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Gatsby overdose

The cover of the first edition of The Great Ga...

Today I skim-read The Great Gatsby and then went to see it. I wanted to read it one last time before letting Baz Luhrmann alter it in my mind for the rest of time. I was quite pleased that loads of it was just right – particularly the settings – and Gatsby had a pink suit which I worried might get traded for something more realistic – but there it was.

Di Caprio was a great choice for the Great Gatsby. He looked the part – just the right age, just the right face – and some great acting when he was having his keynote ‘why of course you can’ moment.

There were, of course, a zillion tiny inaccuracies and deviations from the text – but the worst one was at the most tense moment of the book – just after Tom and Gatsby have a verbal exchange in the Plaza suite. In the book, Gatsby has just ‘lost’ to Tom and Tom then makes a criticism of Gatsby and Carraway narrates:

“Then I turned back to Gatsby – and was startled at his expression. He looked (…) as if he had ‘killed a man’. For a moment the set of his face could be described in just that fantastic way.”

This subtle moment and observation was butchered in the movie by Gatsby having a passionate and violent outburst, lashing out at Tom. This was a deviation from the text at a key moment which I don’t think was needed to convey Gatsby’s emotion – the tension was very clear.

Generally, though, in the movie, tension was done well. The awkwardness of the afternoon tea at Nick’s was convincing and there were other tense moments when the various affairs threatened to surface.

The novel has some great surreal description and I hoped that Luhrmann would capitalize on it, like he did in Romeo and Juliet – but I felt that there were opportunities missed. I’m sure the director had his reasons, but I would have liked to have seen:

“The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. The were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown in after a short flight around the house. (…) There was a boom, as Tom Buchanan shut the rear window and the caught wind died out about the room and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”

I would love to have seen this done as a surreal flight sequence, with Jordan and Daisy floating around the house and then being lowered gently by the exclusion of the wind as Tom shuts the windows.  Another moment I thought was a gift to the director was the description of Myrtle, through a drunken haze of the scene in the apartment in New York:

“Her laughter, her assertions, her gestures became more violently affected moment by moment, and as she expanded the room grew smaller around her, until she seemed to be revolving on a noisy, creaking pivot through the smoky air.”

I had hoped to see this through Nick’s eyes here – of this woman getting bigger and bigger and noisier and more dominant as he got more and more drunk. The depiction of this scene was a bit more… messy? than it was in the book – and the ending of that chapter is an intriguing snippet of a night lost in a drunken haze when he ends up beside MrMcKee’s bed – a lost fragment of time that the movie missed.

Another addition to the novel was the context in which Carraway ‘wrote’ the account. At the start of the movie he is being assessed in a sanatorium after becoming a depressed alcoholic insomniac. Fair enough – it gives a reason for it – but it was annoying as it isn’t in the book, whereas if it had been The Catcher in the Rye, well, it would have been.

And an omission was the moment when Gatsby sees Pammy. In the movie he never claps eyes on her – and that’s quite a significant moment in the novel when he is faced with a living, breathing ‘result’ of Daisy’s love for Tom.

In the movie there was the suggestion that Chapter VII, the climax, was going to be a planned ‘leaving Tom’ speech by Daisy – and that Jordan and Nick were to be there as witnesses. In the novel this is only a vague thought that Nick wonders:

“Something was up. And yet I couldn’t believe that they would choose this occasion for a scene – especially for the rather harrowing scene that Gatsby had outlined in the garden.”

That scene in the garden took place in the movie next to the pool and I thought was the acting high point of the movie – Gatsby’s frustration to get Daisy to understand his dream which Nick sees cannot be achieved without doing the impossible and turning back time.

Gatsby does seem to become increasingly unhinged – and a surprising thing in the movie was that I started to ‘like’ Tom – who seemed more and more rational and sensible as the movie progressed.

For all of these additions and omissions – I thought it was a great adaptation. The Valley of the Ashes was a striking contrast to New York and Long Island. The schooming over the water was the kind of Luhrmann moment I wanted more of. The girls in yellow were there, the movie star and plenty of cocktail glasses. The hint of a Nick/Jordan romance was underplayed though.  The cars were great, the driving fast and careless. More blood was needed though – poor Myrtle suffered two violent moments – but very little blood. Gatsby too managed to get away without “a thin red circle in the water” – more of a cloud. And he was supposed to be floating on an inflatable mattress – but (and this was the acting low-point) he just was kind of sunken.

Okay. Enough nit-picking.

*tries not to mention the lack of lemon cakes*

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7 thoughts on “Gatsby overdose

  1. I wasn’t sure about the film and now having read your review, I feel so much better. If we go see it, I’ll know what to look for and what not to expect. I have skimmed back over it as well. It is a marvelous book chronicling a surreal moment of history.

    • Oh – somehow I thought that the film would have been out and seen in the States long before I would have seen it – sorry if there were “spoilers” here – although, most people going to see it I think will be fully aware of the plot!
      Hope you enjoy the film, should you go – I would be interested to see what you think of the shots of Long Island, Queens/Valley of Ashes and Manhattan.

  2. For a skim-read you had caught on to a number of the more evocative descriptions. Haven’t seen the movie & have been worried it would destroy the book for me, but after reading the above I’ll go and see it. Luhrmann owes you some royalty for that, i think 😉

    • This was just a last pre-Luhrmann read – a lot of the book is in my subconscious. The movie is generally over-the-top – but at least they didn’t mess with the overall plot too much!

  3. Sadly I’ve neither read the book or seen the film so can’t really comment on those.

    However, I very much liked your line “I wanted to read it one last time before letting Baz Luhrmann alter it in my mind for the rest of time.”

    That does sum up rather neatly for me the effect of seeing the film after (or worse, before) reading the book. If you’ve seen the film of a book, no matter how hard you (well, me) try, if you pick up the book again or just think about it, you can’t help super-imposing film images/issues over the book.

    Can’t recall which book it was but I remember watching a film of a book I’d read and thinking that the choice of lead actor couldn’t have been worse, yet now, when I read other books in the series, I can’t help imagining the poor-choice-actor as lead character. Not good. Of course, sometimes the film producer manages to insert a scene/twist into the film that actually improves on the book.

    Perhaps there should be a warning sign on the film poster **Danger: Watching this film may destroy/enhance your view of the book!**

    • I always read the book before seeing the movie. Maybe I shouldn’t and the movies would be less “wrong”… but I like to know how the writer intended things should be.
      Thanks for the comment 🙂

  4. Pingback: The Great Gatsby | The Blog of David Meldrum

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