A Gatsby post! How…apropos, you might think, what with the movie having recently come to theatres, Leo and Carey fueling lovesick teenagers’ desperate romantic hopes and (fortunately) feverish readings of the original text. (Thrillingly, at least 15 of my students read the book immediately preceding or following their viewing of the film. I was a proud little teacher to find that 1.) they all liked the book better and 2.) they all bought the book with the original cover reproduction rather than the movie cover because they liked the original better.)
I can’t begin to review Gatsby. I love it too much. I have always loved reading from the time I knew what words were, but this is THE book that did it for me, that elevated my love of reading to an academic necessity. I say academic because it was already an emotional necessity. Gatsby is where I found joy not just in reading but in analyzing, discussing, and sharing what I had read. I remember the moment I had a sudden and shocking understanding of Tom Buchanan well before Fitzgerald revealed much about him, and I ran frantically around the school trying to find my teacher, finally breathlessly accosting her outside the science labs on her way to lunch. Once she realized I would not be put off, she sat and listened very seriously and then said with a huge smile, “Would you please share that in class today?” It was exhilarating.
I felt that same excitement as I re-read the book this month, spurred, yes, by the release of the film. But unfortunately it took longer to get through this time with the end of school, finals grading, packing up my classroom, and two trips right together. So it was on the floor of the gate area at Midway Airport this last week that I read most of Fitzgerald’s beautifully tragic story, oblivious to the screeching children, the irate mother with the heavy Chicago accent, the constant announcements as our flight got pushes back to 9:40 p.m., 10:10, 11:20, 11:45, 12:30 a.m., 1:30, 2:30, canceled. The experience of reading Gatsby was just as enthralling. engrossing, enchanting, and enriching as the first time around.
For me, it not Fitzgerald’s characters, most of whom I find distasteful, or the plot, or the symbolism. Nick’s West and East Eggs are not a world I wish to slip into and inhabit. I do not wish to know these people. I want Daisy’s charm, but I don’t want to be her. Tom frightens me, Gatsby creates that odd mix of disdainful pity, Nick irritates me for his passivity. What makes me fall in love over and over again is simply Fitzgerald’s language. It is so lush and thick that I just want to wrap myself up and fall asleep in the gorgeous comfort and striking images of his words. And for me, this is why Gatsby will never quite work on the screen. Fitzgerald’s language cannot translate exactly to the screen. The images presented are created for the viewer rather than by the reader, and that just doesn’t work for this novel. I have resisted going to see the new film because it seems too Baz-y and not enough Fitzgerald-y. And don’t get me wrong, I love Baz Lurhmann, but honestly, my favorite film of his was Australia, which was a love letter to his country and melded just the right amount of whimsical fantasy and heartbreaking reality. Had Gatsby looked more like Australia rather than Moulin Rouge, maybe I would have been more enticed. But the film looks too much like the artifice of Gatsby’s parties, trying desperately to get together with the “perfect” audience but not have much substance to offer. Even with the gimmick of Fitzgerald’s via Nick’s words floating up onto the screen (so I’ve heard), seeing Lurhmann’s interpretation of the parties based on Fitzgerald’s writing is simply not the same as reading Fitzgerald’s actual description. The prescribed visual image of the film cannot live up to the mental image created by the words on the page. At least in this instance.
So I will likely Netflix or Redbox the new film when it is available rather than spending $22 to see it in the theatre. And in the meantime, I will continue to encourage anyone and everyone, especially those who have not yet read it, to read the book and fall in love with Fitzgerald’s rich, silky language. But I do have to say thank you to Baz Luhrmann for introducing The Great Gatsby to a new generation of readers outside the classroom. And thank you to all of the movies based on books because one of my favorite things in the world is hearing, “Ms. Pearson, I read the book because I liked the movie, and the book was better!”