Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Published in 1925

I admit it. I never read this in high school. Clearly I missed out on a key piece of cultural literacy.

I also admit this: A key reason why I finally read it this month was because of the release of Baz Luhrmann film (more on which in a moment). After the 'The Great Gatsby book club' episode of The Colbert Report (which, predictably, never got around to discussing the book), I gave in and bought it for my Kindle.

Now, finally, I understand. This, more than any other source, is where Americans get their image of what 1920s flappers-and-speakeasies America was like. Only now have I absorbed the same bit of cultural knowledge that every one of the creative movers and shakers of American culture absorbed in their school days. I'm sure there were dozens of Gatsby references on The Simpsons that went right over my head when I saw them.

As for the novel itself, I found it breezy and very easy to read. A while back I read a bunch of O. Henry short stories from the New York of 1890-1910. They were quick and punchy, despite being full of cultural references that few born after 1900 would understand, and I was entertained. Reading The Great Gatsby was like revisiting the same world, 25 years later.

And it struck me that, although it would not be difficult for an adaptation to set exactly the same story in contemporary times, there wouldn't be any point. Yes, there's a story and characters and all, but I felt the point of the story was 1920s New York. To me, The Great Gatsby is historical fiction, which just happened to be written in the same period it was set.

Anyway, as my reading of the novel drew to a close I saw the Baz Luhrmann movie. My expectations were very low indeed. I was half-expecting something like Moulin Rouge which happened to be vaguely based on Gatsby. (I actually liked Moulin Rouge quite a lot back when it first came out, but I suspect it would not age well if I were to watch it again today.)

It was better than I expected. That's not terribly high praise, but the movie does at least try to be a halfway-decent adaptation. It falls flat on its fact at times, and it's downright laughter-provoking when Leonardo DiCaprio turns to the camera, introduces himself as Gatsby, and smiles as the Gershwin swells and the fireworks go off. There's also the unfortunate fact that in some scenes Tobey Maguire's hairstyle and outfit make him look like Pee-wee Herman.

When given the chance I tend to geek out and start analyzing the decisions the creative class made in adapting books for screen -- I mean, just look at my posts on Game of Thrones, in which I could be far more unreadably obsessive if I let myself.

With that said, the biggest plot difference between the book and Luhrmann's movie was that they dropped the romance between Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker. As this stripped Movie Nick of any overt sexuality, it probably made some viewers assume that Nick was uninterested in women and instead pined only for Gatsby. (Some say that was hinted at in the novel, but I missed it.)

Otherwise, the movie probably could have been better if it had strayed a little further from the book. Tobey Maguire's narration, most of which is drawn directly from the novel, could have been cut considerably -- I counted one scene where the narration blatantly described something everyone could see happening on-screen anyway, and I tend to notice that kind of stuff much less than other people, so there were probably several other bits where the narration was unnecessary.

But in the end it doesn't matter, because the definitive screen adaptation of Fitzgerald's novel isn't Luhrmann's movie but rather the NES-style video game.

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