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GATSBY IS GREAT, RELATIVELY SPEAKING

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The Great Gatsby (2013 film)

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(Note, Spoiler Alert. But you should read the book first anyway.)

Comparing old and new versions of movies to each other, and of course to the original book, is always instructive. The new Great Gatsby with Leonard DiCaprio is stunningly beautiful. If it reminds you of Moulin Rouge, that’s because both were directed by Baz Luhrmann, and both are over-the-top frantic razzle-dazzle spectaculars, almost cartoon-like.

The earlier versions of The Great Gatsby, with Robert Redford (1974) and Alan Ladd (1949) were more recognizably human, though the new version has its moments, and Carey Mulligan as the vacuous Daisy is more appealing and memorable than the perfectly chilly Mia Farrow and whoever played Daisy in 1949. Alan Ladd is perhaps the best Gatsby so far, but DiCaprio does a good job here. Wilson, played by Jason Clarke, looks eerily like Paul Newman. Director Luhrmann used Fitzgerald's own words in voice-overs, which anchor the movie.

It’s the changes in substance that scriptwriters and directors make that are noteworthy.

One minor change is the omission of a funny scene at a Gatsby party, where Nick Carraway encounters a man in the library looking through the books, who says excitedly,

"It's a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella's a regular Belasco. It's a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too — didn't cut the pages."

The modern audience wouldn't get it. In the past books were often sold with the signatures (groups of pages) bound just as they were printed and folded, but without the folds of the pages being cut open. A buyer would cut the pages himself. Gatsby had furnished his library with a collection of new books but the "realism" consisted of his not cutting the pages, because he bought them to display his wealth and was not pretending to be a reader.

A more significant change in the 2013 movie is that the narrator, Nick Carraway, tells his story from a sanitarium, suffering from acute alcoholism, and he is encouraged to write for therapy. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald was an alcoholic, but Carraway was not. It doesn't make it more interesting and wastes time in this 2:23 long movie. Why change the focus?

One clue is in the omission of an important line from the beginning of the book. Carraway says his father taught him not to judge other people too quickly, but after the harrowing melodrama with the Buchanans, he judges. In the book, on the first page it is clear that he is making moral judgments, not emotional ones, because his father told him to remember that “a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth,” and fundamental decency is the basis of judgment.

At the end of the book, Carraway returns home to the Midwest, he does not go to a sanitarium. At the end of this new movie, he is a sodden wreck, though eternally boyish as played by Tobey Maguire. In the book, he was a man newly confirmed in his sense of the fundamental decencies.

“And, after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it has a limit. Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes, but after a certain point I don't care what it's founded on. When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.”

Of course, since Gatsby is a crook, his sense of decency isn't quite quite, but by comparison to Daisy Buchanan and her husband, he’s a saint.

Recently an earlier version (1960) of Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley aired on TV, a subtitled French version with Alain Delon called Purple Noon. Matt Damon starred in the 1999 version, which has the same title as the book. Differences of opinion about the quality of the films may depend on to what extent reviewers automatically assume everything European is superior to everything American, including chocolate. However, Highsmith “herself criticized the ending [of the 1960 movie] in which Ripley is implied to be caught by the police: ‘[I]t was a terrible concession to so-called public morality that the criminal had to be caught.’”

Note the “so-called” public morality. Does that mean the public has no actual morality? Or that Highsmith recognizes none?

In any case what Highsmith and director Luhrmann seem to have in common is their modern view of morality. In Highsmith’s case, disdain. In Lurhmann’s case, maybe he just doesn’t notice it much because of all the glitter.

Lurhmann’s subtle change of emphasis is typical of newer versions of movies. More emotion, less principle, less judgment as the decades pass. Ironically that's what Gatsby is about, but in a way Luhrmann's movie doesn't just show that by telling the story, it demonstrates it unconsciously by its changes and omissions.

Purple Noon is an example of a reversal of the no-judging rule. Highsmith was ahead of her time. In her books her protagonist Ripley always gets away with it, not just legally but perhaps in her mind morally. No judgment, even if the modern anti-hero is not merely a moody James Dean look-alike but a murderous psychopath. Luhrmann is Highsmith lite.

Gatsby isn’t as bad as Tom Ripley, but he’s the post-modern hero, a self-made romantic whose dreams take the forms of money and beauty and power, and whose fundamental decency extends at least as far as the woman he loves. But he's deluded by the allure of style over substance. He just doesn't know what the green light is.

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