Baz Luhrmann substitutes a high-school English paper for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel in scripting his film version of The Great Gatsby, released earlier this year and now available on DVD from Warner Home Video. The conflict between “old money” and “new money” and the symbolism of T. J. Eckleburg’s eyes as the “eyes of God,” those English-class favorites, are carefully enunciated and repeated by the actors just in case an unwary moviegoer might be under the illusion that Luhrmann’s purpose in remaking Gatsby is to scrape off the critical clichés and restore a classic to its original condition. The phrases appear nowhere in Fitzgerald’s text. They are, however, fixed as securely to the popular consciousness as Hamlet’s indecisiveness, which belongs not to Shakespeare’s play but to A. C. Bradley’s 1904 lectures on Shakespearean tragedy. No one who knows the commonplaces needs to read the texts with any attentiveness, because they have already been “read” for him—by general agreement.
The geography of the film is intentionally cartoonish. The Valley of Ashes, instead of being a narrow ash dump about the size of Flushing Meadow Park, is a monstrous waste land that has swallowed Queens whole. In an overhead shot reminiscent of Saul Steinberg’s View of the World from 9th Avenue, the lush green of Long Island ends abruptly in black-and-white, stretching from one edge of the frame to the other, with Manhattan glittering beyond it in the distance. Despite being a waste land, though, it is crawling with people. There are so many people milling around Wilson’s garage, in fact, that Gatsby is lucky he doesn’t hit someone long before his car runs over Myrtle Wilson.
Perhaps the worst thing about the film are Gatsby’s parties. Luhrmann has himself confused with Flo Ziegfeld. The parties are theatrical extravaganzas with chorus girls dancing in unison, dueling orchestras, announcers bellowing into microphones, streamers and confetti falling from the ceiling as if at a political convention, explosions of fireworks that must have kept the neighbors awake every night, and hundreds upon hundreds of guests packed so tightly in Gatsby’s rooms that they look like squirming maggots when viewed from above.
In the novel, when Nick attends one of Gatsby’s parties for the first time, he finds himself in conversation with “two girls in twin yellow dresses” and “three Mr. Mumbles,” all of them guessing at the truth about Gatsby. They lean forward confidentially and whisper to one another: “Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once,” “he was a German spy during the war.” Nick reflects knowingly: “It was testimony to the romantic speculation he inspired that there were whispers about him from those who had found little that it was necessary to whisper about in this world.” At Luhrmann’s parties, the guests find it necessary to shout. Anyone who whispered a romantic speculation would not have been heard even by himself.
In researching his final paper, Luhrmann must have learned that Fitzgerald planned originally to call his novel Trimalchio after the character in Petronius’ Satyricon who is famous for his immoderate dinner parties. Not that Luhrmann knows anything about Petronius. As a filmmaker with ambitions to greatness, though, he surely knows Fellini’s Satyricon. The parties in his film owe a deeper and more obvious debt to Fellini than to anything in Fitzgerald. The riots of sight and sound are proof merely that Luhrmann can do Fellini in the twenty-first century. They are the Folies Luhrmann, fantasies of pure excessive spectacle that have nothing whatever to do with the plot of Gatsby. In the novel, Gatsby throws his parties in the hope that Daisy will wander in one night. In the film, Gatsby would not be able to pick Daisy out of the swarm, even if she did happen to wander in.
But, really, I have been saving the worst for last. The worst is Luhrmann’s decision to make Nick Carraway into a writer. The “text” of his film is a large blank book that Nick’s psychiatrist gives him as part of his cure. “Write about it,” his doctor says. “You said yourself that writing brought you solace.” Nick has already admitted that he wanted to be a writer when he was at Yale. He picks up a green hardback copy of Ulysses to drive the point home, even though Ulysses was not published until 1922, the same year as the events in Gatsby. But why let an anachronism stand in the way of reconceiving Nick Carraway as a modernist genius?
I can think of two reasons. First, if Nick is a writer with visions of Joyce dancing in his head then he is that most tedious of creatures—the unreliable narrator. Maybe that’s why he can be “morbidly alcoholic” and also “drunk just twice in [his] life.” Whatever he says about himself is not entirely to be trusted. In the novel, Nick says at one point: “Reading over what I have written so far I see I have given the impression that the events of three nights several weeks apart were all that absorbed me”—that is, he has given a false impression. If he is unreliable, though, is the impression false or is the claim about its falsity false? In Luhrmann’s script, this line becomes: “Looking over my story so far, I’m reminded that, for the second time that summer, I was guarding other people’s secrets.” The shift to the word story is unconscious, I would wager, because Luhrmann and his co-author Craig Pearce never for a moment imagined Gatsby as anything else than make believe. The line about guarding other people’s secrets, which appears nowhere in the book, is also a reminder never to invite comparison with a better writer’s prose.
The second reason is the more important. A few days ago I argued that Nick is not a writer, at least not in the modernist sense, but a kind of confessor who is “privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men” like Jay Gatsby. If he is what Elias Canetti called an earwitness to the “intimate revelations” by and about Gatsby—not composing, merely listening—then the splendor of the book’s prose belongs, not to him, but to Gatsby and his dreams. To take the “creative passion” of the style away from Gatsby and bestow it upon Nick, a “normal person” who can only wonder at “what a man will store up in his ghostly heart,” is to inflate Nick into something he is not, rob Gatsby of his greatness, and get The Great Gatsby wrong at the most fundamental level. I grant you this is what high-school English students are routinely assigned to do, but that doesn’t make it right.