Screening Gatsby


A film adaptation of a famous American novel is bound to provoke some backlash. Kathryn Schulz offers a contrarian view of the novel.

Indeed, The Great Gatsby is less involved with human emotion than any book of comparable fame I can think of. None of its characters are likable. None of them are even dislikable, though nearly all of them are despicable. They function here only as types, walking through the pages of the book like kids in a school play who wear sashes telling the audience what they represent: OLD MONEY, THE AMERICAN DREAM, ORGANIZED CRIME. It is possible, of course, to deny your readers access to the inner lives of your characters and still write a psychologically potent book: I give you Blood Meridian. But to do that, you yourself must understand your characters and conceive of them as human.


Schulz offers the old no-likable-characters critique. I don't know about you, but I never find these arguments very persuasive, nor do I ever remember putting down a novel because I couldn't relate to the characters. 

David Denby likes the book, but not the movie, yet I think he understands the novel better than Schulz, who can't seem to allow herself to.

[Director Baz] Luhrmann whips Fitzgerald’s sordid debauch into a saturnalia—garish and violent, with tangled blasts of music, not all of it redolent of the Jazz Age.  [ . . .] The picture is filled with an indiscriminate swirling motion, a thrashing impress of “style” (Art Deco turned to digitized glitz), thrown at us with whooshing camera sweeps and surges and rapid changes of perspective exaggerated by 3-D. [ . . . ] Gatsby’s excess—his house, his clothes, his celebrity guests—is designed to win over his beloved Daisy. Luhrmann’s vulgarity is designed to win over the young audience, and it suggests that he’s less a filmmaker than a music-video director with endless resources and a stunning absence of taste.

Schulz is troubled by the surfaces of Fitzgerald's novel, while Denby is troubled by the surfaces of Luhrmann's film adaptation. The story Jay Gatsby is a story about surfaces–not so much the surfaces people present to others, but the surfaces upon which people project their own desires. 

Gatsby's West Egg life is essentially a movie he's created for Daisy, who, in turn, is a surface upon which Gatsby has projected his own desires. Unfortunately for him, Daisy is also a screen upon which her husband projects his desires. Her sole act of volition is to choose her husband's projections over her lover's, in the process killing her husband's lover as if she were a spectre in a movie.

Perhaps Luhrmann’s vulgarity is somehow appropriate to the material, which is inherently cinematic. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I doubt it will look that way. Luhrmann is Nick, the point of view through which we watch the movie Gatsby has created for Daisy. This may be why Luhrmann transitions so awkwardly from Nick's narrative voice to the action of the story. Some ethical mooring is lost when Nick's point of view is lost. 

As Schulz notes, Fitzgerald knew Daisy was poorly drawn and her relationship with Gatsby was opaque. However, he didn't do anything about it despite his designs on a popular reading public. Her complaint about the coldness of the characters is not only poor literary criticism. It also misses the point of the novel, which is all about the dangers of projection, not its pleasures.

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