This is for those lovers of the art of language who feel disappointed whenever a favorite novel comes to the screen. The book-to-movie business has a history that is largely a Hall of Shame. Think about it. Did readers of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels recognize their hero in any of the movies after the first few? I still feel uncomfortable thinking about Roger Moore, his skin becoming leathery with age, struggling to simulate a character he had grown too old to play. And what Hollywood did to the classic horror novels is, well, horrible. Did Bram Stoker ever imagine his Transylvanian vampire starring in Billy the Kid v. Dracula? Would Mary Shelley have published her novel about monster-making if she had foreseen Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein? And don’t tell me Robert Louis Stevenson would have been pleased with his classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde morphing into The Nutty Professor. (And yes, Stevenson’s dualistic protagonist was forced to have his own meeting with A&C as well!).
Like these writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald has often suffered in the translation from print to film. Anyone who sat through Benjamin Button knows what I mean. When news of the latest version of The Great Gatsby reached me, I was not hopeful. I put off going to see it, fearing the seemingly inevitable disappointment. Just as you know the story doesn’t end well, viewing the story made into a movie has never ended well either. The first attempt at a Gatsby movie was made in the 1940’s and starred the then-hot young actor Alan Ladd. I’ve never seen this one, and no one I know has ever seen it. The comments I’ve read about it haven’t exactly inspired me to dig it up either. The second Gatsby movie was made about thirty years later with Robert Redford in the title role. One of the problems with the 70’s Gatsby is that Robert Redford was too cool. There was no way he could capture the awkwardness of a man who didn’t belong. Redford just put on his white linen and went through the motions.
When I heard that Leonardo DiCaprio was the third cinema Gatsby, I cringed. I had never forgiven Mr. D. for certain violations of dramatic decency. The scene in Titanic when DiCaprio is being chased with his girlfriend through the ship by men who are trying to kill him, and stops for a romantic interlude in a car is almost satirical. And the forays into biography when DiCaprio attempted to pass himself off as Howard Hughes and then J. Edgar Hoover had all the realism of boys playing super heroes in the backyard.
So I went to the latest version of Gatsby, expecting to shake my head and utter a few tsk tsks on behalf of Mr. Fitzgerald. Maybe I felt there was nothing left to lose. A few days earlier I had endured the relentless road rage of Fast and Furious VI. After that anything would seem worthwhile. (On this note, I have a gripe with Rotten Tomatoes which gave Furious a 70+ and Gatsby only a 50. If these numbers are correct, there is little hope for our country’s future.) But Gatsby III denied me the privilege of cynical dismissal.
Like Fitzgerald’s writing, this film is a thing of beauty. In fact, its beauty is derived from Fitzgerald’s writing. The actual words of the novel glide across the screen, allowing the viewer to see as well as hear them. And there is a cinematic majesty to this feature. At last, a book-based movie acknowledges its debt to the words, in this case some of the most beautiful ever assembled.
Something else comes through in this version. The partying crowds and their music are not a simple merriment; they constitute a vortex of irresistible intensity. We can now feel the power of what drew Fitzgerald and his wife into the life of mad revelry that ruined them. This isn’t a series of parties; it is one big bash that doesn’t take no for an answer. It is a monster concealed in violent torrents of confetti and restless rivers of champagne. Poe would have found his “Masque of the Red Death” here.
Against my will, I was drawn in by the introductory scenes. Tobey Maguire easily established himself as the definitive Nick Carraway, the story’s narrator, and Carey Mulligan brought Daisy to life in all her superficial splendor, careless and fragile.
When DiCaprio’s Gatsby first appeared, calling everyone “Old Sport,” in an awkward, artificial dialect, I winced at first.
Yes, it’s in the book, but nobody can get away with calling anyone that and making it sound anything like natural. Cary Grant and Errol Flynn, the only two men who might have pulled it off, never even tried. But then I understood that the awkwardness is the point. Gatsby isn’t supposed to sound natural; he’s supposed to be a misfit. Gatsby is playing a role; he isn’t the old-money sophisticate he’s pretending to be. DiCaprio, I am forced to admit, plays the part as though he’s been prepping for it all his life. He and his fellow actors make these characters accessible to the audience. We can recognize aspects of ourselves and people we know.
And that is the charm of this movie. It captures Fitzgerald’s sense of vulnerability. All the key players are vulnerable on some level. As the story plays out, you can see how vulnerable Fitzgerald was, how much he was Gatsby, living it up in realms where he never felt he quite belonged, ultimately being kicked to the curb by his glamorous fellow travelers. That’s what gives this story its universality, and Gatsby III captures it all perfectly. My apologies to Mr. DiCaprio; I’m willing to forget about Howard Hughes, and when you’re running through a ship as big as Titanic, maybe you have a right to take a breather.