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Keith Gandal on Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby

By Keith Gandal

The New Yorker’s predictably elitist and conservative review of Baz Lurhmann’s new movie has David Denby concluding with the following:

Will young audiences go for this movie, with its few good scenes and its discordant messiness? Luhrmann may have miscalculated. The millions of kids who have read the book may not be eager for a flimsy phantasmagoria. They may even think, like many of their elders, that “The Great Gatsby” should be left in peace. The book is too intricate, too subtle, too tender for the movies. Fitzgerald’s illusions were not very different from Gatsby’s, but his illusionless book resists destruction even from the most aggressive and powerful despoilers.

Two things should be said immediately.

(1)      Lurhmann has not miscalculated: the box office outstripped opening-weekend expectations by 25% and as of 22 March 2013 had grossed almost $100 million domestically. The “kids” apparently do not agree with “many of their elders”—surprise!—who think “that ‘The Great Gatsby’ should be left in peace.”

(2)      The Great Gatsby has hardly been left in peace. There have been several movie adaptations. It is one of the most critically-evaluated American books in existence. It might even be said that the “most aggressive and powerful despoilers” are the very critics and teachers who have upheld standard interpretations of the novel laid down in the immediate post-World-War II era (which is to say, at a particularly conservative moment, by literary experts with little interest in a historical understanding of literature), and who don’t like to see the book “re-interpreted” by outsiders, such as filmmakers.

In fact, the kids’ excitement about the Lurhmann movie might have something to do with the way the novel has been “laid to rest” and “eulogized” by the critics. I know something about the kids’ attitudes because I teach some of them at City College in New York. What they remember from their Gatsby classes in high school may not be a “flimsy phantasmagoria,” but it is nonetheless flimsy. They recall something about “the symbolic green light,” “the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg that overlook the symbolic valley of ashes,” “new money vs. old money,” and “the disappearing American dream.”  They have a very flimsy sense of Gatsby’s historical moment; most don’t even remember that he was a soldier in World War I.

When they begin to learn about the relevant historical context, the novel comes to life for them. They learn that “new money” was often a euphemism for ethnic as well as class inferiority. They learn how a poor German-American farm boy could become an officer in the US Army in a nation that was not only xenophobic but at war with Germany because the World War I army was quietly experimenting in an historically unprecedented manner with meritocracy. Baz Luhrmann isn’t an American Studies scholar, and the movie doesn’t provide a sense of the utopian moment that poor and ethnic-American Gatsby experiences at training camp in Kentucky. Neither does it convey a sense of the culture shock that greeted men like Fitzgerald when they watched ethnic-American men like Gatsby step in front of them and become their superior officers (men whom he would have met in some lowly service or “servant” capacity before the war).

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby. (c) Warner Bros

But Luhrmann’s movie—with Leonardo DiCaprio masterfully giving us a living, breathing, vulnerable Gatsby—begins to give the kids a sense of Gatsby’s drastic longing to belong. This sense is dramatized not only in the fantastic lengths to which Gatsby goes to win over Daisy, but in DiCaprio’s magical ability to project—with just about every look on his face—the pathos of his exclusion from the inner circle of upper class America now that the war is over, the training camps are closed, and American racial and class normalcy returns with a vengeance. Now that, in short, his beloved past cannot be repeated.

What do the kids feel when they see the movie? I talked to one kid in particular, my daughter, who is still a year too young in high school to have read the book. She said that at the beginning, when she saw everything Gatsby had and first met him, she wanted to be Gatsby, but that changed when she realized the real poverty he had come from and the real prejudice he was up against. She was impressed with everything he had achieved.

When the middle- and working-class New York kids—at one of the nation’s most ethnically diverse colleges—first come into my class, Fitzgerald’s novel is pretty abstract for them, and pretty distant. But when they come to understand, as Tom Buchanan indicates with his racist rants, that in the novel’s historical moment an ethnic-American man like Gatsby (born Gatz) would not have been considered “white,” they begin to relate to the book and understand it through their own personal, if historically different, experience. Along these lines, Lurhmann’s casting of the Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan as the Jewish Meyer Wolfsheim has the effect, whether intended or not, of capturing the racism with which Jews were viewed in the 1920s. The audience perceives Bachchan’s Wolfsheim as non-white, while a Jewish actor, even one with a European accent, would no longer in today’s America register as racially other.

Jason Clarke as George Wilson, Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway and Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. (c) Warner Bros

The novel begins to be very meaningful to my students, not by reading in something that isn’t there, but by becoming aware of the forgotten historical context that the self-appointed “guardians” of our “great literature” either aren’t aware of or particularly interested in. It is one thing to say of the novel, as Denby does, “that Gatsby’s exuberant ambitions and his abrupt tragedy have merged with the story of America, in its self-creation and its failures. The strong, delicate, poetically resonant text has become a kind of national scripture, recited happily or mournfully, as the occasion requires.” But that is too euphemize a bit, in my opinion. It is another, and something much more concrete and immediate, to see the smug and ugly racism of Tom — and the more sophisticated racism of Nick Carraway — and to understand why The Great Gatsby was written when it was: after that first shocking if limited and short-lived American debut of meritocracy on a national scale. It was limited because, though it was open to poor and ethnic-American men, blacks were excluded.

Precisely because Fitzgerald’s novel has the status of “a kind of national scripture,” The Great Gatsby should not be left in peace, but open to new interpretations and fuller historical contextualization.

Keith Gandal is the author of the 2010 Oxford paperback, The Gun and the Pen: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and the Fiction of Mobilization. He is currently working on a comic memoir on the subject of researching Fitzgerald and the other Lost Generation writers, titled Moments of Clarity, Years of Delusion: A Scholarly Detective Story.

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All images from The Great Gatsby film copyright Warner Bros. Used for the purposes of illustration.

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