This week we took in The Great Gatsby. I guess the big question is – was it as good as the book?
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)
Greg, I read the book decades ago and couldn’t remember much about it. So I went into Gatsby with fairly fresh eyes.
I actually read the book in anticipation of the movie and I was pleasantly surprised. The movie, like the book, is told in first person narrative from the point of view of Nick Carroway (Tobey Maguire), a newcomer to New York City. He is taking up stock brokerage as a profession after returning from the war. He calls upon his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan) who is married to Tom Buchanon (Joel Edgerton). It is clear from his visit that Tom is having an affair.
It turns out that Carraway lives next door to a wealthy bachelor named Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who hosts a seemingly endless series of incredibly lavish parties to which anyone is invited. Carraway is intrigued by the mysterious Gatsby, about whom rumors have been flying. When Gatsby learns that Carraway is related to Daisy, he asks Carraway to arrange for her to meet Gatsby for tea.
Gatsby and Daisy enter into an affair that is the subject of the rest of the film. For those who’ve read the book, no further recap is necessary. And for those who have not, we won’t spoil it for you.
What separates this version of Gatsby from other attempts at a motion picture rendition of the story is the amazing visual effects. The presentation is so surreal and brilliant that it borders on cartoon. I saw the film in 3D and it was like the characters were cutouts against a diorama backdrop. But as the film became more involved, and the plot more complex, the cartoon-like nature of the film fell away to more subdued colors and harsher tones.
Yes, I noticed that change in tone, too. It was like The Wizard of Oz in reverse, with the universe changing from light, playful, and fluffy to dark and foreboding. The first half of the film delivers delicious style and pizazz. Never has vice been so beautiful. There is eye-popping opulence everywhere you look. Then things get serious in the second half, which is not unexpected given the set-up of the love triangle combined with some liver-busting alcohol consumption.
Gatsby is an interesting hero full of contradictions. He hides in the shadows, but has opulent parties. He is a self-made man, yet is never accepted by the rich and famous. The source of his wealth is hidden. He associates with the seedier side of New York’s nouveau riche. He engages in an adulterous affair, yet we find he is the most faithful of all the characters in the story.
You’re right, he’s a complex man. I’d call him a tragic hero in that he has good intentions and honorably makes a self-sacrifice at the end that he didn’t have to make. He is also man of great (and naive) hopefulness. And as befitting a tragic hero, he has plenty of flaws, not the least of which is his choice of business associations. I wasn’t sure whether to like him or not until the very end, when he performs a noble act of redemption.
The people around Gatsby are supposed to be the cream of high society. They look down on people who do not come from old (legitimate) money, but in the end are emotionally and morally bankrupt. Daisy in particular turns out to be the greatest disappointment. Gatsby both built everything for her and gives up everything for her and she ultimately disowns him.
This is the greatest reward for this version of Gatsby: the visuals draw us into the early part of the story. But it’s the unfolding of Gatsby’s demise that seals the deal. This is a great film drawn from a great American novel. There is little that was left out and the themes and symbolism are left intact.
Greg, I was impressed with the film’s lavish visuals, intriguing characters, and messages about the ability of wealth to corrupt and destroy human souls. Gatsby’s tragically heroic journey doesn’t quite fit Joseph Campbell’s model — we don’t witness crossovers into special worlds, nor are there mentor figures or father figures, unless you count the old man who gave him the phrase “old sport”. The movie glosses over his dealings with the mob, and this omission limits the dimensionality of his character. But Gatsby is nevertheless an effective character because we are fascinated by his self-destructive path, and we also admire his passion for Daisy, however misguided it may be.
I give the movie 4 Reels out of 5 for its outstanding cinematography and far-reaching social commentary. I give Gatsby just 3 Heroes out of 5 because the movie omits crucial details of his dark alter-ego, and his story just seemed to be lacking too many elements of the classic hero journey to earn a higher rating. With those added pieces his character would have enjoyed greater richness and depth.
I’ve read criticisms that say the 3D rendering and visuals detracted from the story. I feel differently. I think writer/director Baz Luhrmann created as lavish a spectacle as Jay Gatsby’s own parties and effectively pulled back on the effects as the story deepened. This is a retelling of the original using the storytelling sensibilities of a modern time.
And still, the impact of the original story is intact. Gatsby, for me, is a truly tragic hero – as tragic as Romeo. While he doesn’t prefectly fit the mythic hero’s journey, this is a welcome diversion from the norm. For a well-told story cast in the leading of modern media, I give The Great Gatsby 4 out of 5 Reels. But unlike you, Scott, I felt Gatsby was a powerful hero, as strong as any in recent memory. He extols the virtue of true love and delivers a message of how a man with passion can build himself into anything he wants to, and how he can lose all of it when he succumbs to the darker side of those passions. I give Gatsby a full 5 out of 5 Heroes.