Have you seen the new “Gatsby” film yet? I have not seen it, but I have been intrigued by all the hoopla bringing new interest in Fitzgerald’s book. I understand that more copies of the book The Great Gatsby were sold during the week leading up to the premier of the film than were sold during F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lifetime. Of course, it was not until after Fitzgerald’s death that his short novel began to be heralded as the great American novel.
I read a review by John Anderson of the new Gatsby movie. I found his review and commentary quite substantive, but he begins and ends with the same mistake that many make who quote F. Scott Fitzgerald without reading him. Anderson says that “F. Scott Fitzgerald is often quoted via a line that has always seemed to make very little sense: ‘There are no second acts in American lives.’ ” The “quote” is from the essay, “My Lost City,” where Fitzgerald actually says, “I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York's boom days.”
In that essay, Fitzgerald talks about how the city of New York had changed as well as how individual lives change from one stage to the next. He never says that there are no second acts. He in fact describes what second acts can look like. Fitzgerald is writing after the economic crash of 1929 lamenting a time that is gone, but acknowledging that the city moves on.
Many filmmakers have tried to do Gatsby, starting during the days of silent movies. I remember when Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematic version came out in 1974. I had some friends who loved it, many critics panned it. When I finally got around to watching it, I actually enjoyed it even though it didn’t really fully capture what Fitzgerald did with the novel. I thought the photography and costuming were excellent and the movie captured the 1920’s so well. The characters may not have been fully developed, but the movie still managed to convey a cautionary tale.
According to Anderson’s review, the current Gatsby by director Baz Luhrman is fast-paced and energetic with lots of computer generated special effects. Though it has a high production value, Anderson describes it as soulless due to “a profound lack of emotional depth.” Similar things were said about Francis Coppola's film. What strikes me in all of this is that the cinema can do grand and beautiful things, as in the case of both the Coppola and the Luhrman versions of Gatsby, but it cannot match the effect of well written literature. My recommendation is, whether you see the movie or not, go out and buy the book. Sit with it and let Fitzgerald’s luminous prose evoke the imagery, the longing, the emotion and the intent of a well-told tale of American life.