The famous cover for Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby.

The Great Gatsby

  • Author:  F. Scott Fitzgerald  (1896  –  1940)
  • Rank:  #15
  • Published:  1925
  • Publisher:  Charles Scribner’s Sons
  • Pages:  182
  • First Line:  “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”
  • Last Line:  “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
  • ML Edition:  #117  (1934 – discontinued in 1939)
  • Acclaim:  Modern Library Top 100 English-Language Novels of the Century #2; All-TIME List
  • Film:  1926  (lost), 1949  (**) , 1974  (**.5) , 2000 (TV movie), 2002 (as G), 2012
  • First Read:  Spring, 1990

The Novel:  I have a long standing argument with my best friend.  What is the Great American Novel?  That is the question that hangs over our discussion.  We have our own choices.  My own is Faulkner, of course – not only the best novel ever written – but also the cynical summation of a vision of America – a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  His choice is almost as great (is even greater, would be the argument of many) and just as cynical.  It flows from those last few paragraphs of Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece:

He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.  He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.  It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster , stretch out our arms farther . . . . And one fine morning —

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

That is, in his vision, not only the summation of Gatsby – standing there on the dock, staring out at the light, with nothing really there beyond the light but an empty dream – but America itself.  As he so often puts it, it’s the shining city on the hill, but when you get there, there’s nothing there.  It’s all there in Fitzgerald’s prose, both the dream itself: “That was it.  I’d never understood before.  It was full of money – that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it . . . . High in a white palace, the king’s daughter, the golden girl . . . .” and the emptiness to be found in the heart of it: “The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself.  He was a son of God – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be about his Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty.”

But it’s not just that dark vision of the American Dream that is so beautifully encompassed in the pages of Gatsby.  There is the darkness of modern life, the stain of the industrial age: “This is a valley of ashes – a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.”  There is the brutal depiction of a society that Fitzgerald knew too well and wanted so desperately to be a part of: “For Daisy was young and her artificial world was redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery and orchestras which set the rhythm of the year, summing up the sadness and suggestiveness of life in new tunes.”  But, Fitzgerald, born in St. Paul, educated at Princeton, perhaps sees something of himself in Nick and his inability to live this life: “That’s my Middle West – not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow.  I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name.  I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all – Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”

But that’s not to say that this is all darkness either.  Though the romance is between Daisy and Gatsby, there is, in the marriage of Tom and Daisy, a marriage of modern convenience, a marriage of two people who seem to perhaps be perfectly made for each other: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”  And even in all of this, there is humor: “I’ve been drunk for about a week now, and I thought it might sober me up to sit in a library.”

I haven’t really said much about the story.  But do I have to?  At this point, do any of these novels need their stories described?  Is a plot description going to get you to read a book that you should have read a long time ago (that is if you haven’t read it already, and how the hell can you get through high school and / or college without reading Gatsby?  For Gatsby, as I returned to it this time, is about the prose, about one of the best voices in American literature.  “Poor son-of-a-bitch,” Dorothy Parker said about Scott when he died.  She was surprised when she was criticized for that, since quoting Scott himself (a reaction to the lack of mourners for a man whose parties had drawn hundreds) seemed like the best way to honor a writer whose place in American literature seemed anything but assured upon his early death.  But in Gatsby, in lines like “So we drove on toward death in the cooling twilight.” or “it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.” we can remind ourselves that he was always one of our best writers.  And then we find ourselves on that final line and the arguments can begin over whether or not it is the finest closing line in American literature:

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

The Films:  There has yet to be a satisfactory film version of the novel, though many (including me) have high hopes for the upcoming Baz Luhrmann film (making this the second novel in a row on the list which has an upcoming adaptation at Christmas).  The 1926 has long been lost, but what is revealed in the trailer is not promising.  The 1949 version is a mess and the 1974 version is a disappointment to anyone who watches it.  I have not seen either the tv version or the update, but I have no hopes that either will do the novel justice.

Just look at the poster. It’s like they used an image of Alan Ladd in The Glass Key and said, “ah, the hell with it.”

1949 version  (dir. Elliot Nugent):

I don’t think I even realized there was a 1949 adaptation of the novel until after I started writing this post.  Then I went and found the film and watched it.  And I quickly wished that I hadn’t.  I didn’t even get five minutes into the film before I knew that this version was no better an adaptation of the novel or a film than the 1974 film.

Actually, you don’t even have to start watching the film.  The problems begin with the poster.  Look at Alan Ladd, standing there in the trenchcoat and the hat.  That’s exactly how I picture Ladd, of course, but I picture Ladd in films like The Blue Dahlia and The Glass Key – noir mysteries that worked because Ladd wouldn’t have to say much and he could stand around and seem mysterious.  But that’s not the right look for Gatsby.  Gatsby is all nouveau riche, tuxedos and silk shirts, fine mansions and gorgeous cars.  That’s not what anyone would picture Gatsby as.

But the poster isn’t particularly misleading.  That’s what the film seems to establish.  And by casting Ladd, a man who is so good at being mysterious, the film falls apart.  Ladd has the right looks for Gatsby, but once he starts talking, it’s hard to take him seriously as the man who would long for Daisy for years.  And then you start gazing around and you see all these 1940’s fashions and scenery.  Gatsby, the ultimate tale about the Jazz Age, about the decadent 20’s, and here it is filmed without any period style to it at all.

But that’s not all that’s wrong with the film.  Macdonald Carey is absolutely terrible as Nick.  We have a wretched scene where the blame upon Gatsby is actually planned, instead of something that Tom does in the heat of the moment.  We get a death scene that is a mess (though a bit daring for the time, in that we actually see the bullet holes) and then a mess of an ending.  Other than Shelley Winters, before she was to become a star, there is no one in the cast remotely close to doing justice to the book.

The Great Gatsby (1974): how not to do an adaptation

1974 version  (dir. Jack Clayton):

If the 1974 film is no more appealing as an adaptation of the novel than the 1949 film was, it at least looks nice.  Granted, even that can be a problem at times.  Watching the film, you get the feeling that the film-makers, blinded by all the white, couldn’t figure out how to add any color to the film – either in the sets, the costumes, or in the film itself.  There is far more color in the trailer for the upcoming film than there is in the entirety of this one.

One of the problems with adapting great novels is that the best of novels rarely rely simply on a great story – there is the narrative, there is the style.  But those things have a hard time translating to the screen.  So, you can try to do too much with the plot (which the 1949 version does).  Or you can try to take too much of the narrative and impose it upon the film in a voiceover.  That’s certainly what this film tries to do (Francis Ford Coppola is credited with the script, which he banged out in three weeks so he could start shooting the second Godfather, but he later claimed that his script was hardly used in the finished film).  We are constantly barraged with Nick’s voiceover narration.

Which brings us to the ultimate question about the point of this film.  Not that Mia Farrow was thought to a be a good choice for Daisy – that she could convincingly play a Midwestern socialite that Robert Redford would lust after for a decade.  Not that anyone thought to try and get Redford to do at least a little bit of acting (for an actor who never was very emotive, this is easily the most wooden performance of his career).  It’s that with all the use of narration throughout the film, beating us over the head in any restive moment when we might have sat back and enjoyed the look of the period costumes and sets (though that would have been tempered by the overwhelming feeling of white everywhere), no one seemed to think it would be a good idea to actually end the film with the final line of the book – one of the most beloved and brilliant lines in the history of American literature.