Other Media Review

The Great Gatsby: Review and Romance Analysis

B+

Title: The Great Gatsby (film)
Written By: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Publication Info: Directed by Baz Luhrmann 2013
Genre: Literary Fiction

The Great Gatsby movie posterIt is imperative that when you go see The Great Gatsby, you know these two things:

1.  It's a Baz Luhrmann movie.  Baz is not known for subtlety. 

If you want something restrained, something in which Leonardo DiCaprio isn't introduced by the sounds of Gershwin and the sight of fireworks, then look elsewhere.  If you want lavish madness, then go see this – and see it in 3D.  Both my friend and I saw it in 3D despite some skepticism, and we both felt it enhanced the story.

2.  This is an anti-romance.  Nothing ends well and as a matter of fact things tend not to start well, either. Expect a lot of angst and drunken wailing. 

I do think this is a good movie, but if I had gone to it expecting a romance, I'd have hated it.  It's a tragedy about people who dodge responsibility even when it literally flies at their heads, people who fall in love with figments, and people who love money and the facade of money and never know each other.  It's emotionally affecting, but not happy.

The last time I read Gatsby, I was in high school, and, as they say, “I didn't get it”.  All I remember of the book is a sense of excess, moral vapidity, and sadness.  So, I can't speak to how well the movie works as a reflection of the book, except to say that it includes the kind of excess that only my boy Baz can produce, it is rife with moral vapidity, and it contains the kind of sadness that only a stubbornly hopeful but clearly doomed Leonardo can produce in a girl's heart.  Seriously, this movie is perfectly cast – you can't imagine anyone else in any of these roles, and they bring a depth of feeling that belies the shallowness of their actions and words.

So, in keeping with the romance focus of Smart Bitches, I'm going to focus on the romantic stuff in the movie, or rather the anti-romantic stuff.  Unspecific SPOILERS if you've never read the book or seen earlier film versions of the book or had a conversation with an English major.  Here's a rundown of the relationships in the movie:

Gatsby loves Daisy, or rather, the idea of Daisy.  Daisy may or may not love Gatsby, but she sure does love being rich.  Daisy is married to Tom, who is having an affair with Myrtle, who is married to George.  George loves Myrtle but Myrtle loves Tom, who loves Daisy.  Nick has a little thing with Daisy's friend Jordan, possibly a teeny crush on Daisy, and a huge but apparently platonic bromance with Gatsby.  Got that?

Book The Great Gatsby- book I don't think of the movie as an anti-romance just because it ends tragically.  I think of it as an anti-romance because in a good romance, the characters see each other for who they are, and they recognize and enhance each other's best qualities.  In doing so, they make each other better.  In Gatsby, the opposite happens in two ways – no one really sees anyone else, and everyone is made worse by their romantic partner.

Let's start with recognition, and to keep this to a reasonable length, I'm going to focus on the main couple, Daisy and Gatsby.  Gatsby, both the story as a whole and the specific character, is all about facade.  Gatsby creates an entire fake persona for himself, one that he builds and reinforces with everything from lavish parties to carefully chosen catch-phrases (“old sport”).   This persona is crafted largely for the benefit of Daisy.  She can't possibly love Gatsby for himself.  She doesn't know him.  She knows that he is very rich and very adoring.  She doesn't understand or know about his background, his ambition, or his ruthlessness. 

Gatsby certainly doesn't know Daisy.  He's in love with a five-year-old image of her, one that probably wasn't very accurate even then.  If he saw her real self now, he'd recognize the fact that she has changed over the past five years.  She's been a wife and a mother (technically, at least – she shows no interest in her daughter who is apparently being raised by nannies).  She's more experienced and more cynical.  She's deeply flawed, although an early speech of hers hints at hidden depths of perception and feeling and frustrated dreams.  He can't or won't see that.  She's not a person to Gatsby – she's a vision.  Ultimately, she's a horrifically disappointing one, but even a stronger, less vapid person would have disappointed Gatsby, because he is all about perfection and real people aren't perfect.

As far as bringing out the best in each other, when it comes to Daisy, all Gatsby's assets become fatal liabilities.  One of Gatsby's assets is his ability to fully believe in a vision he creates.  Not only does he create a lavish life for himself, he reinvents his past – not only so that he can enter society, but also so that he can erase painful memories.  Gatsby's determination to erase the past and form a perfect, replacement world allows him to create a seamless persona, but it also makes it impossible for Daisy to accept him.  If Gatsby had simply asked Daisy to divorce her husband and marry him instead, she might have done so.  But that's not enough for Gatsby, who wants to replace a painful past with perfection.  His obsession with making Daisy say she never loved Tom drives her away.  She can't accept Gatsby's real past once Tom brings it partially to light, and she can't let go of her own when Gatsby tries to force her to, so he can't win.

