As you may, or may not, know, I am a Gatsby fan. Or rather, I am a fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but never, ever should I use him as a comparison in a pitch letter. Or so I’ve been told by someone who supposedly knows these things.
But I digress.
A long time ago, read three years, The Great Gatsby was assigned as required reading for a writer’s conference I was attending. Not high school, a writer’s conference. At first I kind of struggled through the story. It was a bit slow, but seeing 1920’s New York through the eyes of an author that lived it, kept me going. When I finished the book, my initial reaction was…meh. It was alright. For a decorated classic, I found it lacking.
That was when the after taste kicked in. I mulled on it and after a while I realized that, not only did I like the story, I loved it. I don’t know what changed. Maybe the story needed time to sink in. Maybe I needed time to mature as a writer and in finding MY voice, I also found F. Scott Fitzgerald’s.
A lot of people I know, have trouble reading books written in the first person point of view, which this book is. I actually like that perspective and it is my choice for telling stories myself. I find it intimate. I like the fact that the story cannot be revealed too early. I love the ability to use it for unreliable narration. The introspection is where Fitzgerald makes his money and it is where I found a kindred spirit.
Many have examined The Great Gatsby and some, in their analysis, state irrefutably, that the main character, the narrator, Nick Carraway, is an unreliable narrator.
I am of the opposite camp. Nick is not unreliable. There is nothing to lead us, the reader, to believe that anything he says is anything other than the truth as he witnessed it. I think, therein lies the rub. They think he saw it as he wanted to see it. I think he relayed exactly what happened as it happened. Gatsby is the unreliable one. Gatsby is the one feeding lines and laying down smoke screens. Gatsby is a consummate window dresser. Nick was his conscience.
An unreliable narrator, knowingly or unknowingly, portrays fiction as the truth. Nick did neither. He suspects from the get go, that there was more to Gatsby than he let on. That is why he was drawn to him. Gatsby was the exact opposite of Nick.
Which brings me to Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film, The Great Gatsby.
Baz, in my mind, successfully brought the book to life. He stayed true to the book and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s vision. I watched the extras. Baz walked in Fitzgerald’s footprints. He visited the area that inspired the book. He cast his actors and actresses, starting with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire because, they too loved the book.
Visually, it was spectacular, a cinematic homage to the old films. That said, the use of green-screen was obvious and glaring.
The music was a modernized version of jazz circa the 1920’s and it worked…mostly. I don’t mind modernizing old music. I don’t mind creating new music that feels old. Both of which Baz accomplished with thanks to some great talent like Brian Ferry, Florence and the Machine, XX, etc. But, where he allowed himself to falter was allowing himself to believe Jay Z’s misconception that jazz was to the 20’s what “hip hop”, his word for the rap in the film, is to today.
I’m sorry, no. No it is not. Not even close.
The rap felt tacked on. Like an after thought. Like a ploy to draw a wider audience. Essentially, he realized that the unfortunate truth about today’s movie goers, is that quality storytelling only appeals to an infinitesimal minority. The majority want films with explosions, sex and gore. They don’t want to think. They want to watch a cinematic video game.
Look at the film festivals for proof. Those films win the awards but rarely win the box office.
Where I feel Baz was brilliant, where I feel he truly channeled Fitzgerald, was in the stuff he added and what he cut out. The addition of Carraway being coerced into writing down the events, was brilliant and in keeping with the character. He even threw a curve-ball at the people claiming Carraway was an unreliable narrator. He put Carraway in a Sanatorium. It is also a nod to the young actors and actresses that, like moths, get too close to the flame of celebrity and end up in rehab.
Carroway got too close to the flame that is Gatsby.
Very nicely done.