Friday, November 19, 2010

The Great Gatsby: Is It Filmable?

By Lars Trodson

Turning “The Great Gatsby” into a movie comes down to a central question: how well can you dramatize a single line of prose?

That single line is: "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy - they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."

Gatsby is a great novel without much a plot. It’s a long lament. It’s a memory drifting away in the hot summer sun. But that line is a real thumper -- it knocks everybody out when they first come across it -- and it may be the one line everybody remembers aside of the very last beautiful line of the book.

In the 1974 film version, Sam Waterston plays Nick Carraway, and he delivers it in that halting, sideways style of his that dissolves all the power from it. And if you don’t get that line of the book right you don’t have the movie. Jack Clayton directed that version, and it starred Robert Redford as Jake Gatsby. We know it it all turned out.

“Gatsby” is uniquely American. The only culture in it is the culture of money.  And that American-ness - that Jazz Age vernacular - is awfully difficult to synthesize. Harder still now that there isn’t anybody left that actually spoke it and lived it.

Baz Lurhmann has chosen an English actress, Carey Mulligan, to play Daisy Buchanan. Who could really play that role anyway -- maybe Joan Crawford in the 1920s, when she was sexy and free? Before she became a bit mummified?

I have no doubts about Mulligan as an actress, I guess, but I’ve only seen her in one film. She seems extremely refined. Her beauty is refined. Daisy is beautiful but is it that kind of refined beauty? I don’t think so. Daisy is rich but she’s vulgar.

Leonardo DiCaprio is a fine, fine actor -- but he doesn’t have a lot of mystery about him, and what is Gatsby if not mysterious? Who is he -- what is he? When DiCaprio strays too far outside his acting range his face gets all crimpy and confused, and I don’t see Gatsby ever breaking a sweat.

Well. This new version may be dazzling. But the thing about “Gatsby” is that it was never about the story - it was about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s voice, and if that isn’t front and center of the film - and how can it be? - then what have you got?

Fitzgerald was a guy who caught the vibe of his age, but nothing from the 1920s, almost nothing at all, has lived into the 21st century, including its books, its magazines, its music and its movies. It’s a shockingly irrelevant time, from this vantage point.

I suspect, then, that the urge to make this story again as a film is based more on its myths than its merits. We have these bad film versions (including a Hollywood version from 1946, and a silent adaptation that seems to be lost), and maybe there is some kind of ego-driven desire to undo that, as though old Gatsby hasn’t gotten his due. Maybe DiCaprio feels that Gatsby is also a great role that hasn’t been done well, either. But that doesn’t hold up. Gatsby doesn’t leave his house. He broods. He’s a void. What do you do with that? You have to shift the power center of the book away from Nick to Gatsby to make it a starring role, and I doubt that will work.

For me, when I want to get a feel for the 1920s, I take out my old New Yorker cartoon anthology and look at the drawings made during that decade. They’re decadent, drunken vampires that saunter through those pages. Everybody’s drenched in jewels and regret.  That’s what Gatsby feels like to me.

The 1920s were so wasteful and exhausting it didn’t even have enough stamina to finish on time. On Oct. 24, 1929 it all came to a screeching halt, burnt out to the core. Good luck with that.