The Good Book

“The Great Gatsby” marks another chapter in the saga of Hollywood’s trying to harness the literary canon

Illustration by Andre Carrilho

Movie directors who have filmed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby believe it’s a big book looming inside a small one, and they aren’t altogether wrong. Gatsby has been made five times—you may be as surprised as I was to learn there was a TV version only 13 years ago—with each effort struggling to manifest the novel’s hidden epic. For all of the ways that Gatsby meant to speak for an entire era, however, the success of the novel lay in its miniature form: Its 180-some pages are a keyhole’s peek at a decade whose scope is larger than can be glimpsed. Enthralled by the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald wrote about the period in the language of smoke and light, his prose implying that it was more ephemeral than he consciously knew, his words born of a wisdom that otherwise was beyond him. Of course Australian auteur Baz Luhrmann couldn’t care less. Who wants wisdom when you can have the dazzle of Roaring Twenties Manhattan? Some who revere the novel may cluck over the new extravaganza starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire, but the movie creates the very fantasia that provoked in Fitzgerald as much wonder as skepticism; there’s no doubt in my mind that the novelist would be unsettled by Luhrmann’s movie only because he would hope his masterpiece is half as spectacular.

By the nature of cinema and how it literalizes what we envision, movies can have difficulty replicating that connection we make with a classic book. Part of the process of reading is constantly hitting the pause button, and now and then the rewind button, to ponder a word that’s been chosen by the author as exquisitely as the filmmaker chooses an image or a sound editor chooses a sonic clue—the tolling of a bell in the distance to evoke memory, for instance. Both in the silent era of films and then the ’30s, movies plumbed 19th-century archives from Anna Karenina to The Wizard of Oz (actually published in 1900), studio heads figuring any association with Tolstoy couldn’t help classing up a form they feared was culturally inferior. Moreover, these were novels whose foremost mandate, in a time when there were no movies, was to tell sweeping stories; Charles Dickens’s episodic bulletins were the miniseries of the day, crowds standing on the docks calling to incoming ships for news of what happened to this character or that. If the movies didn’t lose their pretensions in the ’40s, they became more stylish in expressing them: Unlike directors who began as writers or came out of the theater, David Lean spent years as a film editor, so his 1946 translation of Dickens’s Great Expectations displayed an instinct for how narrative can involve not just plot but the rich visual detail of what Miss Havisham’s house looks like. Half a century later Luhrmann has turned this realization into an all-consuming aesthetic, with Fitzgerald’s metaphors as set pieces right down to the book’s last passage and the green light that shines both for bootlegger Jay Gatsby’s reckless tragedy and America’s approaching peril. 

When film laid claim to the greater freedoms of the ’60s, paradoxically it came face-to-face with its greatest limitations. The insurrections of early 20th-century literature were so exhilarating and seemed so in keeping with the ’60s spirit that the temptation to film James Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, was more than could be withstood, even if what people loved about the novel was purely resistant to cinema. Ken Russell had better luck with D.H. Lawrence, not because the new cinema brought out the Lawrence in Russell but because it brought out the Russell in Lawrence. Russell viewed Women in Love the novel as a blueprint for his 1969 movie rather than the movie as an interpretation of the novel; he didn’t so much reinterpret Lawrence as rewrite him by denoting what was liberated in Lawrence’s writing while disregarding what was repressed. Along the way Lawrence’s tension between repression and liberation was jettisoned. After a couple of decades of cinema-savvy filmmakers avoiding classic sources (assuming that Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma and George Lucas read at all), movies in the ’90s again started adapting old tried-and-trues that would seem to have already been exhausted. Jane Austen was in vogue for a while as was, to a lesser extent, Henry James. These past few months Oz’s wizard has returned, and Anne Hathaway won an Academy Award for Les Misérables, singing a song that I don’t remember from the Victor Hugo book, but I’m sure must be there. As in the case of yet another Anna Karenina—with five remakes preceding it—occasionally directors look too hard for a new angle when what Joe Wright really needed was an actress better than Keira Knightley if not Greta Garbo.

As revolutionary a book as was written in the 1800s, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights has been filmed six times. Each director has seemed keenly aware of his predecessors’ failure to get it right, the biggest botch being the ’39 Laurence Olivier hit that turned a story of monstrous obsession into a gothic romance and ended just when Brontë was getting started. Brontë plunged her tale into an interiority blacker than what film can externalize, Heathcliff so determined to punish the world for the loss of his love, Catherine, that he sucks the life out of everyone in his path. In the ’70s, an 18-year-old woman-child named Kate Bush, who clearly felt inhabited by the doomed Cathy and looked more like her than Merle Oberon or Juliette Binoche ever did, distilled the wild and unforgiving vortex of Brontë’s tale into five minutes of song that came closer than any movie has, the point being that the visuality of movies can render too explicit scenes and exteriors that words or even music convey more powerfully. Some tours de force simply defy adaptations worthy of them because they’re either too primal, like Wuthering Heights, or too refined, like The Great Gatsby (though if anyone can coax Daniel Day-Lewis into playing Ahab, a fourth attempt at Melville’s hallucinatory Moby-Dick might be worth a shot). On the other hand, if Baz Luhrmann’s entire modus operandi as a filmmaker—as based on the evidence of his work typified by his best picture, 2001’s Moulin Rouge—is a certifiable assault on the very subtlety that distinguishes Fitzgerald’s novel, let’s be real: Does anyone really want from him a mature or, God forbid, tasteful Great Gatsby? As Kate Bush did to Wuthering Heights’ Cathy, Luhrmann would appear to personally relate to the mysterious con man and romantic at the center of Fitzgerald’s story, delivering in the process exactly the lollapalooza that we expected and couldn’t wait to see. Luhrmann has the temerity to believe the novel is in the service of his madness rather than vice versa. Jay Gatsby may feel the same about the author who wrote him.