Okay, I’m a movie fanatic, I admit it. I own ’em, I watch ’em multiple times. Odd for a writer to be so fascinated with the silver screen, you say? Not really, I think. The novel – and the short story – have evolved over the years, and while story’s the thing (most of the time), and while characterizations are the all-important glue to both long and short fiction, literature and cinema have been drawing ever closer. But to Gatsby.
Perhaps even more so I’m fascinated with the era of F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s great novel of social disparity, money, greed, fame, and decadence-built-on-false-morality received a cool reception by reviewers when the book came out; it bared the myths and exposed the seamy side of position, fame, and wealth. Not a welcome literary approach in the free-wheeling pre-Great Depression U.S. of A. But that didn’t keep it from being re-made for the moviehouse.
The first version was a silent film made in 1926, and based more on a stage adaptation than on the novel. The movie guys tried again in 1949 (post-World War II – happy days are here again…get it?) a black-and-white version with Alan Ladd Betty Field, and Macdonald Carey in the lead roles. But perhaps the most revered version was the 1974 issue with Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, and Sam Waterston, which gave us glam and suavity over reality. Each of these versions missed (or scrupulously avoided) Fitzgerald’s main point altogether, preferring to give the affluence-worshipping U.S. public glamour with only a whisper of the aforementioned seedy underbelly. It’s only with the 2013 version (Jay-Z as executive producer) that the book gets an honest cinematic rendition.
Here, we see how the rich (literally -yes, I mean literally) run roughshod over the poor, how money corrupts in an almost innocent progression, how the poor always seem to bear the burdens and the crimes of the rich on their own backs. The subtler message in this 2013 version (as we try to slug our way out of a second Great Depression) isn’t in the corruptive influence of wealth; rather that realty, position, and fame really solve little, that these seeming panaceas are burdens in themselves.
If you see this version of Gatsby, you may not like it, in the same way that Fitzgerald’s reviewers didn’t like the book initially. If so, watch it again. And again. You’ll eventually get its uncomfortable but essential message.
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