If you see me breaking into swing kicks during my neighborhood walks, it’s because I’m listening to the Great Gatsby soundtrack. I admit it—I’m in love with all things Gatsby right now.
This affair started around 15 years ago though I can’t remember exactly when I first read the book or when I read it a second time. In fact, I recently had to admit to myself that I couldn’t remember much about it at all minus some passages I liked and a general story line. So, when I walked over to my glorious bookcases, with the intention of plucking it out for a quick re-read before seeing the new Baz Luhrmann film, I stared at my Fs in disbelief. (Yes, most of my fiction is alphabetized, one of the very few areas of true organization in my life.) In fact, I found nothing from F. Scott Fitzgerald there except a collection of short stories. I walked away disturbed and confused, wondering what had happened to my book in which some favorite passages were underlined.
Amazon Prime comes fast but not as quickly as my opportunity to finally go see the new film ended up presenting itself. With two pre-schoolers, it is rare that “no kids” coincides with a specific movie’s schedule, so these opportunities must be seized quickly. Thus, my re-reading was, gasp, going to have to wait until after the film. I cringed at this literary faux pas.
As it turned out, for me, the movie was true bliss. I literally was smiling through most of the film (non-3D version). I loved the cinematic effects – the long white flowing curtains, the huge champagne bottles, the indulgence, the soundtrack, the dancing, the beautiful convertibles packed with revelers dancing and drinking. And because I felt no true sympathy for most of the characters, the depressing aspects weren’t too hard to take. Nick and Gatsby, of course, are likeable, but as my non-literary husband aptly summed up Gatsby’s expectations to reclaim Daisy and to relive his past: “Well, Life’s a bitch.”
So, after falling in love with the movie, I immediately picked up my new book (which was in the meantime delivered). Perhaps I should be embarrassed to say this, and I didn’t mean it to happen this way, but the movie actually enhanced my most recent reading. In fact, I found myself happily remembering some of the movie scenes exactly as I felt the prose was describing them. My only downfall was that, like Gatsby trying to re-create the past, I spent much of my re-reading of the book waiting for the favorite passage I remembered, something about a definition of personage vs. persona. As the pages wound down, I realized it was likely not there. My memory had failed me. (A quick google search has since confirmed this passage is likely in his This Side of Paradise.)
So where did this movie and subsequent re-reading leave my relationship with the novel? I have to admit it has turned into a threesome; my relationship with the book now exists alongside the movie. Is that a bad thing? I personally don’t think so though many people including movie critics seem to disagree. But, somehow, for me, this film has strengthened my relationship with the novel. Should the movie be a replacement for a novel? Of course not. I think it is always important to create one’s own interpretation before seeing someone else’s. However, I am happy to admit and give props when someone else’s interpretation is much more grand, beautiful, and interesting than my own.
What I remembered about the novel mostly, anyway, was the language. My new favorite passage (after discovering my existing one was from another book) is the acknowledgement and description of Gatsby’s smile.
“It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four of five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”
To me, this sums up why he remains a likeable character, despite everything else. He sees me as my best self. And so I see the best in him. If I remember correctly, Baz has set the moment in which we first see Gatsby’s face (as this passage about the smile is quoted completely) with fireworks.
Any work of art that introduces such reflection to a wider audience is a good thing, but when it is done with such beauty and majestic impression, it is a true gift. So, thank you, Baz Luhrmann.
Fitzgerald, Frances Scott Lanahan. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 2004.