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June 4, 2013 | by  | in Arts Books |
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The Baz Age?

That whole what-book-would-you-have-on-a-desert-island question is fundamentally flawed. If, in the event that I was on a sinking ship conveniently near a desert island, and there was a library with an infinite number of books, I’d drown trying to choose one. I think in the end I’d get choice-anxiety and start grabbing, I don’t know, Where, Oh Where, Is Kipper’s Bear? (actually a literary masterpiece, tbh. There are pinky-purple bleeper-people living in the Moon!) That said, I know that one of the books I’d be agonising over when sent to my watery tomb would definitely be The Great Gatsby. Alongside Goodbye to Berlin and The Secret History, it’s one of the few books I enjoyed more on the second, third, fourth, reading. I think it’s basically perfect. Which is why I’m worried about the forthcoming film.

Film adaptations of books. I don’t even know. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad: it depends so much on the book and the director. I don’t want to be a pretentious English major (box: checked) who dismisses adaptations out of hand, but I’m often really worried about films ruining the sanctity of the book, ruining favourite characters, or missing the point altogether, forever tarnishing my impression of a great work of art.

I’m scared this will be the case with Gatsby. Reviews so far have been mixed: while praising the cinematography and acting, they also emphasise Luhrmann’s characteristic extravagance, “a cinematic buffet of such sense-addling, smack-you-in-the-face-with-a-halibut brazenness,” wrote Robbie Collin in The Daily Telegraph—“the Gatsby that Gatsby himself would have made.” This seems to be a pretty good representation of what Fitzgerald meant when he talked of the Jazz Age as “the whole upper tenth of a nation living with the insouciance of grand dukes and the casualness of chorus girls.”

But the point of Gatsby isn’t the ostentatiousness: it’s that all the ostentatiousness is for nothing. It’s a novel in decline, and it has been in decline from the beginning. I’ve always read the pivotal moment of the book as being told in flashback, when Gatsby first kisses Daisy. If you’re just describing the action it’s a pretty inconsequential scene: they kiss, and that’s it. No dialogue, nothing except the kiss to make it remarkable in a film. But Fitzgerald was the master of lines, and there’s this bit when he says, of Gatsby, that “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.” And that’s the whole novel. With Gatsby’s choice he doomed himself. The novel’s beauty lies in this. He had one moment—this moment—when he both had and lost everything. The Gatsby who Nick et al meet is a hollow king: all his opulence is compensating for an irreparable loss. And yeah, your English teacher was right: this is all an analogy for the American Dream.

My favourite film adaptations aren’t always wholly faithful to their source material: the onus on adaptations is to translate the spirit of the text into another form. Tom Ford’s film of A Single Man superimposes the attempted suicide scene from Isherwood’s earlier The Memorial onto the events in the novel, and this really works: it’s a way of addressing subtle thematic considerations in a way that feels true to the novel, even while it isn’t. But with Gatsby, the meaning of the text is so intrinsically bound up in its form. The impression this novel leaves is far more about how it feels to read it than what happens. With novels like this, I don’t think there’s any way to express all the subtleties of the text without it being gaudy and tasteless, or, worse, a boring two hours of Gatsby and Daisy exchanging desperate looks. It would be like trying to film To the Lighthouse.

Luhrmann’s got it right with the opulence. Yes, the dukes were insouciant, yes, the chorus girls were casual. But Gatsby no longer romps with the mind of God, Nick is simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life, and we are being borne back ceaselessly into the past. This is probably the one situation where a Jay-Z song just won’t cut it.

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