Monday, May 13, 2013

Who's the Greatest Great Gatsby?

Charles Hood and Scott Covell review the recent try at putting the novel on film

Charles Hood: We both were simultaneously looking forward to and yet dreading Mother's Day weekend this year, and it has nothing to do with our families. That's because this past weekend the F. Scott Fitzgerald estate got its last big push towards mega-royalties, when the Baz Luhrmann "Jazz Era on Acid" version of The Great Gatsby opened. Would the movie wreck the book or do it justice?

In terms of straight dollars, there's one winner right out the gate. This classic of American literature is still in copyright, and so the accountants must love it: not just whatever umpteen millions the production companies had to pay for movie rights, but now another generation of readers will be buying copies of the book. This has to be the single most profitable piece of Modernist literature of all, outselling Hemingway, Pound, Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein. Only Picasso must be more valuable per square inch. A quick survey reveals that my household has a least four versions of Gatsby, separate from whatever I have in my office at AVC. My wife the lit major has two copies, I have a hard copy I can't find, and I have a Kindle version that I ordered once to fill up the hours on a cross-Atlantic flight a year ago.

Fitzgerald was living in L.A. when he died; his last house is under what is now the 101 Freeway, though his actual site of death was an apartment near Crescent Heights and Sunset. It's now a gated unit but before it was, Bill Vaughn and I once knocked on the door. Current occupants were not pleased to have yet more pilgrims. Fitzgerald died of a heart attack tied to alcoholism and maybe TB; he's buried near Washington D.C., and I have been there too, though this time without Bill Vaughn. Covell (unless he has misplaced it) has an acorn from the grave site, courtesy of me. All of the Fitzgerald work is worth knowing, if nothing else in order to counterbalance the cruel portrait of him in Hemingway's Moveable Feast. Why though has Gatsby been raised to top-tier status? Along with Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick, it ranks as one of the most perfect and enduring novels of the entire American canon.

Like most aspects of high art, from Beethoven to Plato, Gatsby may be better known for being famous than it is appreciated as a rich and deeply moving text. Indeed, I am not sure how many people read it still, but apparently enough people have heard of it that it merits high status as a cultural reference point. Publicity in advance of the movie's release has been ubiquitous. To take two examples (one highbrow, one lowbrow), Vanity Fair ran a squib to feature the clothing recently.

It's a well-lit shot, custom made for the magazine, with a brief narrative on the right about who made which of the costumes. (Brooks Brothers, in the case of the photo.) So for Vanity Fair, the movie is about style, look, elegance. It's not whether it lives up to the spirit of the book, but how the actors look, putting the bodies of the book out there in front of us.

Yet on the supermarket tabloid end of the scale, even the Globe has stepped up to cover the movie, and in this case, turned the interpretive framework into a high school prom queen contest. Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest Jay Gatsby of them all? This one uses a studio-supplied still, though that lines up nicely with stills from the previous movie versions.

So who IS the best actor for this? Why DOES the book endure? We turn now to another perspective, to look at this question in terms of what works, what doesn't work in the most recent movie adaptation.

Scott Covell: The Great Gatsby: Keep the New Versions Coming!

At the end of his scathing review of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (released this past Thursday midnight), The New Yorker critic Davis Denby suggests that --- like him --- “ young audiences”  may not care for this latest of four Hollywood adaptations of the classic novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  He may be wrong about that (the film did a credible 51 mil the first week), and I certainly disagree with much of his review; however, he makes a great point when he states that perhaps the novel: “should be left in peace. The book is too intricate, too subtle, too tender for the movies” (79).  

Indeed, the glorious lyrical and impressionistic writing of Fitzgerald can only be captured through voiceovers and --- in the case of Luhrmann’s film --- rather surreal moments of spiraling letters all coalescing into beautiful Fitzgerald prose on the handwritten pages of Nick Carraway’s fevered journal written years later in a sanitarium. Still, lovers of The Great Gatsby (of which I am certainly one) or not, Luhrmann offers a visual feast that is at once chaotic, swirling and postmodern, and then switches gears with more profound and subtle film-making to allow the audience to sink deeply into the rekindled romance of Daisy Buchanan and our hero, Jay Gatsby.

Having taught the novel a zillion times, and now, especially after just completing an impossible-to-publish 300-page prequel/sequel of Fitzgerald’s greatest work which I titled Gatsby’s Revenge (copyright issues, dang it), I came to the film without great expectations but just sort of hoping to kick back and enjoy myself in the visuals, music, story, and the amazingly-CGI-realized New York City of 1922.  

I found the film very enjoyable and surprising, even with its obvious flaws. The already-legendary party scenes are wild and ravishing (though I still prefer Copolla’s 1974 lavish, vaster and historically-saner parties, music and dancing), the Valley of Ashes is wonderfully realized (though a bit over-crowded methinks), but it is the romance at the core of the Great American Novel that Luhrmann captures so well and makes this film worth viewing. This second part of the novel and film --- focused on this romance --- is carefully and magically crafted by Luhrmann, but it is the outstanding performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and English actor Carey Mulligan which mesmerize us. 