Another of Gatsby's assets/flaws is that Gatsby makes himself the person he wants to be by stubbornly refusing to accept any other possibility.  Nick describes him as hopeful, but I would describe him as determined to the point of having a laser focus on what he wants.  He refuses to accept the possibility of failure.  When it comes to Daisy, this turns into his most self-destructive quality.  He can't accept that Daisy won't leave Tom for him.  After a lifetime of constantly striving to further his ambitions, he finds himself frozen by a false belief that Daisy will leave Tom for him.  He can't leave town, or move on, or take business calls, or take any kind of action to protect himself and his interests, because to do so is to accept the possibility of failure.  That refusal has always served him well, but when it comes to Daisy, it destroys him.

You'll notice that I'm talking a lot about Gatsby and not much about Daisy.  That's because I couldn't get a handle on Daisy.  There's an early speech in which she says the best a woman can hope for is to be a “beautiful little fool”.  In that moment, Carey Mulligan, who plays Daisy, looks so profoundly bitter that it's as though Daisy, the person, shows for just a second – and then she disappears again, not because Mulligan is a bad actress, but because Daisy is even more committed to her persona than Gatsby is to his.  She seems to have no self-will whatsoever.  I kept thinking I didn't understand her, but maybe she's so broken, and so empty and shallow, that there's nothing left to understand.

In a happy romance, two people find each other and stay together.  In a sad romance, two people find each other and lose each other.  In Gatsby, people never do find each other.  They just find dreams, and the dreams betray them.  I'm glad I saw it, and I recommend it, but now I have to read one romance a day for a week just to recover.


The Great Gatsby ebook ( A | BN | K | S | ARe | iB ) is on sale at some retailers for $4.99.

The 2013 film version is now playing in theatres in the US. You can find tickets at Fandango and Movietickets.com.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Dii says:

    He’s in love with a five-year-old image of her

    Is it possible to specify the image is five years out of date, not of her *being* five years old? Because… yeah. The latter is creepy, the former is Gatsby being Gatsby.

    I seem to recall when I read this book in high school, it brought with me the emotion I now associate with ‘great, *everyone’s* an asshole’.

  2. 2
    CarrieS says:

    Ha!  Yes, I should have worded that more carefully.  Gatsby met Daisy when they were both young adults (late teens or early twenties).  Five years pass with no contact.  Movie starts.  no one is a pedophile – but you’re right, everyone’s an asshole.

  3. 3
    Sveta says:

    I’ve read this book recently, last year maybe, I forget and for some odd reason it really appealed to my senses. I still remember the detached vapidness of the book, and from time to time I still think of the characters.

    http://sveta-randomblog.blogspot.com/2012/08/book-review-of-great-gatsby-by-f-scott.html

  4. 4
    Jodi says:

    I truthfully never enjoyed The Great Gatsby because everyone in the book is so focused on the superficial.  No one appears to care how their actions hurt the others around them, and there is no way anyone will have a happy ending.

    I’m mildly intrigued with the movie, but I will definitely wait for it to be available on DVD.

  5. 5
    Dread Pirate Rachel says:

    My god, I fucking hate that book. I’ve never understood why people seem to love it so much. Of course, I first read it as an adult, so I was more focused on how truly awful all the characters are than on all the pretty, shiny things that seem to be the focus of this movie adaptation.

    I have a theory regarding Gatsby: if I had read the book as a teen, I would have only noticed the decadence and excess, and then I would have loved it and had nostalgia-goggles for it every time I reread it. Since I read it as an adult, I only noticed the shitty way people treat each other and the extremely graphic violence against women (leaving out the details to avoid spoilers for anyone who’s lucky enough not to have read it). As a result, I have hate-goggles for the book, and I can barely think about it without wanting to vomit.

  6. 6
    laj says:

    I thought Leonardo Di Caprio’s performance was terrific!  I didn’t care for the casting of the Buchanans or Nick Carraway, but everyone else was very good.
    I love the sets and art direction of Baz Luhrman movies……they are always slightly surreal and almost always garrish and Gatsby looked great!  The soundtrack was bizarre, yet inspired and for some reason worked perfectly in the film, no surprise as Luhrmann is a master soundtracker.  I’ve read some reviews from film critics and the music was not well recieved, but I liked it.  It’s been many years since I read the book, so most of my memories are of the film version with Robert Redford who always plays himself.  Di Caprio is such a fine actor and watching his performance of Jay Gatsby is worth the price of admission.

    I recommend seeing this movie at the cinema.

  7. 7
    Wednesday says:

    Some have pointed out on Tumblr that casting Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby creates interesting resonances with his role in Titanic: you can sort of imagine Jack hauling himself out of the ocean and going off to create a persona worthy of his beautiful lost love and ten years later ending up as Gatsby.  Of course, I like to think that would have ended better.  Rose is no Daisy, after all.

