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 23, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 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 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
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.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT