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May 18, 2013

BILL EGGERT | ‘Gatsby’ still great nearly 90 years after debut

— A new movie just released based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel “The Great Gatsby” is here.

The Baz Luhrmann film is the fourth major theatrical movie based on the classic novel.

The first was a silent movie released in 1926 starring Warner Baxter, just one year after the novel’s publication. The second was in 1949, starring Alan Ladd. The third was in 1974, starring Robert Redford.

This year’s version stars baby-faced Leonardo DiCaprio, who ironically is the oldest actor to play Gatsby in a motion picture, at age 38.

The latest film has a tall order to fulfill: do justice to Fitzgerald’s immortal and lyrical prose from this justly celebrated novel.

The prior Gatsby film versions have all come up short in this regard. Despite the dazzling quality of Fitzgerald’s words, his novels and short stories are said to be, well, not very cinematic, according to many.

Luhrmann helps to prove otherwise.

Why is it that Fitzgerald’s novel is so widely praised and continues to be required reading in universities and col-leges?

Why does a novel published in 1925 during the height of the Jazz Age (as Fitzgerald named the Roaring ’20s) remain so relevant as to speak to us almost 90 years after its initial publication?

The characters are compelling to the readers. The title character, the charismatic Jay Gatsby, is shrouded in mystery.

Charges of everything from being involved in the real-life Black Sox scandal of 1919 (gamblers fixing the World Series) to being a relative of Kaiser Wilhelm, leader of the Allies’ arch-enemy Germany in World War I, are leveled at Gatsby in hushed tones at his opulent parties.

Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator and conscience, is the humble straight arrow in the bond business.

The ethereal beauty Daisy Buchanan is Carraway’s cousin. She is married to old-money polo player Tom Buchanan, who also has a mistress.

Jordan Baker, a sensual, albeit unethical professional golfer, is Daisy’s best friend.

The novel deals with themes that are still very much issues we confront today. The book gives a slight acknowledgement to racism, and a much larger nod to sexism.

Tom personifies both of these issues. It is okay for Tom to have a mistress, but he becomes enraged when he discovers his wife’s affair with Gatsby.

Cheating in sports is another theme, in the shapely form of Jordan Baker.

Greed is a big theme, as is Gatsby’s vision of recapturing the past: his love affair with Daisy.

These issues all dovetail into the quest for the American Dream and Fitzgerald’s accusation of its emptiness and futility.

Does this mean that the American Dream does not exist?

Far from it. Countless entrepreneurs achieve the American Dream every day. It is the illegal way that Gatsby tries to achieve the American Dream that brings about his downfall.

Look around today at our national landscape and see it littered with the broken dreams of those who try beating the system. It is a theme that is very much alive today as it was in the 1920s.

Which brings us back to the new film on Gatsby.

While the cinematography is stunning, and the acting is commendable, Luhrmann’s film still falls a bit short in capturing the shimmering elegance of Fitzgerald’s words. Luhrmann does quote the novel from time to time, but he does not choose the best of Fitzgerald’s prose.

Luhrmann also stumbles at the beginning and end of the film. His “stunt plotting” of having Nick (the most grounded character in the novel) relate this tale from a sanitarium is downright sacrilegious to Fitzgerald’s character.

And the key funeral near the end of the novel is not depicted, undercutting the emotional impact of the story and film.

In addition, Jordan’s sultry hot character is horribly miscast in performance and sensuality.

An admirable attempt on Luhrmann’s part, the film  nonetheless falls short in doing full justice to Fitzgerald’s mesmeric prose.

Those who have not read the novel will no doubt be impressed by the film.

For those who are intimately familiar with the novel, like me, who taught it in numerous classes in college, it will still please to a degree.

The most important thing this film can do is lead its viewers back to the novel itself, to read the lyricism of Fitzgerald’s memorable words.

Bill Eggert is a Johnstown resident. He writes an occasional column.

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