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
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1819 GMT (0219 HKT)
As a woman whose parents had cancer, I have quite a few things to say about dying with dignity.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
David Gergen says he'll have a special eye on a few particular races in Tuesday's midterms that may tell us about our long-term future.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1452 GMT (2252 HKT)
What's behind the uptick in clown sightings? And why the fascination with them? It could be about the economy.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1301 GMT (2101 HKT)
Midterm elections don't usually have the same excitement as presidential elections. That should change, writes Sally Kohn.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1832 GMT (0232 HKT)
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2103 GMT (0503 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2125 GMT (0525 HKT)
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
ADVERTISEMENT