Going to see a film version of a favorite book, especially one so highly regarded as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, is likely to be disappointing.  I loved Gatsby since I read it in college, and enjoyed re-reading it again last month in preparation for Baz Luhrmann’s adaption, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, Carrie Mulligan as Gatsby’s love object Daisy Buchanan, and Joel Edgerton as Daisy’s husband Tom Buchanan. I approached the movie with trepidation—what favorite scenes would be omitted?  What dialogue mangled?  How well would the book’s atmosphere survive?


I was pleasantly surprised at how carefully the book’s plot was followed.  Only one of my favorite scenes has been omitted—the interaction between Nick and Gatsby’s father when the latter showed up for his son’s funeral.  The dialogue is faithful to the original.  The excesses of the Jazz Age are portrayed effectively, with the switch of musical style to hip-hop rather than jazz very appropriate for conveying the swagger and brashness of the era.  The parties are every bit as gaudy and extravagant as I imagined, and the contrast between the mansions full of revelers and the bleak valley of ashes reveals the vast inequity between rich and poor.  DiCaprio is a wonderful Gatsby and Edgerton is suitably loutish as Tom.  Unfortunately, Maguire is too befuddled and Mulligan too innocent for their respective roles; the former shortcoming was merely an annoyance, but the latter contributed to what for me was the main flaw of the movie, namely that, despite adhering closely to the book, it significantly modifies the character of the story.  I’ll take the rest of the post to explain what I see as Fitzgerald’s central themes and how well the movie does with these.

The three main themes that I find in the book are the arrogance and destructiveness of wealth, the dangers of self-invention, and the problems that occur when one constructs an object of longing that differs from the original source for that object.    As noted above, the movie shows the excesses of the age effectively, and Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan, the embodiment of old wealth, is every bit the haughty, chauvinistic cad that Fitzgerald made him.  Thus, the movie does well with the first of these themes.  It is with the other two themes that it lets us down.

Jay Gatsby is a classic self-made man, even his name being an invention.  Near the end of the novel, Gatsby’s father shows Nick the back cover of a book in which the boy Jay had written his daily schedule for self-improvement as well as his “General Resolves,” the latter including “No wasting time at Shafters,” “No more smokeing or chewing,” and “Read one improving book or magazine per week.”  Following such routines left the teen-aged James Gatz well-prepared to turn a chance encounter with a wealthy old man into an apprenticeship in the ways of the world, and, later, to success in the halls of power.  All this seems admirable, seemingly a case study in achieving what would later be called the American Dream.  Yet, as Fitzgerald portrayed him, Gatsby was fatally flawed.  Here is Fitzgerald’s most direct statement about Gatsby’s self-invention:

“His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people—his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all.  The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself.  He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.  So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.”

Gatsby himself could be considered meretricious—superficially attractive but lacking in inherent worth.  The web of favors and relationships that had sustained him would be insufficient to support him in the end.  Nick describes him as having “an extraordinary gift for hope,” and such hope is certainly a central driver for self-invention.  Why bother to remake oneself unless motivated by hope that one’s efforts could change the future?  The movie seems to regard Gatsby’s self-invention as admirable, and in particular extols his hope for an idyllic future with Daisy.  In contrast, Fitzgerald saw the danger of Gatsby’s brand of hope.  Here is how the novel ends:

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us.  It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . . . And one fine morning—

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Hope that sees only future possibilities is never likely to reach fulfillment.  The past that we try to erase with our efforts at self-invention is part of who we are, and to deny our origins is to fight against a current more powerful than us.  Fitzgerald’s caution against the ahistorical impulse towards endless self invention that has always been part of the American character has never been more pertinent than now, surrounded as we are with life coaches, personal branding experts, motivational speakers, and various other largely self-made experts telling us we can be whatever we want to be.  Only a small fragment of Fitzgerald’s warning has survived in Luhrmann’s movie.

I know I have one more theme to consider, but this post is getting long and my time is getting short, so I’ll come back to that in a future post.