I had the rare opportunity to teach a novel right before the movie version of the novel is released. I became totally immersed in the novel for the first time since I was in high school. And then I saw the movie. If you haven’t done either yet, here’s why you might be interested:
F. Scott Fizgerald wanted to write a great novel about his time, about the 1920s, about an era that could be summarized by the symbol of a champagne bottle exploding into the night emptying itself hollow with intoxication. You like that? Well, he didn’t use that, but what he did use was a giant, haunting billboard for a long-forgotten oculist (aka eye doctor).
This symbol that used to be a sign of a hope for better vision has become a sign that someone is watching you ominously, not like the Big Brother of 1984 who makes you paranoid, but like some sharp deity who sits in judgement of your excesses and the waste it produces. Because this ad hangs over the Valley of Ashes, an inescapable heap of trash where the poor dwell, the rich passing by them every day on their way to the city.
This is what the novel is about. It’s not a love story; it’s a tragedy of the false thing called the American Dream and the reckless people who drowned themselves in it. You can only drive by this depression so long: In just a few short years it will find you. You careless wealthy socialites, says Fitzgerald, you make me sick to the heart with your drinking and gossip and philandering and hypocrisy and excess and silly dreams. You have more than what you need but you still yearn for that illusive green light of the next shore, the next big thing, the green-eyed monster inside you hungry for more and never full. You paint your greed with love to make it look virtuous. You get so drunk you don’t know who’s party you’re at and when he dies you call to say you can’t make it to the funeral but you’d like to have your shoes sent over.
Oh and it’s also about a dreaming young man who just wants to win back the love of his life. But it seems every time they make a movie version of it, the love story trumps the message. Oh well: It certainly brings more in to the box office.
Is the new film pretty? Oh yes. Like Daisy, the film is a tender, flashy, playful thing to look at and talk with for a time. But before long you find it flighty and lacking in real substance. We don’t believe Gatsby loves Daisy; we’re sure he loves the idea of Daisy. In the novel, that distinction is not so fine, and we must debate it in our minds. Although there are rarities that seem to give the book due justice (Myrtle’s party, the awkward Manhattan hotel fight, the depiction of the Valley of Ashes, the portrayal of Wolfsheim) the rest could be better imagined by your own self, particularly the ending, which they play around with a little too much. One important character is completely missing from the novel.
The love story between Daisy and Gatsby is made the very point of the film, which makes the car accident toward the end seem like a random plot device to bring closure. The film sets up all the other themes from the book but only ends up exploring the love story. With so much effort, the relationship itself doesn’t really draw us in. Maybe it’s because they’re both rich and fake, maybe it’s because we’re so cynical we don’t buy it, maybe because even in the book we’re not supposed to buy it. In the novel we only pity these people enough to care for them, but in the film we have no feeling for them but the fact that they’re pretty. And boy are they pretty. But then when the emotional payoff comes, we’re only invested in how it looks, how well every single aspect of the film is choreographed. The film is a performative masterpiece, but more like a picture of models kissing than a snapshot of a real couple smooching. It’s really good, but it’s not amazing.
Maybe the trailer hyped it up too much. I still recommend seeing it. But don’t expect to cry at the end, or reflect as deeply as you would were you to read the novel.
It’s a novel about careless people, as Fitzgerald described them:
“They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
And so we watch on, like boats against the current, borne effortlessly into the hype of the trailer.
Yes, my friends, the book is better.