A Good Gatsby

Baz Luhrmann Undomesticates Fitzgerald

One curious biographical connection between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Baz Luhrmann, director of the new film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, is that they went to a school with the same name. Fitzgerald attended St. Paul’s Academy in Minnesota, while Luhrmann, an Australian, was briefly a student at St. Paul's College in suburban Sydney. Indeed, the exterior shots of Gatsby's mansion were filmed at the archbishop’s residence, a.k.a. “the Cardinal's Palace,” on the grounds of Luhrmann’s old school. “It was grand enough to look like how F. Scott Fitzgerald describes it,” commented the film director. “It looked like Normandy Castle.”

In this sense and in other, more important ones, Luhrmann has quite literally restored The Great Gatsby to a Catholic setting. It is sometimes forgotten that Fitzgerald was a Midwesterner born to practicing Catholics of Irish descent, and regarded himself as an outsider in the WASP worlds of Princeton and New York. “I am half black Irish and half old American stock,” he wrote to fellow Irish-American author John O’Hara, in 1933—adding that “if I were elected King of Scotland tomorrow after graduating from Eton, Magdalene, and the Guards, with an embryonic history which tied me to the Plantagenets, I would still be a parvenu.” As I argued twenty years ago in American Catholic Arts and Fictions, a Catholic aesthetic sensibility, displaced into cultural and secular forms, crucially shaped Fitzgerald’s most famous novel. Indeed, in its very first draft Fitzgerald envisaged a prologue that sought to explain Gatsby’s early life by recounting a confession he made when young to a priest; though this idea was ultimately dropped, the fragment was published in 1924 as the now well-known short story, “Absolution.”

Given recent interest in the multicultural ethnic strands of American literature, it might seem surprising that Fitzgerald is not regarded as a forerunner of Gish Jen or Jhumpa Lahiri in the way he explores boundaries between immigrant cultures and the American mainstream. But such critical blindness to The Great Gatsby’s Irish-Catholic dimensions testifies to how thoroughly institutionalized the book has become in its role as a mainstay of the American high-school curriculum. There is an analogy here with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, another dense and ambiguous novel that has not necessarily been served well by its ubiquitous domestication within school curricula, where the pedagogical validation of Hester Prynne as an embattled feminist hero has become the stuff, as the scholar Lauren Berlant has observed, of oversimplified national allegory.

Of course, such processes of normalization do speak aptly to one side of Gatsby, the one emphasizing conventional paths to success in American society. This aspect draws overtly on Benjamin Franklin’s The Way to Wealth, the model that inspired the youthful Gatsby’s rigorous daily routine, inscribed as readers will remember on the flyleaf of his dog-eared copy of Hopalong Cassidy. But such educational norms have also had the effect of glossing over the more disjunctive, violent undercurrents of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. It is precisely these more sinister elements that Luhrmann’s film successfully restores. In Jay Clayton’s 1974 adaptation, the white-suited Robert Redford represented Fitzgerald’s hero invested, as Richard Alleva noted in his June 14 Commonweal review, “with the unruffled cool of a successful CEO,” and the film’s soft-focus emphasis on the romantic stars (Redford and Mia Farrow) produced a sentimental biopic thoroughly compatible with the conventional understanding of Gatsby as all-American hero.

Luhrmann’s interpretation, in contrast, emphasizes the darker tones in Fitzgerald’s novel, in the process drawing on the association of Leonardo DiCaprio with the world of immigrant gangsters depicted in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and The Departed. Luhrmann integrates World War I newsreels to highlight the shared military background of Gatsby and narrator Nick Carraway, and pays more attention than Clayton did to Tom Buchanan’s racism, an outlook signaled explicitly in Fitzgerald’s novel by Tom’s reference to “The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard” and by his fear that “if we don’t look out the white race will be utterly submerged.” James L. West III, who edited the text of Gatsby for Cambridge University Press, reports that Luhrmann emailed him with questions about the likely ethnic provenance of Buchanan’s servants and whether or not African Americans would have been invited to Gatsby’s parties on Long Island. Such inquisitiveness suggests an attention to detail not common among Hollywood directors adapting famous novels, and testifies to one of the director’s aims in this film—namely, to resituate The Great Gatsby within a more densely allusive and historically nuanced context.

Luhrmann specializes in reworking classic works in unfamiliar contexts. In Romeo + Juliet (1996)—also starring Leonardo DiCaprio—he transposed Shakespeare’s play from Verona, Italy, to “Verona Beach,” California, and, by actually shooting on location in Veracruz, Mexico, he chose to foreground what critic Andrew Dickson has called an “in-your-face Catholicism” whose flamboyant imagery of candles and crucifixes highlighted the religious iconography customarily overlooked in Anglo-American realizations of the play’s Italian setting. Luhrmann’s film of The Great Gatsby similarly uses a style of jarring displacement—the fact that Tom Buchanan is played by Australian actor Joel Edgerton, or the disorienting shots zooming down from the top of skyscrapers—to radically defamiliarize Gatsby, jolting viewers out of their customary angles of perception and conventional preconceptions about the novel. Some of Luhrmann’s 3D innovations seem characteristically overplayed, but in general this style of strategic dislocation underscores Fitzgerald’s sense of ethnic and religious marginality.

