I’m betting this has happened to you.
You’ve read a book that you enjoyed very much and you learn that a movie version is in the works. Part of you hopes that the story you loved will transfer well to film, but another part, the part that has been disappointed many times, expects it to be a mess.
Usually that dubious part is proven right.
But sometimes, much too infrequently, you get surprised.
A few years ago some of my students encouraged me to see the new film version of The Great Gatsby. I was determined not to like it and refused to go see it for a couple of reasons. First, Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, widely considered one of the best ever written, is one of my favorite books, and I’m almost always disappointed with efforts to translate beautifully written novels to the screen, especially ones like “Gatsby”, which relies so heavily on the poetic descriptions and observations of the narrator. And second, I had seen the trailer for this film, a flashing mishmash of frantic images set to horrendously loud rock music, a pulsating kaleidoscope nowhere close to the insightful novel I had read and taught.
So I was dead set against having anything to do with it. But there was one insurmountable obstacle: my wife decreed that we were going.
And once I saw it, I had some crow to eat.
The fact is that everything in the new film adaptation – direction, editing, costumes, set decoration, and all the rest – came together perfectly to capture both the bittersweet plot and the razzle-dazzle of the Jazz Age. If any of the blaring rock music was there, I was so completely captivated that I missed it.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s and Carey Mulligan’s Gatsby and Daisy made quick work of breaking through my old allegiance to Robert Redford and Mia Farrow in an earlier film.
But for my money it was Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway that stole the show. And I’ll bet Scott Fitzgerald would have been happy about that. In the book Nick tells the story in first person and has been, since its publication in 1925, perhaps the best example in literature of the uninformed narrator, a minor character in a larger story who, though clueless about other characters and situations at the outset, solves the mysteries behind them as the reader goes with him. Maguire is absolutely spot-on as Nick, from the wide-eyed innocence of his first fresh-faced grin to the sad truths he discovers at the conclusion.
The true genius of director Baz Luhrmann’s new take on this classic is his inclusion of an abundance of voiceover narrations by Nick, thereby letting Fitzgerald’s amazing wordsmithing carry the story, just as it does in the book.
This whole experience taught me two things that I should have already known. One: listen to my wife. Two: have an open mind about new twists on old things.
So I have a new rule: Any new versions of Gatsby that come along in my lifetime, if any, will get a fair assessment by yours truly. Because that novel would be hard to ruin, and is always worth a new visit.
In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s memoir about his early years in Paris as part of the “Lost Generation”, he recounts an unpleasant road trip with Fitzgerald, having to suffer his whining, caustic comments, and mood swings. By the time they got back to Paris, he was ready to dump him at his doorstep, brush him off, and never see him again. At home he found a package from Max Perkins, his and Fitzgerald’s literary agent in New York. It was a new book. Here’s what Hemingway wrote:
“When I finished the book I knew that no matter what Scott did, nor how he behaved, I must know it was like a sickness and be of any help I could and try to be a good friend. He had many good, good friends, more than anyone I knew. But I enlisted as one more, whether I could be of any use to him or not. If he could write a book as fine as The Great Gatsby I was sure that he could write an even better one.”
Unfortunately, Papa Hemingway was mistaken. Fitzgerald would go on to write more books and short stories, but none would hold a candle to his masterpiece. Maybe it was because he had to deal with not only his own demons but those of his wife Zelda, who went insane. Maybe he drank his talent away.
Or maybe Gatsby was just so great that it couldn’t be bettered.
(Some of this is from one of my newspaper columns)