Baz Luhrman was going to make a new version of The Great Gatsby. I felt personally insulted. That’s my book, I reasoned. There have been no good versions of the movie. Paul Rudd even attempted Nick Carraway back in 2000. Awful. Though Mira Sorvino had the right look for Daisy.
Allow me to back up. I’ve been a high school English teacher for 22 years. For at least 15 of those years, I’ve taught The Great Gatsby. I know the book-or like to think I do-pretty well. I loved the book as a teenager, but I didn’t understand it fully. I didn’t know what those relationships meant, their evanescent flowing in and out. “I did love him–once but I loved you too.” It didn’t register.
I don’t know that it registers with my kids now, either, but it might have. I’ve read several bad reviews of the movie. I disagree with all of them and here’s why:
“Gatsby can never be made into a movie well,” said we English teachers, confident and even smug in our elite and precise opinions. There is truly nothing worse than a room full of English teachers. Our egos are not only large, they’re fragile. We’re easily pleased with ourselves and we’re easily offended. It’s the saddest thing in the world to hear English teachers pontificate, even to the point of tears, about how important our work is. Like Nick Carraway, I’m within and without. These are my people. I’m one of them. But I want to yell, “get the hell over yourselves. You’re English teachers. You will not change the world. Sorry.”
And we all have opinions about the works we teach, but none commands more personal animus, more innate self-righteousness than Gatsby. If you meet an English teacher who doesn’t like Fitzgerald, don’t ever let them near your growing child. Cretins, every one of them. “Only Gatsby–was exempt from my reaction. Gatsby who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.” And it’s true for us, too. We love Gatsby. We care for him. We worry about him and we root for him every year to succeed, knowing that our hopes will be shattered on the shore of West Egg while Nick seeks people to attend Gatsby’s funeral. We’re so disillusioned.
The problem with making Gatsby into a film is that Fitzgerald, for all of his modern sensibility, was a creature of the early 20th century. There were no long, sensitive films. Long and sensitive meant books–and that Fitzgerald knew how to do. So he wrote a book about emotions and opinions. To politicize Gatsby is to admit your own small-mindedness. Fitzgerald transcends politics, transcends economy. Gatsby is America-and so is Nick Carraway. And for pages, you’re hearing what each of the characters are looking for, searching for. Pages go by and no one moves. But hearts are wrenched open and emotions laid bare for everyone to see. This is not the stuff of movies. This is theater of the mind.
Until Baz Luhrman. The creative license Luhrman takes by making Nick Carraway a drunkard seeking solace in a sanitarium, making him equal parts Fitzgerald and Fitzgerald’s creation, is daring and insightful. In the novel, Fitzgerald writes Nick saying, “I was always literary in college–one year I wrote a series of very solemn and obvious editorials for the Yale News…” Luhrman simply takes that and allows Nick’s morbid alcoholism to become a diagnosis instead of a label. Nick transmogrifies into exactly who Fitzgerald wanted to be–and combines that with who Fitzgerald was, a helpless alcoholic, desperately in love with a woman gone insane, disillusioned by the promises of a world that never intended to deliver on them.
But who can be Gatsby? Allow me to cut to the chase–Leonardo DiCaprio. Oh, the whole cast was wonderful and there’s a special place for Toby McGuire in film celebrations as the naive yet insightful Nick Carraway. But when Luhrman focuses his Red camera on DiCaprio’s face for the first time when he says, “I’m Gatsby, Old Sport,” I literally gasped. The smile, the eyes, the “elegant young roughneck” were all there. It was an extraordinary performance and I was truly taken by it.
The visuals that only Luhrman can create, the blend of jazz with hip hop and the wide shots of an early 20th century New York, as much a character in the story as Nick, Gatsby, Daisy or Tom, were unique and brilliant. Luhrman is known for making over-the-top, overly dramatic atmosphere scenes-but that is, of course, what Gatsby is all about.
As the theater went dark and I sat with one of our school’s counselors, who fell asleep, and some 200 juniors, I was entranced. I bought the whole thing. I looked at that smile and I thought, “It understood me just as far as I wanted to be understood, believed in me as I would like to believe in myself, and assured me that it had precisely the impression of me that, at my best, I hoped to convey.”
Baz Luhrman has created a Gatsby that is imminently watchable and understandable, filled with as much meaning, imagery and power as Fitzgerald’s story and Leonardo DiCaprio is a Gatsby worth watching, worth remembering.
My career has gone in a different direction. I won’t be teaching juniors for a while, at least not next year, as I will be teaching the senior classes and delving into Sir Gawain, Beowulf, Shakespeare and Auden. And until today, that was a decision with which I was profoundly comfortable. But after watching Jay Gatsby reach out his hand farther and grasp the little piece of heaven, pulling it closer toward Daisy’s white face, I have to admit, I’m having second thoughts.