Q&A: ‘The Great Gatsby’ and its great mania

We’ve seen the costumes, listened to the soundtrack and watched every morning and late night show interview with Leonardo, Tobey and Baz. Some even re-read the book for the occasion. And now, “The Great Gatsby” is finally at a theater near you. But this is not just a movie. The movie is just part of “The Great Gatsby” experience. It’s clothes, jewelry, music and so much more. Why now? To examine this collision of literature and cinema, movie critic Ann Hornaday, and book critic Jonathan Yardley, weigh in on the greatness (and not so greatness) of Gatsby.


Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, Carey Mulligan, as Daisy Buchanan and Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan in Warner Bros.(AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures)

What does the current state of Gatsby mania say (if anything) about the book and movie?

AH: That it’s been brilliantly promoted, through all manner of product tie-ins, music, etc. and of course also that the original novel still has an enduring hold on our collective imagination.

By no means is “The Great Gatsby” a disaster: Even at its most shallow, the film rescues Jay Gatsby as a largely sympathetic, romantic figure rather than a cynically ironic one. But neither is it necessary. Childlike, fetishistic and painfully literal, Luhrmann’s experiment proves once again that it’s Fitzgerald’s writing — not his plot, his characters or his grasp of material detail — that has always made “Gatsby” great. (Read the full movie review)

JY: I did a Second Reading piece on Gatsby several years ago. I may have talked in that about the impossibility of making “The Great Gatsby” into a film.

Reading it now for the seventh or eighth time, I am more convinced than ever not merely that it is Fitzgerald’s masterwork but that it is the American masterwork, the finest work of fiction by any of this country’s writers. To say this is not to call “The Great Gatsby” the Great American Novel. (Read the full book review)

 

Which plot themes are relevant today that could be responsible for the current resurgence of “Gatsby” mania?
AH: Certainly the setting of pre-Crash New York speaks to a society still coming out of our 2007-2008 economic crash…Because the film and its marketing effort have focused so much on the “stuff” ─ the costumes, jewelry, cars, home furnishings ─ it also speaks to consumerism that seems only to have grown since the book was first published.

 

It seems to me, though, that no American novel comes closer than “Gatsby” to surpassing literary artistry, and none tells us more about ourselves. In an extraordinarily compressed space — the novel is barely 50,000 words long — Fitzgerald gives us a meditation on some of this country’s most central ideas, themes, yearnings and preoccupations: the quest for a new life, the preoccupation with class, the hunger for riches and “the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” (Read the full book review)

 

Ann, was there anything you noticed about the film you weren’t able to fit into your review on “The Great Gatsby”?

AH: I was really struck by Luhrmann’s treatment of race in the film. On the one hand, he underlines how Tom Buchanan is reading white supremacist tracts, putting the unexamined privilege Fitzgerald was examining firmly within the context of race and racism. On the other hand, I found his treatment of African American supporting players to be problematic. They’re objectified as servants, symbols of Jazz Age decadence and exotic Others (or, in one instance, a Madonna figure), which seems objectifying and troubling. They’re treated like bodies rather than people.

What are the pluses and/or minuses for audiences when doing a stylized interpretation verses a more traditional adaptation?
AH: Sometimes a stylized version of a great novel can do surprising justice to the music and meaning of the original work. I don’t think “The Great Gatsby” succeeds as completely, though; for being so stylized and anachronistic, with the 3-D photography and the modern-day music, it’s actually quite a literal illustration. I’m not sure any movie, literal or stylized, could ever capture Fitzgerald’s artistry, psychological insight and language.

JY: I will say that based on what I’ve read so far, not a team of wild horses could drag me to see this piece of exhibitionist trash.
 

Maybe it’s because I was the target demographic for “Romeo + Juliet,” but it seems like “The Great Gatsby” is for the R+J audience that’s grown up – Leo, a soundtrack, which is so 90s, – do you think that’s who Baz Lahrmann is hoping the movie will speak to?
AH: That’s probably exactly right! We’ll see if it works!

READ MORE:

Going “Great Gatsby with food, drink and sights around D.C.

Veronica Toney is a writer and digital editor at The Washington Post.
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