the movie do so acknowledging its lavish set pieces (Oh, those parties!), its hyped-up theatricality and its often-anachronistic musical background (Oh, that hip-hop!). But as Edelstein writes, "For all its computer-generated whoosh and overbroad acting, (the movie) is unmistakably F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby.' That is no small deal."

What Edelstein means (and I agree) is that Luhrmann's "Gatsby," in ramping up the opulence of the era and the intensity of the romance, comes closer than any previous movie adaptation so far in touching the emotional spirit of Fitzgerald's novel.

But the story's visceral appeal presents a problem for those who contend that the novel's poetic language and resonant imagery are merely cloaking devices for what amounts to a thin, lurid storyline that would barely pass muster in a bottom-feeding pulp magazine. In a meticulous deflation of the book's repute found on the same New York magazine website as Edelstein's review, writer Kathryn Schulz's disdain even spreads to the characters, none of whom she regards "as likeable. None of whom are even dislikeable, though nearly all of them are despicable."

Look: Gatsby's Gold Coast: 8 grand estates

One could argue that the shallowness of Fitzgerald's glamorous strivers is precisely the novel's point. The "abortive sorrows and short-winded elations" to which Fitzgerald refers in the opening quote account to most, if not all, of America's transient aspirations, practically from the country's inception. Moreover, theirs is the kind of shallowness upon which we can repeatedly project not just our own apprehensions of desire but those of everyone we know and will come to know throughout our lives.

And so what if the novel's skeleton is little more than pulp? What would have happened if the storyline were any more elaborately designed? Would it have become even more lachrymose? Or more farcical? Something would have been thrown off-balance. With each rereading, one finds that Fitzgerald made all the right choices and arranged them all with as much precision as he was able to summon.

This also applies to the language -- which has left many so dumbstruck with wonder and admiration that it threatens to paralyze even one's effort to express admiration for it. Recall 1974's more immaculately fashioned movie version of "Gatsby," which was directed by ace literary adaptor Jack Clayton ("The Innocents"), boasted a screenplay by "The Godfather's" Francis Ford Coppola and starred Robert Redford as Gatsby, Mia Farrow as Daisy and Sam Waterston as Nick.

That film was enormously faithful to Fitzgerald's novel -- and not much else. Luhrmann's, for the record, is just as faithful. But Clayton's film of "Gatsby" doesn't so much render the book so much as one's reverential reading of it. Luhrmann's response is more rapturous and unruly -- and, perhaps, this brings it closest of all to the spirit of the emotionally clumsy but romantic dreamer who created this enduring story in the first place.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT