Beware of spoilers for the book The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald and the movie by the same name, directed by Baz Luhrmann (2013).
The Great Gatsby always failed to resonate with my personal experiences, and for a long time I was confused as to why I hadn’t liked such a literary classic. Perhaps it was my anger at Fitzgerald’s superior tone, criticizing a generation of people he obviously despised. Maybe it was the slow pace of the story, that didn’t exactly match the descriptions of the over-the-top parties. It was, I thought, a non-story.
To F. Scott Fitzgerald, the roaring 1920s was a time of shallow morals and material goals. The lavish amount of money generated in Wall Street had corrupted the young trying to succeed in life, seeking the materialistic instead of the intellectual. This is seen right away through Nick Carraway, whose true ambition was to write a novel, but instead decides to spend the summer working in Wall Street and studying the stock market in hopes to gain a fortune.
30- and 20-somethings like Nick, never short of potential, were concentrating on being rich, having a life of luxurious and expensive parties, nights at the Plaza and unlimited booze to get extraordinarily drunk. To Fitzgerald, these morally empty ambitious young adults failed to contribute to society because they were focused on themselves and the irresistible promise of big money.
Daisy’s cold choice of social status over the true love Gatsby offered her results in his suicide. To Fitzgerald this is the obvious ending. Individualism, he seems to imply, will either end in irreparable depression over what wasn’t achieved, or a heart full of cruelty like Daisy and Tom Buchanan’s.
But in Baz Lurhmann’s version of the story, the superficial aspect of the 1920s takes a backseat, giving emphasis to the struggling of young adults to reach their objectives. The green light becomes a symbol of the unattainable love Gatsby craves for, it is the ultimate prize that will make him fulfilled for the rest of his life. Though his means of achieving it are by illegally becoming fantastically rich and fancying himself a gentleman, his final stop is in Daisy’s arms. Gatsby does everything for Daisy, to please her and his ambition, without seeing through his intentions of love that Daisy’s thinks of nothing more than the pure need for material things.
Lurhmann’s film is not an adaptation, but an interpretation. The ending is not recognizable to those who have read the book, and Lurhmann’s change gives another meaning to the story. Instead of the ending that seemed obvious to Fitzgerald, Lurhmann orchestrates a plot that ends with the husband of Tom Buchanan’s mistress blaming Gatsby for his wife’s death and shooting Gatsby in the heart then shooting himself in the head. The change from suicidal manic depressive to murder victim results in a completely different take away. When Gatsby kills himself, the conclusion Fitzgerald gives us is that individualism tortures the soul resulting in self-deprecation and death. But in Lurhmann’s version, Gatsby is robbed of a possible future where he could live happily ever after with Daisy or attempt to do so without her.
He becomes the young victim of life’s adversities, not a denied ambitious individualist who lost control.
The cruelty of Daisy and Tom and their insensitive attitude towards Gatsby’s death are the central story to criticize the trifling youth of America. But the green light, ever present as Gatsby’s main goal and significant life-long dream, becomes a symbol of the unattainable for the young, who each day seek their dream – be it a shallow one or one that contributes to society. After Gatsby’s death, Nick reflects on the green light, concluding that it is a metaphor for the human pursuit of happiness, their hope that tomorrow will finally bring them success, and the need to run faster to attain their idyllic life.
Gatsby’s death in the pool, in front of the green light, is no coincidence. He was shot within seconds of the attainability of his dream.
As for the book, in the midst of a non-story, with a lack of true entertainment, Fitzgerald only makes the point of youth’s fondness for the palpable. This, however, is nothing new to this decade at least, and the ones before. The fact stands that adults are always critical of younger people’s idea of the world because of their calow attitudes. But by definition, we are callow, inexperienced and don’t know any better. Though Fitzgerald makes a good point, it is somehow an inconsequential point to make today, though when the book was published it might have been considered an original observation.
“The problem is that when the movie is entertaining it’s not ‘Gatsby’, and when it’s ‘Gatsby’ it’s not entertaining,” writes Christopher Orr from The Atlantic, hitting the nail on the head with only a few words. The tedious dragging of the book has no place in today’s entertainment business, so a change in plot was completely inevitable.
But what the older audience won’t see or understand that resonates with the 20-somethings is the life struggle to succeed. The pressure, the need to succeed and the growing pains of having to run faster and faster to reach happiness are strong themes in the movie. It resonates with the feeling of unattainability and the need for immediate gratification of young people. DiCaprio captures the desperation of Gatsby’s failure and his need to have Daisy immediately. This pain just makes sense in this age of instant responses and expected results of the digital era. With his last breath, Gatsby validates the thought that life can take away your every effort to succeed in the blink of an eye.
“The green light across the water,” explains Gatsby to cold-hearted Daisy. “If it wasn’t for the mist we would be able to see it.”
If only for the obstacles obscuring our path to happiness, we would see our dreams as almost reachable. If only a bullet hadn’t prevented Gatsby’s reaching for the green light.
Photos courtesy of The Great Gatsby.