I love The Great Gatsby. It took several readings for me to appreciate its strange genius but now I’m hooked. It’s so rich and weird one can read it again and again and find a different perspective on the characters or an exquisitely beautiful passage. But it’s not a book that would seem to transfer well to film. But then again, nobody factored in Baz Luhrmann, who seemed a great choice to make an adaptation of Fitzgerald’s masterwork because you knew that’s what he would do—an adaptation—some heady filmic rendering of the novel, rather than an attempt to re-create the novel on screen. So how did Baz do? GLG’s Sarahs gathered their word-nerdery, film hats, and finest furs to find out.
Sarah S: I thought the movie was pretty interesting on both class and gender, albeit perhaps subtly enough that the average viewer might miss it. I also found any notion that it idealized that world sans critique completely stupid. I have more detailed thoughts but I’ll add them based on what you think. What say you, Sarah T?
Sarah T: Yes I agree with you on both counts! On the gender front: People tend to hate Daisy because they think she’s just a blonde, glamorous, blank projection of men’s dreams. And she is a projection, but not just a projection. The problem isn’t that she has no personality, it’s that nobody sees Daisy–not Gatsby, not Tom, not even Nick, who prides himself on being observant. They’re all too busy being dazzled by that voice that sounds like money. (Good voice choice by Mulligan, by the way—low, musical, lilting, balmy as a summer day in Louisville.)
But as both Fitzgerald and this movie make clear, Daisy’s actually pretty complex. For one thing, she’s got this sly wit that she gets no credit for at all. (“Tom is getting very profound,” she says dryly after Tom goes on a ridiculous, racist rant. “He reads deep books with long words in them.”) And I loved that scene in the sweltering hotel room where we see how Daisy’s being ripped apart by two men who are each trying to control her, though Tom far more brutishly than Gatsby. I also like the image of the three-strand pearl necklaces that Tom gives to both Daisy and, later, to Myrtle–a handy symbol of the wealth and power that he uses to lure and trap women. That’s why Daisy tears them off when she tries to break off their engagement. Though it turns out that Gatsby is just as determined to use money to get to the girl of his dreams, too.
I also loved Jordan in this movie–so skeptical and breezy but with a new undercurrent of kindness that the book doesn’t give her. She came across as loyal to Daisy, compassionate toward Gatsby. And it’s clear how frustrated she is by Nick’s passivity, which is his greatest flaw, so good lookin’ out, Jordan.
Sarah S: There were a couple lovely scenes with Daisy when she realizes that Gatsby sees her as something to possess, a status symbol, just as Tom does. Gatsby might be nicer but that doesn’t change the essential fact. We see this when Daisy asks to go away and Gatsby insists they live out this public display of a fairytale. And then, as you mention, the room in the hotel when Daisy is literally repeating Gatsby’s words at his command (until she stops). (This scene is performed almost exactly as written in the novel.) The audience has this impression confirmed, too, when Gatsby watches Daisy prancing up his grand staircase and comments to Nick how glamorous she makes his house look. It’s almost as if she’s The Dude’s rug in that she “really ties the room together.” I found this a perfectly plausible way to represent Daisy based on the book and a nice way to push past Nick’s dismissal of her as vain and shallow. We still don’t have much access to Daisy but this twist, combined with Mulligan’s performance, gives us tantalizing glimpses, as if glimpsed through billowing curtains.
As to class, I felt that Luhrmann did an excellent job showing the crassness of Gatsby’s display of wealth, a poor boy’s excessive fantasy of how the wealthy live. When Tom taunts him that he’ll never belong, it’s true, and we know it’s true. When Nick tells Gatsby that “they’re a rotten crowd,” he’s right and, again, Gatsby will never belong with them. Depending on how you think about it, it’s a rather pathetic consolation prize, their rottenness. I also thought the film nailed the “valley of ashes” and the desperate, awful lives of Myrtle and George. No wonder Myrtle embraces an exciting affair with a rich brute (rich being the only part she’s not used to); no wonder George wants to sell that coupé and head west.
One other small thing that struck me was how often intimate conversations went on with servants still in the room–and how uncomfortable this made me, the grossness of ignoring the other humans in the room. In Downton Abbey and the like the family don’t have serious conversations in front of “the help.” So this detail seemed like a really subtle way to drive home the class distinction.