One of the ongoing debates with the old man I live with is my contention that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby (1925) is the greatest American novel ever written. He remains aggravatingly obstinate on this point, and seemingly arbitrary about it. Then again, that is him to a “T,” so I guess it should be expected. The former high school English teacher, and one-time reader, has never offered an alternative, hence the arbitrariness in this case. For me, it is in how the novel captures the spirit of an era, in this case the Roaring Twenties, as do few others. An argument could be made for John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), but that is about the Great Depression. Who wants to read about those times? Actually, a lot of people, apparently, but that is aside from the point. The Great Gatsby speaks to a happier time, a time of American success, even if it has a tragic ending. It also has something that Steinbeck’s work does not: two film adaptations. I have never seen the earlier one made in 1974, starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Hence, I am going to talk about the more modern version made in 2013, a massively disappointing mess of a film.
As with the novel, The Great Gatsby is told through the eyes of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who (unlike the book) is reminiscing from the confines of a psychiatric hospital. The person whom he is fondly remembering is Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), though we do not meet him right away. Instead, we are taken back to a few years earlier when Nick recently gave up writing to move to New York City and be a part of that money making set following the upward trajectory of the stock market. While he established himself on Wall Street, he moves into a cottage in a wealthy suburb of Manhattan called West Egg, next to the mysterious Gatsby. Nobody knows much about the man, but anyone who is anyone attends his parties, though Nick has yet to receive an invite. On the other side of the Egg, East Egg as it is called, the more staid section, lives Nick’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan). She resides in a luxurious estate with her husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Following a dinner Nick has at the Buchanans, the next day Nick and Tom take a trip together and this is when Nick sees firsthand Tom’s darker side. After a jaunt to the club, they drive through an area known as the Valley of Ashes, stopping at a car repair garage. It is there that Tom’s affair with the wife of the garage owner, George Wilson (Jason Clarke), is revealed. He gets drunk with George, while Myrtle (Isla Fisher), the woman in question, and Tom slip away for their illicit activities. Nick passes out and wakes up at home with no recollection of how he got there, but with an invitation to Gatsby’s next party waiting for him. In the course of the festivities, Gatsby takes an interest in Nick, and Nick becomes one of those the wealthier man refers to as “old boy.” The next day they get more acquainted, and Gatsby claims to come from old money out west. This appears to be a canard as they go to meet Gatsby’s business partner, Meyer Wolfsham (Amitabh Bachchan), who is rumored to have helped fix the 1919 World Series (see my review of Eight Men Out (1988) for more on this). Still, it is their mutual friend and possible love interest for Nick, professional golfer Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), who lets Nick in on the biggest secret of them all: Daisy and Gatsby had once been romantically involved. As their friendship grows, Gatsby lets on that he knew Daisy before World War I, and that his actually poor background prevented him from marrying the daughter of high society that is Daisy. Thus, he went off to fight in the war and had been trying to earn his fortune ever since in the hopes of winning her hand. The parties are his way of displaying his newfound wealth to her. The Buchanans do come to one of these parties, and Gatsby and Tom interact while Daisy feigns ignorance of Gatsby. Still, they agree to have their own party, and it happens on the hottest day of the year in the city. During it, it is evident that Tom is abusing Daisy, and it takes all of Gatsby self-control to do something about it. Tom is sensitive to it, and eggs Gatsby on, and eventually Gatsby explodes and attacks Tom, before slipping away with Daisy. Tom, Nick, and Jordan drive back together, stopping at George’s garage, and George now knows of Myrtle’s infidelities, but does not know that Tom is the man in the situation. In desperation Myrtle runs into the street, and thinking the approaching car is Tom’s tries to hail it. Instead, it is being driven by Gatsby, with a hysterical Daisy in it, who grabs the wheel at that moment. This causes the car to swerve and strike Myrtle, killing her. Tom tells George it is Gatsby. The next day, with Gatsby preparing to leave for the season, Gatsby takes one last dip in his pool, believing Daisy will soon be calling him so that they can run away together. The phone rings, and in his excitement he does not notice George there with a gun. George murders Gatsby, then turns the pistol on himself. The person on the phone had been Nick. He is treated to one last meeting with the Buchanans as they are departing themselves, and Nick hides his fury with Daisy. The film ends with the suggestion that this is the material for a novel Nick writes as a patient at the psychiatric hospital.
The main thing that I did not like about The Great Gatsby is the manner in which the story is told. I have read the book a couple of times. It is not hard to do. At a little over two hundred pages, it can be completed in a day. I have done it. I may do it again. Hence, my familiarity meant that I had expectations, and they were not met. It happens. The movie’s tone is all wrong. Still, I enjoy the book because of Fitzgerald’s writing, and there are some aspects of it that no cinematic adaptation can get around, and they form the basis of my Catholic perspective. The biggest one is Gatsby. One of the most iconic scenes, which is recreated in the movie, is the title character standing on his dock, reaching for the green lights that mark the end of the Buchanan’s jetty. Daisy is the source of all that Gatsby desires, his muse for attaining wealth and status, no matter the questionable means. It is not the most Christian of ways of going about winning the hand of a lady. As strange as it might sound, there are Christian guidelines to dating that emphasize getting to know a person before falling madly in love with them. The word “madly” is used purposely. In the vows that Christian couples take, which have been copied in secular ceremonies, they include the promise to stick with that person through thick and thin. It is clear to everyone except for Gatsby that Daisy wants nothing to do with thin, but such is his obsession that he is willing to overlook any and all character defects. I do not like to use such words, for anything that we think defective God can redeem. At the same time, that does not mean that just any person is right for you. The problem is that some take the other side of this equation, that there is one person for you, to the extreme. I have seen some become like Gatsby in their pursuit of a significant other, and when it does not work out, abandon their Faith entirely, blaming God. That is a death as real as Gatsby, and a I pray it can be avoided for you.
Another reason why I did not like The Great Gatsby is because there is barely any screen time given to my favorite character, Jordan Baker. Her relationship with Nick is downplayed, which is also a departure from the book. At any rate, they are the two to latch unto when journeying through this tale of woe. If you must consume it, read the book. That may be the oldest criticism around for literary works made into films, but it is apt in this instance.