Gatsby: A Cautionary Tale...

Updated: Feb 26, 2020

The Great Gatsby is one of those novels that always elicits a response. No matter who comprises the group you are speaking to, or the walk of life each of them come from, it seems that everyone I have ever encountered has something to say about the Fitzgerald classic. It’s a story that brings about an opinion, that evokes a particular sentiment amongst its readers, and whether the novel is your cup of tea or not, great art evokes emotion.

Part of what leads Gatsby to evoke emotion is its enigmatic nature. The novel’s characters and meanings can be endlessly analyzed and debated, leaving each reader with a different take on Fitzgerald’s magnum opus.

Last week, I was feeling a bit under the weather, so my husband and I decided to stay in and watch a movie. Seeing as we have entered a new Roaring 20’s, I have been shamelessly re-reading every Fitzgerald novel I can get my hands on. Naturally, reading his novels only left me wanting to taste more of that Zelda Fitzgerald decadence, so I decided to finally give the 2013 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby a shot.

Last week, Maite wrote an intriguing article about Hawkman, and while I enjoyed her in-depth analysis of Hawkman #20, I was left most captivated by The Visuals segment of this particular article. Graphic novels and comic books are a unique stream of art because they marry several forms, the written word and the visual depiction. Bringing these forms together add a layer of depth to the story being told.

In Hawkman #20, Maite discusses the “sensational pencils” and a “verdant color palette that livens the setting of the story and transitions it from space to Earth”. What I really love about this review is her focus on the deliberate nature of the artists behind the comic, and how intent they were on conveying the emotions of the story. This is what I was looking for in the Gatsby film, but unfortunately, I feel that it missed the mark.

Personally speaking, the film felt forced. It felt like the creators were following a formula rather than crafting genuinely inspired moments. I felt that Carey Mulligan looked the part, and I loved her eye contact when she first hears Gatsby’s name. From there on out; however, her performance fell flat. I felt that the Leonardo DiCaprio casting was inspired by his performance as Jack Dawson in Titanic, which was spectacular. Jay Gatsby’s humble beginnings echo of a Jack Dawson who survived the infamous sinking and grew up remaining the eternal dreamer that he was in his youth, so I can understand the reason behind this casting, but again, I feel his performance fell short.

When I was in my Master’s program at Wake, I remember one of my favorite professors, Dr. Moss, explaining to us how difficult it is to adapt novels written by the Lost Generation into films. The Lost Generation were the children who came of age during World War I. Many of them served in the war, like Ernest Hemingway, but all of them were directly or peripherally affected by it. There was a sense of aimlessness and confusion after the war, leading to Gertrude Stein’s coining of the term "lost" to describe the generation. This confusion; however, led to a prolific generation of American writers, including Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. As a result, their novels came with a sense of bewilderment against the backdrop of grandeur.

What makes the novels of the Lost Generation so difficult to adapt and depict in live-action versions is their complexity. So much is portrayed in the writing. Moments are felt in the words, and for it to be reenacted is almost completely going against its genuinely inspired nature. It requires less of a rehearsed feel and more of an “inspired-in-the-moment”, almost Meisner-esque approach. Similar to the complexity of colors and penciling in Hawkman #20, there is a depth in Fitzgerald’s language, a soul to his words, that wholeheartedly impedes a formulaic approach to filming.

This is not to say that it can’t be done. I would love to see an independent film company produce Gatsby, because often times, indie films bring a fascinating grittiness to a story. I think a cast of lesser-known names or newer actors would be refreshing. Often times, with these bigger names, I have become so well-acquainted with their style that it precludes me from suspending my disbelief. Sometimes the most magic comes from a lesser-known actor who is hungry to prove himself. Case in point: True Romance, a film that would now be considered to be comprised of a star-studded cast, but at the time, many of them were unknowns.

It wasn’t just the acting that left me wanting more. I was also disappointed with the aesthetic of it all. Naturally, Gatsby’s story is one of opulence and dripping decadence, but it’s also a cautionary tale of living too large, of never being satisfied, of being stuck in the past. This is a story written by a man who was part of a generation that felt lost and hopeless, and suddenly came into great fortune and lavish living. This self-indulgence should be offset by the moody blues, by the crash and burn that defined the end of the roaring decade.

Zelda Fitzgerald, F. Scott’s wife, is considered to be the original flapper. She was his greatest inspiration, and the two of them became fixtures in the New York 1920’s literati, yet he maintained a sense of hopelessness and futility throughout his novels. When we first meet Daisy, we learn that although she is married to Tom, a wealthy, reckless, womanizing, former athlete (who reminds me quite a bit of Stan from A Streetcar Named Desire, previously discussed here in the Wardrobe), she appears to still have feelings for Jay Gatsby. When the two of them are reunited, they get swept up in a short affair, leading Gatsby to take the fall for Daisy when she is involved in a hit-and-run that ends up killing Myrtle, Tom’s mistress.

In the end, Myrtle’s husband acts out in vengeance, killing Gatsby, as Tom has made him believe that it was Jay, not Daisy, who killed his wife. Our naive narrator, Nick Carraway, is appalled and disgusted by Daisy’s subsequent actions. It’s no surprise that Tom refuses to show up at Gatsby’s funeral, but Daisy was supposedly in love with Jay. Gatsby essentially died in place of Daisy, and rather than go and pay her respects, she simply leaves town with Tom and their daughter.

Here in the Wardrobe, we have made it our mission to show just how powerful art can be. We try to show the lessons that are woven into complex stories and the inspirations behind profound visuals. Whether Gatsby’s story echoes as a metaphor for New York City and all its splendor; the feeling of always needing to be going somewhere or to be doing something, or whether it is a tale of passion consuming your ability to reason, I believe its most important lesson is that of letting go of the past when it is unhealthy to hold onto.

Gatsby is a man who could never move on. He could never understand that Daisy was someone in his life for a period of time, but she was never meant to be in it forever. She was someone else’s now, and his obsession with building his life to win her back prevented him from actually enjoying all that he had attained. It prevented him from living his life, from moving on, from finding love again.

The more you grow, the smaller your inner circle becomes. Your trust becomes more difficult to attain, your standards for friendships become much higher. Jay Gatsby essentially gave his life for someone who wouldn’t even attend his funeral, a woman who never gave him a second thought. In the end, he was used by everyone, but the only person who mattered to him was the one who used him the most. His story serves a cautionary tale.

There are people who make a positive impact on your life and there are those who bring nothing but negativity. There are people who are meant to be in your life forever, and there are those who are only meant to be in it for a moment in time. Sometimes, we try and take complete control of the wheel, forcing people to stay in our lives even when they’re not good for us. This could be a romantic interest, a long-time friend, a co-worker, or even a toxic family member. Try as we may, God’s plans are better than ours, and if someone is not meant to be in our lives, we need to take the signs, pick up the red flags, and peacefully put that negative relationship behind us. So often, those negative relationships impede positive ones from propelling us forward.