I wrote earlier about Baz Luhrmann’s adaption of The Great Gatsby , suggesting that, despite its many fine features, the movie doesn’t do a particularly good job of conveying a couple of themes that are central to Fitzgerald’s novel.   I didn’t explain my point concerning one of those themes, so I’ll do so in this post.

St. Augustine said that we are what we love.  Human unhappiness results from disordered love—from having the greatest love for something that is insufficient to satisfy us.  Gatsby’s love for Daisy was disordered in two ways.  First of all, he was putting his ultimate confidence in something temporal—in a human being who would one day die.  Over the five years from when Gatsby had last seen Daisy, he had created an image of Daisy that envisioned something that could provide him with perfect happiness.  He had, in essence, idolized her, in the sense of making her worthy of worship.  His illusion was bound to be shattered.  Here is how Fitzgerald describes the aftermath of Gatsby and Daisy reuniting:

“As I went over to say good-by I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby’s face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness.  Almost five years!  There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams—not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion.  It had gone beyond her, beyond everything.  He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way.  No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”

There is no way that Daisy or anyone could have lived up to the idealized image that Gatsby had created of her.  Daisy was also bound to disappoint in another way.  Not only did she display the ordinary limitations of human flesh, but she was a particularly fickle and untrustworthy manifestation of such flesh.  Her life of privilege made her ill-suited to reciprocate to Gatsby’s love with anything like the dedication and commitment that he showed.  She pulled back from him rather than support him when Tom questions his integrity, and when he died he was waiting anxiously for a phone call from her that never came.  Fitzgerald’s final statement about Daisy lumps her with Tom:

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—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.”

Luhrmann seems to have wanted this tragedy to be seen as a romance, and so he makes Daisy into a weakling overwhelmed by Tom’s bullying rather than the deeply flawed, unreliable person that she is in the novel.  He even gives the suggestion that she was in the process of calling Gatsby at the moment that Gatsby was killed.  Here’s how Christopher Orr of The Atlantic describes how the movie changes Daisy:

“It is with her character that Luhrmann most clearly displays his incomprehension of the work he’s adapting—or perhaps, more cynically, his assumption that audiences would be unable to comprehend it. This Daisy is indecisive rather than “careless,” a co-victim in the story’s central tragedy rather than its principal architect, a smash-ee rather than smasher. Among other consequences, this transformation renders Fitzgerald’s closing judgment on the Buchanans (which Luhrmann reproduces faithfully) all but meaningless.”

Luhrmann seems to suggest that things might have worked out for Gatsby were it not for a few unfortunate circumstances.  That’s not the tale that Fitzgerald tells; his Gatsby is doomed because he has all his incredible capacity for hope on a single person, and one singularly ill-equipped to bear it.  What we put our hope in is as important as whether we have hope.  Luhrmann does us no favors by obscuring this point.