    I don’t think there’s intended to be a lot of depth to Daisy; I think Fitzgerald intended for Gatsby’s tragedy to include devoting his life and integrity to a woman who didn’t deserve it, while being unable or unwilling to realize it.  But yes, there are glimmers of a Daisy who could have been something else, which makes her whole vapid persona even sadder.

    Overall, I think I like The Great Gatsby in that way one likes bad-tasting medicine: it’s good for you, but you don’t enjoy it.  Fitzgerald’s prose is evocative but terse and some of his images are lovely.  However, I’ve never liked the Lost Generation idea that you can’t ever escape your past, that it’ll always catch up with you.  I mean, I think that’s true, but I also think you can confront it and change your direction.  With Fitzgerald (and also Faulkner) the past is something that creeps up on you and drags you back down into it.

  8. 8
    CarrieS says:

    I was also struck by the resemblance to the Titanic story in that I think both stories involve a world which is endlessly glamourous and endlessly corrupt.  In the Gatsby movie, there are constant contrasts between rich and poor, and the parties are outrageously lavish and yet they are also tainted, in the sense of being fuelled by bad motives and criminal money.  The people are terrible but the clothes are STUNNING.  In Titanic, I think people are fascinated not just by the movie but by the historical story as a whole because we are attracted to the glamour of first class and yet horrified by the corruption (the lack of lifeboats, the injustice to third class passengers, etc).  Both stories let us feel envious and superior at the same time.

  9. 9
    Jessica says:

    Dread Pirate Rachel, I hated it and I read it as a teenager.  I talked with my Mom about it and she hated it as a teenager too so maybe it’s simply a personality thing?  I remember thinking “what is the point of this book?” and “why is this considered required reading?!” after I read it.  I still don’t get it.  I might consider seeing the movie on DVD if one of my sisters or friends really wanted to watch it but I have no desire to see it.

    Fwiw, I didn’t really enjoy Titanic either.  I liked the pretty clothes and the pretty ship but the story line was sort of blah for me.  I have also never seen the Notebook – mostly because I find Nicholas Sparks to be horribly overrated and annoyingly repetitive.  Please don’t stone me!

  10. 10
    M. Malone says:

    I recently re-read the book and what struck me most was Gatsby’s obsession wasn’t so much about Daisy as what she represented. He wasn’t in love with her because he didn’t really know her. He was in love with love. He was in love with the image of her lifestyle and what he thought it would be like to be a part of it. It made me sad because he was so convinced that he couldn’t be happy as he truly was.  It was like a mental illness.

  11. 11
    CateM says:

    I haven’t read the book for a while, but I remember loving it. It wasn’t the opulence – it was the elegance of the writing, and Gatsby as a character. You just wanted to sit him down and tell him what was wrong with his life, so that he could turn around and fix it, because you know he could. But he wouldn’t believe that anything was wrong, and none of the people surrounding him could or would persuade him that anything was wrong.

    He’s a peculiar combination of broken and resilient that made me love him.

    I liked the movie. With both the movie and the book, I liked that there are moments that, if you took them out of context, could feel like the ending of a happy story. And in those moments, for an instant, you believe that the tragic ending is not inevitable.

    Plus, Jordan has fantastic one-liners, but the movie sort of left those out.

  12. 12
    Sugarless says:

    Another spot on analysis. I didn’t get the story when I initially tried to read it in middle or high school, so I remembered very little of it, but I think it was very well done and I’m going to have to go back and try reading the book again.

    I can see why Dread Pirate Rachel and Jessica hate the book, but I think I love it for the very reasons they hate it. It’s told from the point of view of one of the only non-useless, caring individuals who is capable of, at least by the end, seeing through all of the artifice and, because of that, I find that his disgust of the “careless” Buchannons, and Daisy in particular speaks to me. Perhaps it’s because I knew and, for a long time was friends with someone very much like Daisy.

    I also find Gatsby’s naive, desperate hope (when it’s not a little alarming) very relateable to mid twentysomethings like myself.

    Maybe it’s this point in my life, but watching Nick’s transformation from looking up to these people without really thinking about who they really are turns to disgust after he scratches the surface really made the story great for me. (Definitely an anti-romance though)

  13. 13

    I tried to re-read the book (like many others, I read it in high school and hated it) last week before seeing the film, but didn’t make it past Chapter 1 due to Fitzgerald’s wordiness. I will say that even Chapter 1 was honestly portrayed in the movie – narrative, dialogue, description, it all matched what I read.

    But I adored every lush, gorgeous, theatrical, ridiculous, obvious, Jay-Z-ridden second of the movie! And then I rented Romeo + Juliet just to compare Baz and Leo from 17 years (17 YEARS!!!) ago and still love that one too.

  14. 14
    Amy says:

    A great review, you’ve really got the analysis down. I really loved the film, but I have such a problem with people who try to claim it’s a romance when the whole point of it is that it’s not a romance. I think Baz managed to capture that pretty well in the film, but for some reason I still find people using quotes from the book/film as quotes about love. It’s more like infatuation really, than romance.

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