Although I rarely watch a movie that doesn’t come with captions anymore, I felt – as someone with a degree in English literature – that it was necessary to see the latest version of The Great Gatsby on its opening day.
I love Fitzgerald’s collective oeuvre, that of romantic yet heartbroken young men. This Side of Paradise is in some ways an even better example of that than The Great Gatsby. (If you want the modern version of Fitzgerald, pick up any of Scott Spencer’s early books, especially Endless Love.)
But as I watched the latest film version of Fitzgerald’s book, I felt irretrievably sad. I loved that director Baz Luhrmann turned Long Island into a leafy, verdant version of Disneyland’s Storybook Land, with glistening mansions that look like fairy tale castles. I have no idea if that’s what Great Neck and Little Neck – Fitzgerald’s models for West Egg and East Egg – looked like in the 20s, but it made for stunning visuals. I’ve written before about movies that should and should not be remade. Gatsby, I fear, belongs in neither category.
I still have vivid memories of the previous version, the one with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. I remember where I was during all the pre-release hoopla, the sturm-und-drang over producer Robert Evans wanting his then-wife, Ali MacGraw, to star, until Steve McQueen stole her away during the making of the appropriately named The Getaway. To this day, I’m still not sure whether Ali MacGraw would have been better than Mia Farrow. In fact, I’m not sure anyone could play well the 20th century’s biggest b***h incarnate, except for one particular ex-wife of a friend of mine, who shall remain nameless.
And that to me is the inherent sadness of the story. Here is a young man who corrupts himself – and eventually gets killed – in the name of love. I’m all for that sort of thing, but the irony is that Daisy is just so not worth it. She spurns love for money in marriage, and when she finds that true love again, she reverts to her true self. As Fitzgerald wrote of her and Tom: “They were careless people … they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money of their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
That basically is the crux of the problem that I keep having with this story, as wonderfully written as it is (and as visually compelling as the new version is): Gatsby is an idiot. Nick Carraway says famously that he’s worth more than all the others put together, but that rings hollow for me. He’s become a criminal in pursuit of a false idol – and he can’t see it. I know we’re supposed to root for Gatsby and accept this fatal flaw, but he comes off as a materialistic, narcissistic adolescent carrying around medals of honor in his pocket (did he win them, or buy them?). He’s densely unaware that life moves forward, not backward.
Maybe I’m cringing at Gatsby now because I used to be like him. I was always looking backward, looking for something I was sure I’d missed. Whenever I read or heard the exchange when Carraway says, “You can’t repeat the past,” and Gatsby replies, “Of course you can,” a shiver sprinted down my spine because I believed it to be true. The love I had for one girl was so intense so long after the relationship was over that one of my therapists accused me of necrophilia – being in love with something dead.
Because I got to grow up and Gatsby didn’t, perhaps I should have more sympathy for him. But the older I get, the more he strikes me as dim as the light at the end of Daisy’s dock.