How good are these? Well they are so much more spell-binding than Redford and Farrow. I like Redford, but (like many others) personally, I dread Farrow’s performance in the 1974 version every time I show scenes from it when teaching the novel.  She just doesn't present quite the right look or feel for that role. In the present version, Mulligan is lovely, and she catches the sense of vulnerability so well necessary for the character. That's fine, but DiCaprio is the one who is close to brilliant. What a nuanced, multi-level engaging persona he brings to the legendary love-struck bootlegger of the Jazz Age, Jay (Gatz) Gatsby. 

I was wondering for months if DiCaprio would be able to summon forth that warm smile of Gatsby’s, and indeed he does, while also bringing an intensity that builds in a sort of angsted momentum right up to the penultimate violent argument with Tom Buchanan at the Ritz in New York City, which Denby believes is “the dramatic highlight of [Luhrmann’s] career.” 

I saw the film in Sherman Oaks with my wife, Lori, my best friend and colleague, Mark Hoffer, and my two teenage kids, and while we had some disagreement about the first half of the film (Lori and I generally liked the first half, while the rest of them gave that part a thumbs down), we agreed the second half is worth watching and brings out some of the best aspects of the novel nicely. 

Maybe that’s all we can hope for with film adaptations of our favorite works: does the film capture “the spirit” of the text (in the language of critic Louis Giannetti), and does it at least offer a selection of moments when you go: “Yeah, that’s it! Well done!” I don’t think there’s any doubt that Luhrmann’s version achieves both elements. 

Throughout the film Luhrmann offers us glimpses of that green light on Daisy’s dock, there swirling in some sort of mythic mist: forever beckoning to Gatsby, and to all of us, with its legendary  resonance as a metaphor for the riches and success waiting for those who quest for the quintessential vision of the American dream. Like that strangely mist-hidden green beacon we can perceive clearly on occasion throughout the film, there are a number of times we can ascertain through the unique fog of Luhrmann’s vision, the true essence and beauty of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. And for me, that’s enough.

Charles Hood: Thanks. I think Covell has got this exactly right. Being more impatient than Scott Covell, I saw the movie on Friday night at a sold-out showing in Westwood. My companions were lit major wife Abbey and the famous painter (and super great film buff) Don Bachardy. Bachardy's late partner was the novelist Christopher Ishwerood, through whom Bachardy knew well W.H. Auden and Tennessee Williams and other mid-20th century heavyweight writers. That is to say, Bachardy knew the people who knew Fitzgerald and company, and so his opinion counts double with me. (Once, when I asked Don if he had seen the big Kubrick show at LACMA, he said modestly, "Well, no, but when the Kubricks were in L.A. still, Chris and I saw a lot of them.")

And my group's vote? We agree with Covell, in that all of us defy the astoundingly long parade of critics who want to trash the Luhrmann version. It may not be a great movie or even at times a good one, but it's always trying to do interesting things and it has some absolutely amazing set-piece scenes. When Gatsby is on the second floor balcony of his two-tier bedroom (the bed lined up to face Daisy's house, across the water), he throws down a rainbow of silk shirts onto the bed. I hate to say that images do things that words can't, but this is a perfect instance of a moment having to be seen, not read about. The way they fall like burnt up angels or physical dreams, the lurid, lush, amazing Technicolor rush of it all, just has to be seen to be believed. (Sorry, I hate cliches, but in this case, it's really true.)

And the thing about any movie we dislike of a book we love (which for me, includes many of the early installments of the Harry Potter franchise), if you don't like the film version out now, just wait ten years. There will always be a remake down the line.

Until then, if you're ambivalent about whether to see it at all or not, the answer is yes, ignore the bad reviews on "Rotten Tomatoes." Just go. And if picking between regular format or 3D, go for 3D. If we're going to put frosting and sprinkles on top of our cotton candy, we may as well go all the way. As Vanity Fair said (in advance of the official release), "If Luhrmann has caught a whiff of the self-delusion in Gatsby's belief in 'the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us,' his excessive vision will have done Fitzgerald proud." And indeed it has, indeed it has.


The AVC Blog is curated by Language Arts teacher Charles Hood and does not represent the views of the District, the Board of Trustees, or the Fitzgerald estate. Hood can be reached at, and Covell at


  1. The movie was a bit over the top, and the music was not period. Nobody did the movie better than Redford...followed the book to the T and the music was period and sensational. A forever classy Classic.

    1. ps: the one thing I have observed is that apparently nobody making these videos has really read the innovative. Daisy's hair is presumed to be Black.
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  2. ps: the one thing I have noticed is that apparently nobody making these movies has actually read the novel. Daisy's hair is supposed to be Black.

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