Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) head into the city in that big yellow car. The Great Gatsby (2013), courtesy Warner Brothers.
Much is being asked, this week, of how "true" or "faithful" to F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby Baz Luhrmann's movie is. These words of passionate fidelity are somewhat misplaced, always, when speaking of translating any artistic work from one medium to another. Anachronistic moments in the movie have gotten far more attention: use of contemporary music; a Duesenberg instead of a Rolls-Royce; "Rhapsody in Blue" premiering in 1924, and not 1922; Gatsby's father and the funeral not appearing in the end. However, the movie is not about re-creating the novel, nor about re-creating the summer of 1922. Here's my final set of my favorite 20 movie moments that take something essential about the novel, and put them into cinematic terms. (Please read the post in full at my website.)
1) The only one with an invitation. Nick attends Gatsby's party in Chapter III of the novel because he's been invited. "A chauffeur in a uniform of robin's-egg blue crossed my lawn early that Saturday morning with a surprisingly formal note from his employer: the honor would be entirely Gatsby's, it said, if I would attend his 'little party' that night." I don't recall if the chauffeur in the movie was wearing robin's-egg, also known in Manhattan as Tiffany's, blue -- but I do remember the note was on a silver salver, making the formality of it funnier. Gatsby is a stiff, overly formal man -- he's learned his manners late and carefully, and they're almost ludicrous, sometimes, in their particularity. Nick (Tobey Maguire) brings his invitation with him to the party, and brandishes it about, as if he's afraid he'll be thrown out for not having one. When he's collared by two of Gatsby's bouncer-waiters, the first thing he does is to complain, "But I was invited," and try to extract from his pocket the now-creased card. It's a joke -- no one's invited to Gatsby's, they just come. Nick trying to be proper and appropriate is somehow sweet and archaic, not fitting amidst what W.B. Yeats called the filthy modern tide, but endearing.
2) Town Tattle. Myrtle Wilson buys a copy of this celebrity gossip magazine when she arrives in New York. There are older copies scattered about the apartment. Fitzgerald had originally called it Town Topics, taking the name of a similar magazine published at the time, but changed the Topics to Tattle, for the better, I'd say. When Tom breaks Myrtle's nose for saying Daisy's name, our last sight of Myrtle that night, through Nick's eyes, is as a "despairing figure on the couch, bleeding fluently, and trying to spread a copy of Town Tattle over the tapestry scenes of Versailles." In the movie, Jordan Baker is reading Town Tattle when Nick meets her at Tom and Daisy's. The shift makes Jordan immediately seem shallower in the movie than in the book. Fitzgerald does have her reading, there, but she's reading the Saturday Evening Post -- in which Fitzgerald published stories and which was a much more respectable publication -- aloud to Tom.
3) Old sport. Gatsby's tagphrase that so annoys Tom Buchanan evolved as Fitzgerald wrote. Originally, he had Gatsby saying "old man." This is much more everyday and normal, not quite right for the strange and uncomfortable Gatsby. Fitzgerald's great biographer Matthew J. Bruccoli found that Fitzgerald borrowed the phrase from Long Island neighbor and bootlegger Max Gerlach. In the summer of 1923, Gerlach scribbled the following note on a newspaper clipping Fitzgerald put into one of his scrapbooks: "En route from the coast -- here for a few days on business -- How are you and the family old sport? Gerlach." Leonardo DiCaprio says "old sport" in an accent that's half Long-Island, Locust-Valley lockjaw and half southern. Once upon a time, all the upper-class movie stars in America spoke Locust-Valley lockjaw to perfection: think of the way Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke, and exaggerate it. The best example ever is Lew Ayres in Holiday (1938). The verbal tic is as constant, and irritating, in the movie as it is in the book -- until you think that the man using it, in an attempt to be comfortable himself and to set others at ease, has only one friend in the world.
4) Nick and Gatsby. Gatsby has his business connections, and his dream of Daisy, but as I've said he has only one friend in the world, Nick Carraway. They only know each other for a few months before Gatsby's murder, but Gatsby becomes terribly important to Nick -- who hasn't really got any friends himself, remember -- during that short, strange summer. At times, Nick says he despises Gatsby; at times, that he admires him; and, always, he feels that he doesn't really know or understand him. Nick's reflections on Gatsby are tangled enough in the book; how to put them on film at all? Past movies have failed, making Nick either a cold analyst or a hero-worshipper. Luhrmann cast two old friends as Gatsby and Nick. DiCaprio and Maguire, a year apart in age, have known each other for a quarter century now, and the proximity seems to show in the scenes they have together. When Gatsby wants Nick to invite Daisy over for tea, and operates in the only way he knows -- to offer something in return -- he begins to try to convince Nick to come in on a shady bond deal. Standing under the trees between their houses, he fumbles for the right words to outline something wrong. Nick realizes what he's doing, and cuts him off -- not offended, but saddened. "It's a favor, Jay. I'm happy to do it," says Maguire brightly, even comfortingly. At first, Gatsby doesn't seem to understand. Nick has to repeat it. Then DiCaprio's face slowly lights with exactly the smile Fitzgerald describes in Chapter III: "It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced -- or seemed to face -- the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on your with an irresistible prejudice in your favor." That these two characters in the movie are played by two actors who are friends gives the movie a touch of verisimilitude above the role-playing, and illuminates the connections Fitzgerald drew in the novel between Nick and Gatsby.
5) The eyes have it. From its original dust jacket, Celestial Eyes, by Francis Cugat -- brother of musician and bandleader Xavier -- to the rampant colorful images throughout the book, to the overseeing symbolic eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, Gatsby is a book concerned with vision. Sometimes that vision is overpowering, sometimes it's an illusion, sometimes it's blinded or distorted. The word "eyes" occurs in every chapter of the novel. Tom Buchanan's "shining arrogant eyes" that give him "the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward" make you dislike him even before he speaks. Joel Edgerton, excellent as Tom in the movie, puts so much arrogance and aggression into his expressive eyes that he looks exactly like Ernest Hemingway to me. (The little mustache and clunky machismo were so very Hemingway that I laughed in the movie when perhaps I shouldn't have). Gatsby's "blurred eyes" as he leaves Louisville, after his sad postwar visit to the town where Daisy can no longer be found, remain the eyes through which he sees his flawed, unworthy love ever after. The movie focuses on eyes again and again - using 3D for an almost microscopic detail on Maguire's large, sad eyes in the first scene; on DiCaprio's intense blue eyes when they're smiling and when they're angry and when Gatsby's dying; on Mulligan's as they leak unserious tears, always calculating. The owl-eyed man in the library has massive round spectacles. Meyer Wolfshiem (Amitabh Bachchan) has eyes that are like a shark's, bluegray and bright with, somehow, dark brown around the irises. I'd love to know if this effect is natural, or created with lenses. The billboard of Dr. Eckleburg watches the action of the movie take place, as the characters pass from Long Island to Manhattan and back, and literally backgrounds Myrtle's death. Sent flying to her death by Daisy, driving Gatsby's car, Myrtle whirls in a circle, dying under the unrelenting faded gaze of both her husband and his "god."
To be continued... by you. Please add your own book-to-movie moments, and whether you think they're successful or not and why, to the comments. Thank you.
All quotations from the novel are from F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (Scribners 1925).