This, of course, is why some American critics view Luhrmann’s adaptation as simply unfaithful to the book; having been taught the somewhat anodyne version of Gatsby canonized in the second half of the twentieth century, they fail to grasp that, by going back to the original sources, Luhrmann has in fact produced not only a more provocative but also a more fully rounded reading of Fitzgerald’s great novel. Just as his celebrated production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream relocated the opera to an Indian colonial setting in order to elucidate political aspects latent in Britten’s work, so the repositioning of Gatsby within a transnational context, one inflected by an antipodean idiom and also by the mannerisms of Italian grand opera, effectively illuminates an ethnic and religious element in American life that remains partially resistant—as was Fitzgerald himself—to what cultural historian V. L. Parrington termed the “main currents in American thought.”  Among these currents is a faith in the providential, exceptionalist association of democratic freedom with a spirit of national independence.

Though in interviews Luhrmann has chosen to draw analogies between the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the America of today’s Great Recession, both the novel and the film of Gatsby are actually about much more than the follies of financial excess or celebrity culture. In a 1924 letter to the author, Fitzgerald’s editor, Maxwell Perkins, praised the novel for having “a sense of eternity,” and Fitzgerald was clearly aspiring to write not just a social commentary on 1920s America but a much broader critique of American romance. The overriding theme of the book is not greed or money, but the nature of perception: how Gatsby projects and distorts Daisy, and how Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, in turn interprets Gatsby. After Gatsby’s death, Nick records that the East has been “distorted beyond my eyes’ power of correction”—echoing a billboard for an optician’s practice that looms over the Valley of Ashes, the highway community midway between Long Island and Manhattan where Tom Buchanan’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson, lives with her garage-mechanic husband. Via this industrial wasteland, where smoke is said to rise only “with a transcendent effort,” Fitzgerald consciously projects an ironic slant on the kind of Puritan-inflected idealism that has consistently shaped American culture. As Harvard professor Sacvan Bercovitch famously argued in his book The Puritan Origins of the American Self, such an impetus has run consistently from the days of the Pilgrim Fathers to the visionary poetics of nineteenth-century Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, for whom the romantic sublime involved reducing the external world, as Emerson said in Nature, to “only a realized will,—the double of the man.”

Fitzgerald’s novel maintains a double-edged attitude toward this set of ideas, exemplifying a capacity to be, as Carraway says about himself, “within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled” by it all. This, of course, is one reason The Great Gatsby is so difficult to film: the book shifts between two views of Gatsby, portraying him  as both a corrupt bootlegger—a “common swindler,” as Tom Buchanan calls him—and a grand visionary. On the last page of the book, Carraway links Gatsby’s capacity for giving material form to abstract hypotheses with the “Dutch sailors’ eyes” encountering a sense of “wonder” at what they found after crossing the Atlantic in the seventeenth century in search of religious freedom. On one level, of course, it is absurd to juxtapose the “green light at the end of Daisy’s dock” with the Puritans’ apprehension of the “fresh, green breast of the new world,” but Fitzgerald’s style involves elements of distortion and forced juxtaposition characteristic of surrealist art of the 1920s. Early in the book, Carraway relates the perception of Long Island as “a source of perpetual wonder to the gulls that fly overhead” to “the Columbus story,” whereby Columbus confounded his audience, who maintained that an egg could not be stood on its end, by cracking the shell and flattening it. The Great Gatsby is testimony to the power of the human mind to frame the world differently, but it always holds such aspirations in check, by playing the Promethean imagination off against a sense of the world’s ontological limitations. This dichotomy is the source of the book’s philosophical irony, where the mind’s abstractions are contrasted with the material world, and it suggests ways in which a metaphysical dimension is always an implicit presence within the narrative. In the last pages of the novel, Carraway imagines West Egg “as a night scene by El Greco,” thereby relating how the lights at Gatsby’s parties “grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun” to the somber spirit of the Spanish painter, in whose work partially luminous religious shades are constantly hovering. Medievalism is another specter in Gatsby: Daisy’s maiden name, Faye, echoes that of Morgan Le Fay in Arthurian legend, while Gatsby’s house is said to make a “feudal silhouette against the sky,” all invoking systematic nostalgia for a lost era.

