“Men get to be a mixture of the charming mannerisms of the women they have known.” — F Scott Fitzgerald
By Anoothi Vishal
It’s amazing that a man who died at just 44 should have had such insight into life; and should have been able to sum it up so poignantly that we should remain hooked to his words more than 70 years after his death.
Reading The Great Gatsby on the flight from Bangalore to New Delhi, I sob silently into the piece of tissue I am holding because there is so much here that pulls at my heart: The sense of self that we are ceaselessly trying to create, the filling up of spaces that we didn’t quite know existed within with songs and parties, Champagne, chatter, love, lust and yes, writing… the sense of living, the sense of yearning, imagining the future as the past, dreams, almost but never quite, caught… If you were gentle, you would call it just artistic discontent. Some of us have it — are blessed and cursed. Others don’t and lead simpler, surer lives. Perhaps.
But really it is his success at capturing this state of being, this inner life that makes Fitzgerald so readable even now. And so worthy of envy. But how does this voice, the wise, wearied writer/narrator’s, translate cinematically? That is the question I want answered when I go to see Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby.
It’s one of those films that have stuck pretty studiously to the text. And that’s perhaps one of the reasons why the film does become a tad ponderous. That is just a minor carp though. Gatsby is a tough book to adapt. Its best bits, after all, are not in the character or the plot— but in observations of inner life. How do you translate that on screen?
And how does a restless cinematic audience react to a narrator’s voice telling it: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eludes us then, but that’s no matter— to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning————— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”? Would anyone sob into their handkerchief on hearing these? Or just yawn at the wordiness? Without having read the book, I would suspect it would be the latter. Which is perhaps why Luhrmann is getting skewered. Really, it is not his fault.
Gatsby, the film, reminds me a bit of Harry Potter. The images and sets are fantastic in all senses of the word, the costumes period, the action has that kind of phantasmagoric quality that drugs or alcohol or fantasy fiction bring about and the plot is… well, we all know how that goes.
As I stream out of the theatre with dozens of popcorn-smelling others, I am privy to the kind of post-film analysis that frequently happens on escalators. Boy 1 to Boy 2: “So that’s what I should have done, built a house opposite her’s”. Boy 2, who is obviously the wise confidant: “But boss, you saw what she did in the end!”
Daisy betrays Jay in the end. She does not even send a flower to his funeral. He dies, a man consumed by his passion. Their love story was always star-crossed. Like that of Romeo or Juliet or that of countless Bollywood lovers unable to break class/caste/religious walls till, of course, now when common multiplex aspirations have rendered all these obsolete. Like those who followed the Great American Dream, followers of the Great Indian Dream no longer subscribe to Devdas worldviews. Heroes are ingenious, not tragic. And steadfast devotion to the object of your love/lust is definitely out in the serial-dating world we live in. So if you just followed the action onscreen (natural in a visual medium) instead of paying attention to the words spoken by the narrator, you would be disappointed in Gatsby. But that is just how the book is.
Di Caprio makes for a wonderful Gatsby. The linen suits are fetching, yes, even the pink one. And he, as the golden-haired, golden-hearted, newly-minted millionaire, has the kind of Mills & Boons appeal that few of us can resist. There’s also a kind of (very fashionable at the moment) bromance between him and Nick, the narrator (Toby McGuire) brought out much more clearly than ever felt in the book. Everyone is wonderfully cast and performs faultlessly. But yes, the characters never quite come to life. This is no Heathcliff-Catherine intense romance. It’s never like that, even in the book.
Fitzgerald’s characters are never compelling. He is. His insight into our lives – even 21st century Indian ones—is. It was never going to be easy to put that on screen. But Gatsby, the film’s success, is that it keeps the words and keeps us interested. I like it. Pay closer attention to that authorial voice, and you will like it better.
(I know it’s a food and travel blog; but what the heck, I like films too and books even better!)