Carey Mulligan must be happy. As our own Kevin Fallon wrote earlier this week, the young actress won the coveted role of Daisy Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann's new production of The Great Gatsby. Mulligan beat the likes of Scarlett Johannson, and Keira Knightly for the role of F. Scott Fitzgerald's greatest femme fatale, joining an already gaudy cast that includes Lurhmann favorite Leonardo DiCarprio in the title role and Tobey Maguire in the infinitely more meaty part of Nick Carraway. The only leaves Tom Buchanan and Jordan Baker as major parts left unfilled. Make we suggest Chris Pine or Ryan McPartlin for Tom? Blake Lively, who reportedly auditioned as Daisy, makes much more sense as the jaunty golfer. There is no word yet on who will play Myrtle Wilson or Ewing "The Boarder" Klipspringer, but yours truly—a self-avowed Fitzgerald freak from way back—is openly campaigning for a cameo as "Owl Eyes," Gatsby's otherwise unnamed library patron.
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Her fellow Briton, Sarah Churchwell, disagrees. Writing in The Guardian (UK), Churchwell argued that Luhrmann's film will inevitably fail to capture the majesty of Fitzgerald's work, just as have the half-dozen screen adaptations before it.
Churchwell is right that Luhrmann's adaptation is doomed to fall short—"fail" is far too strong of a word for a director that could make a Shakespearean tragedy work as a rock video. The film won't come close the power of the novel, but not simply because Gatsby is a book, and, as the cliché insists, the Book is Always Better Than The Movie. Film versions of Fitzgerald's masterwork inevitably fail because of the kind of novel Gatsby is—frankly thin on story, but incredibly thick with introspection, thoughts unspoken, intricately woven metaphor, and long, dazzling descriptions of otherwise mundane things like sunsets, front lawns and angry wives that are only special because of how the narrator describes them.
Not every book is better than the movie, after all. David Fincher's film version of Fight Club is infinitely more entertaining than Chuck Palahniuk's original novel, and Francis Ford Coppola turned The Godfather from an average crime story by Mario Puzo into an all-time classic. Those books made such good movies because their plots are visual and action-packed. Gatsby's plot isn't. The story is a trifle, really—a parvenu criminal has a love affair with an old flame that goes horribly wrong. H. L. Mencken called it "a glorified anecdote." The novel's genius is in how Fitzgerald can invest mere tabloid fodder with some sort of epic grandeur. He delves deeply into his character's thoughts, Nick's semi-omnipotent narration describing motives and sensations that simply don't translate well to the screen.
Movies, for all their scope and power, and for all the CGI/3D technological whiz-bangery, have never been any good at expressing human thought. To show an audience Moses parting the Red Sea, for instance, film is the perfect medium. If you want an audience to know what Moses was thinking when he parted the Red Sea, though, you are going have to do it with text.
The 2001 A&E adaptation of Gatsby bows to this obvious point, by having Paul Rudd deliver Nick's "boats against the current" elegy as voiceover—the same device Hollywood has used to express interior monologue since talkies were invented. The scene works because Fitzgerald's words do the heavy lifting. Imagine a filmmaker depicting the symbolism overtly—showing Jay and Daisy in actual rowboats, rowing against a real current. The image is laughably clumsy, because Fitzgerald isn't saying life looks like rowing boats against a current. He's saying that's what life feels like.
Or take the flashback depiction of Jay and Daisy's first date: "He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God." How is the heck is a director supposed to shoot someone's "unutterable visions"? How do you draw something "romp like the mind of God" on a storyboard?
Fitzgerald himself would likely be thrilled that his masterpiece, a novel published 85 years ago, remains so remarkably relevant. He certainly wouldn't be surprised that Hollywood hasn't made a film worthy film of it. In a 1936 essay for Esquire, "Pasting It Together," Fitzgerald described his generation's own New Media revolution—the rise of film—with unambiguous contempt.
"I saw that the novel, which at my maturity was the strongest and supplest medium for conveying thought and emotion from one human being to another, was becoming subordinated to a mechanical and communal art that, whether in the hands of Hollywood merchants or Russian idealists, was capable of reflecting only the tritest thought, the most obvious emotion."
There was, Scott wrote, "a rankling indignity, that to me had become almost an obsession, in seeing the power of the written word subordinated to another power, a more glittering, a grosser power."
Fitzgerald, so mistreated by the studios, might take some small pleasure in the irony of Hollywood still being unable to translate Gatsby's magic to film. The author might even offer up a faint, sad smile— the only cold comfort a prophet gets when he is finally proven true.
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