This is not to suggest that The Great Gatsby is a religious book in any strict theological sense. Fitzgerald himself was not a practicing Catholic in adult life, though he attended church while at Princeton. Yet coming as he did from an Irish-Catholic cultural context, he remained interested in exploring how commercial culture might be embodied within the American Dream, rather than being seen merely as a vulgar debasement of it. Just as the evening sun is said to provide a “benediction over the vanishing city,” metaphorically incorporating New York within a sacramental gesture, so the guest lists of Gatsby’s parties in Chapter 4 express something like a liturgical or ritualistic sense of community, a sensibility and outlook worlds away from the self-authenticating individualism of an Emerson or a Thoreau, whose works were grounded on an ethic of spiritual retreat and pastoral purity.

Fitzgerald greatly admired his fellow lapsed Catholic James Joyce, whom he met in France in the early 1920s, and his own novel was heavily influenced by Joyce’s Ulysses. As Joyce seeks to adduce parallels between daily life in modern Dublin and the legends of classical Greece, so Fitzgerald’s first version of Gatsby, titled “Trimalchio in West Egg,” sought to analogize contemporary Long Island with ancient Rome. Trimalchio, whose career is recounted in Petronius’s Satyricon, was renowned in Nero’s Rome as a former slave who worked his way into the upper echelons of society and became notorious for holding orgies. Acting on the advice of Max Perkins, Fitzgerald eventually eliminated most of these classical parallels, although one allusion remains in Chapter 7, when Carraway remarks of Gatsby that “as obscurely as it had begun, his career as Trimalchio was over.” Luhrmann, however, makes extensive use of “Trimalchio”—even restoring a scene, not contained in the final version of the novel, where Gatsby confesses the story of his past to Carraway on the night after the fatal car accident that kills Myrtle Wilson—and in so doing, succeeds in representing Gatsby as a modernist text, one embedded in the culture of the 1920s but also related to more expansive horizons.

Such a move amounts to an assertion that standard readings of Gatsby have not acknowledged the cultural sources of its philosophical compass. In Chapter 5, Carraway remarks, seemingly in passing, that “there was nothing to look at from under the tree except Gatsby’s enormous house, so I stared at it, like Kant at his church steeple, for half an hour.” The reference to Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher who was a prime influence on the Transcendentalist movement, contemplating the church in his native Königsberg is no throwaway; it underlines the questions of perception upon which Fitzgerald built his novel. Kant argued that human perception structures natural laws, that space and time should be understood merely as extensions of human consciousness, and that, as he put it, “objects must conform to our cognition.” Fitzgerald’s novel offers a sustained consideration of both the power and the limits of a human being’s capacity to remodel the world, with Gatsby’s effort to arrest time—“‘Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’”—running alongside various episodes where characters play with self-consciously fake forms of transformation. One such example occurs in the first chapter, when the slyly provocative Daisy, welcoming Nick to the dinner table, says he reminds her of “a rose, an absolute rose,” a comment that elicits inward skepticism: “This was untrue. I am not even faintly like a rose.”

The structure of Fitzgerald’s book is elaborately patterned along similar lines, with various scenes echoing each other in a dance of reduplication—as when Tom’s adultery with Myrtle Wilson mirrors Daisy’s affair with Gatsby, or the formal dinner at the Buchanans’ residence on Long Island is subsequently reflected in the drunken party held at Myrtle’s apartment in New York. All this mirroring has the cumulative effect of introducing into Gatsby a half-suppressed tone of parody, as if the narrative can never quite decide whether to believe in its own fanciful analogies. In this sense, The Great Gatsby is positioned ambiguously, invested in the American Dream and, at the same time, alienated from it. Fitzgerald observed in his 1936 essay “The Crack-Up” that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” and his own novel perfectly fulfills that objective, always remaining, like Nick Carraway, both “within and without” the world it describes.

Fitzgerald’s cultural Catholicism, modulated both through the social theme of the outsider and the philosophical mode of analogy, helps preserve this sense of ironic distance in The Great Gatsby. To its credit, Baz Luhrmann’s film, by restoring the sense of a specific ethnic subtext, illuminates the edgy, alien aspects of Fitzgerald’s novel so often overlooked in the book’s sentimental American reception after World War II. All cinematic interpretations of novels constitute critical readings of them, but Luhrmann is consciously in touch with contemporary scholarship that understands The Great Gatsby as a text of its time, written by an author positioned ambiguously on the margins of the American establishment. Not for the first time, a transnational re-reading of classic American literature has succeeded in highlighting textual dimensions that the institutional formations of its home culture had unwittingly suppressed. 



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The Great Gatsby is indeed a beautiful movie. I have seen it twice.



About the Author

Paul Giles is Challis Professor of English at the University of Sydney, Australia, and the author of, among other works, American Catholic Arts and Fictions: Culture, Ideology, Aesthetics (Cambridge University Press).