Of all that’s been written about the latest film adaptation of one of the most iconic works in American literature, this much is true: it is inherently faithful to the spirit of the novel — or, as the headline for critic David Edelstein’s review in New York magazine put it, “The Colossal Vitality of His Illusion.” And that’s no small thing.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is all about illusion, and though I approached director Baz Luhrmann‘s depiction of the piece I most cherish in American fiction with trepidation, it is that very faithfulness that won me over. At its heart, the film very much captures those elements so integral to the novel’s lasting hold on generations, and which keeps this sometimes over-the-top interpretation by the maker of Moulin Rouge! from being a sort of hip-hop Gatsby Bergère. (Movie trailer to the contrary.)
Gatsby’s “green light” at the end of the pier has never become a hackneyed concept to me. The poignancy of this enigmatic character, who so doggedly places all his hopes and dreams in someone intrinsically unworthy of the purity of his inspiration, has always had tremendous resonance. Far beyond its significance as a paragonic parable of American culture in the 1920s, and its timeless truths about the callousness of the rich, Gatsby is at its core about one man’s mythical invention, which, though folly, reflects a touching dignity that stands as a testament to the tenacity of the soul.
The beauty of Fitzgerald’s writing carries a luminescence that hovers over any reading (and I think I’ve read it at least half a dozen times). In an article that appeared in the same issue of New York as the Edelstein movie review, writer Kathryn Schulz debunks the novel from a literary perspective with particular relish, yet nevertheless describes Gatsby as “a single crystal, scrupulously polished.”
She also alludes to an interesting aspect that struck me as I watched the film, which has to do with the pronounced lack of romantic chemistry between the actors at the center of the story — Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan in this case, for those who’ve been hiding in a cave — and which I intellectualized as being perhaps not an important thing, because in the end, the character of Daisy Buchanan is no more than a blank canvas upon which Gatsby alone sketches his solitary and imperturbable imprint.
As it turns out, Schulz writes that Fitzgerald himself had once admitted that he “gave no account (and had no feeling about or knowledge of) the emotional relations between Gatsby and Daisy.” It really was all about the green light, bigger in mind and memory than any of the more pedestrian aspects of love and desire.
Call me idealistic (or sentimental), but I’m always moved by those lines at the conclusion of the book about how “tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther,” before it ends with what I think is the most perfect closing in American literature. (Something about boats and currents…)
Gatsby believed in that green light. And he wasn’t the only one.