Money. That’s really what The Great Gatsby boils down to, isn’t it? The acquisition and the spending of money in the pursuit of the mythological American Dream. It’s an extremely simple story, really. Boy grows up ashamed of his family’s poverty and goes through the rest of his life determined to posses everything he could ever dream of, by any means necessary, to prove his worth to his wealthy lost love.
When said like that there’s almost nothing to it, but the simplicity of the story practically begs us to look closer, to examine what’s really going on in a larger sense. What does The Great Gatsby say about America and its Dream?
Baz Luhrmann’s new film is a largely faithful adaptation of Fitzgerald’s classic novel, brought to life with roaring color, sound, music, and intensity, starring Leonard DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire. Luhrmann’s work is often polarizing, but there’s no doubt that he’s a visionary. His signature style is a dazzling trick of false depth perception and perspective. He bends reality, pulling distant backgrounds closer than they should be, allowing the audience to see what’s up close and what’s far away at the same time, and it has the effect of adding importance to the setting.
Technically, the film is a wonder. It’s a dazzling display of powerful film making and great acting. DiCaprio in particular is fantastic in the title role, able to play both the mysterious, larger than life, powerful Gatsby and the nervous, self-conscious, and unhinged Gatsby with ease and nuance. Tobey Maguire handles Nick Carroway’s beautiful narration very well and also brings life to a role that could be very bland in the wrong hands. Carey Mulligan also adds depth to what could be a very light and airy role, while maintaining Daisy’s aura of unobtainable beauty. Joel Edgerton was also excellent (and nearly unrecognizable) as Tom Buchanan, and newcomer Elizabeth Debicki was perfectly cast as Jordan Baker, though I wish they had expanded her role slightly.
Though mostly faithful, the film does differ from the novel in a couple interesting ways. First, there’s the added narrative device of having Nick Carroway recalling the story from the confines of a mental institution, writing it down on the advice of his psychologist. In the novel, Fitzgerald also tells the story through Carroway’s journaling, but from some undisclosed time and place in the future. The idea that Nick would need serious psychiatric help after living through the events he describes adds an element of judgement to the story.
Can capitalism create mental illness? Does living in a society like this, where priorities become so warped and perverse, make people mentally unstable? It’s an interesting question that the film raises simply by showing how ruined and unhealthy Nick has become in the wake of the drama.
Another major difference from novel to screen is that Luhrmann’s Carroway lacks the disdain for Gatsby’s lifestyle that is emphasized in the book. In the novel we always feel as though Nick looks upon the conspicuous consumption going on all around him with contempt, even though he doesn’t hate it enough to actually leave.
Perhaps this makes the film’s version of Nick Carroway more honest, or at least more consistent. Novel Nick is a hypocrite, convinced of his innocence even as he bathes himself in the lifestyles of both Gatsby and his wealthy cousin Daisy. Film Nick is a willing participant, and his complicity is important because when it comes to capitalism and the pursuit of wealth, comfort, and pleasure at the expense of others as the ultimate goal, we have a choice, and that choice has moral consequences. You can’t jump in the pool without getting wet.
Jay Gatsby made his choice long ago. He met Daisy when he was a penniless soldier. They fell in love, but knowing that she was from a wealthy family he knew he wouldn’t be considered good enough for her. So he wrote out a grand script for his life to follow and left to build his fortune in the hopes that Daisy would come back to him once he was a worthy match for her, and his story could continue as planned as if no time at all had passed. But before that could happen, she met Tom Buchanan, a man from another wealthy family, and they got married.
Both the novel and film rightly condemn Tom’s outlook, and by extension the outlook of his class of wealthy elite. Tom is shown to be an entitled, spoiled, cheating brat, with a strong dose of racism and paranoia thrown in for good measure. He’s practically a fascist, more than once spouting off about the need to violently suppress other races and their attempts to supplant white domination. Once you have wealth and power, the ultimate threat is having it taken away, and Tom embodies that attitude. He represents the capitalist elite, the “Old Money” class that rules over society under capitalism, and it’s obvious that Fitzgerald deeply resented this institution based on the way Tom is portrayed.
The fatal flaw of both the novel and film, however, is the way it seems to admire Gatsby’s wealth while despising Tom’s. Flawed as Gatsby may be shown to be, acquiring his wealth illegally with the help of the criminal underworld, he’s always meant to represent the ever hopeful nature of the American Dream; the idea that in America anyone can one day have everything they can imagine.
In reality, there is nothing noble about Gatsby’s pursuit of power by amassing staggering wealth. He may actually love Daisy, or at least he thinks he does, but he treats her as just another object he has to acquire in order to live his life according to his predetermined script. Daisy is the last piece of the puzzle that he thinks will complete him; the arrival of the queen for his kingdom, proving to the world that Jay Gatsby is a “somebody” after all, not the poverty stricken James Gatz he was born.
The Great Gatsby is a tragedy, and on a certain level it does expose the fraudulent nature of the American Dream as a lie that can never really be achieved, but it does so with blind admiration for those who strive to achieve it nonetheless. The tragedy is that in a world under capitalism people are made to believe that if they’re poor it’s their own fault, and Gatsby’s character is an example of how people can internalize the shame of poverty and become misguided capitalist tyrants themselves. And Gatsby is a tyrant, having chosen to attempt to join the capitalist elite to benefit only himself, rather than choosing to struggle against them to benefit everyone.
But imagine if there was no inequality. Imagine if people who loved each other could simply be together with no class discrimination to keep them apart? The tragic events of The Great Gatsby could be totally avoided under a system based on equality rather than one that perpetuates inequality and stigmatizes the poor.
By the end of the story Nick is alone in mourning Gatsby’s death, the only one who saw the good in what Gatsby was trying to do, devastated by his loss. And perhaps that’s why Luhrmann has Nick tell the story from a mental hospital. There was actually no good in what Gatsby was trying to do, and the fact that Nick was so distressed by his death and the fact that he admired him so much in the first place is frankly, kind of crazy. Nick is mourning not just the death of his friend, but also the death of a dream all Americans are taught to collectively believe in. It’s something he can’t reconcile, just as Fitzgerald couldn’t reconcile his hatred of capitalism’s unfairness with the envy he had of those who “have.”
The novel is a masterpiece of American literature, and the film is a bold artistic statement that may even improve on some aspects of the story, but they both fail to fully condemn capitalism for the ugly, oppressive, exploitative system that it really is. It hates “Old Money” while worshiping the pursuit of “New Money.” It hates the system that keeps a wealthy elite class in power, but holds on to the “hopeful” idea that anyone can get rich while mostly ignoring the exploited lower classes who do the hard labor that allows others to be wealthy and comfortable. The most positive thing about the book, ironically, is that Gatsby fails, which at least in part helps to tear at the fabric of the American Dream, even if it can’t bring itself to fully shred it.
At the end of the film we see Nick complete his manuscript. He types the title Gatsby on the cover page and then places it on top of the pile. But he stops, looks at the page, and then hand writes The Great above the original title. This was a moment that perfectly symbolized the fatal flaw of the story. Perhaps it would have been a better story as simply Gatsby, criticizing capitalism without envy and admiration.