Drew Zahn is a WND news editor who cut his journalist teeth as a member of the award-winning staff of Leadership, Christianity Today's professional journal for church leaders. A former pastor, he is the editor of seven books, including Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching, which sparked his ongoing love affair with film and his weekly WND column, "Popcorn and a (world)view."More ↓Less ↑
Don’t believe what the critics are saying. Apparently, too many of them have either never read or have completely forgotten F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” and it’s showing in their reviews of the film by the same name in theaters this weekend.
One New York columnist (whose senseless screed was even linked on the Drudge Report, I might add) slammed the film for spouting “campy things,” like a quote about the “careless Tom and Daisy.”
The irony? That “campy thing” about “careless Tom and Daisy” is a direct quote from Fitzgerald’s book. In fact, it’s perhaps the novel’s most important line, the one sentence that sums up the entire moral of the story.
I contend the movie’s relentless adherence to Fitzgerald’s original story, even down to quoting the dialogue word-for-word, is the first and most important ingredient in what makes the film “Gatsby” such a marvel. The second: brilliant performances from Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton, who make the novel’s sometimes confusing understatement absolutely come alive on screen.
I read the novel (again) just this past week to prepare for the film experience, and I can’t tell you how many times seeing DiCaprio (as Gatsby) and Edgerton (as his foe, Tom Buchanan) act out the literary masterpiece on screen caused me to say to myself, “Of course! That’s why that character said that,” or, just as often: “Boom! Nailed it!”
Most of the critics’ derision of the film stems from the director’s decision to exaggerate every scene, every picture, every costume, until 1920s Long Island looks more like Oz than New York (in fact, the film’s transition in its opening scene from black and white to 3D color actually seems a fitting homage to Oz). Fireworks, sparkle, glitz and glamour overpower the film with eye-dazzling imagery that turns Gatsby’s famed mansion into a fairy-tale castle. The awe-inspiring depiction of the valley of ashes and the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg pop from the screen like a dystopian science fiction scene, startling and haunting, not because it is bleak, but because it rivals in intensity the contrasting coolness of the Buchanan estate and the wild parties of the Gatsby mansion. This is a film that could never be appreciated on the small screen, but screams to be seen in the theater.
And instead of the more light-hearted jazz and dance tunes of the ’20s, Gatsby’s parties are filled with bass-pumping, modern beats that borrow from jazz melodies but turn the parties into a thumping, stomping, romping, ostentatious, Hollywood-style dens of debauchery, where the makeup is too thick, the lights too bright and the party just too crazy to be real.
Which is exactly why it … works.
Recreating a stately 1920s mansion with flappers dressed in black, cream and brown and the un-enhanced, comparably mellow, “The Charleston,” could never, ever have captured for modern audiences the wonder, the exaggerated opulence, the extravagance that Fitzgerald’s Midwestern narrator, Nick Carraway, described.
In other words, this story is too big for realism. To faithfully communicate Fitzgerald’s vision, the movie had to be way over the top. Fitzgerald’s book is more like an impressionist painting than a documentary, more about symbolism and emotion than reality. And as I said before, this movie … “Boom! Nailed it!”
Rather than detracting from the tale, I argue, the modern music and garish colors actually told it better than any attempt to be historically accurate could.
Yet from a worldview perspective, the question must be asked, does the movie glamorize the debauchery, or does it follow Fitzgerald, whose Midwestern hero, Nick, specifically tells audiences he withholds judging others for an unconventionally long time … until the vapid, self-consumed and juvenile lives of these East Coast debutantes become too despicable and tragic to do otherwise?
I do wish the film would not have downplayed the book’s Midwest/East Coast dichotomy. I do wish the film would have handled one of Gatsby’s best moments of gallantry differently, for there are some small departures from the book. And I do think the movie made Gatsby into more of a hero than the book does, as the novel is almost depressing in its depiction of a fallen world where there are no “good guys.”
Yet in the end, the movie remains, like the book, a tragedy. It communicates the same stunned disbelief at the empty lives of these adolescent partiers, hedonists and silver-spooned aristocrats. There’s only a vague, uncertain redemption of Gatsby’s character in a story that ends in the inevitable ruin such godless living creates.
As in the book, Nick’s final judgment – withheld until the conclusion – is the same: In this fantastic and bizarre carnival world of spoiled wealth and amorality, Nick says to Gatsby, “They’re a rotten bunch. You’re worth the whole lot of them put together!”
And as in the book, the moral of the story remains the same, whether some New York movie critic thinks it “campy” or not: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
“The Great Gatsby,” rated PG-13, contains about a dozen obscenities and profanities, mostly minor, but its song lyrics contain an additional handful of sometimes strong obscenities.
Considering the story is about rampant debauchery, infidelity and love affairs, the film has far less visually depicted sexuality than one might expect and no overt nudity or sex “scene.” Still, there is cause for discretion. There is implied sex from a pair of heavy kissing scenes, and a drunken party where one couple is overheard loudly having sex, while the group later romps about in half-dressed, seductive abandon. At other parties, some of the dancing could be considered suggestive, while some bathing suits and cleavage and flirtatious behavior are seen. Finally, there is a scene that takes place in a speakeasy with a team of dancers baring midriff, cleavage and lots of leg. Sexuality is a significant theme of the story, but that considering, it’s handled more tastefully than erotically.
“The Great Gatsby” includes some violence, such as flashbacks to World War I, some physical struggling and a brief scene of a man being beaten by mobsters. The film’s most startling episode is a woman being hit by a car, which includes some blood and injury, but is filmed more artistically than for gore or shock. There’s also a man being shot, and his blood seeping into a pool of water, but this too is filmed to de-emphasize the violence of the event.
The movie makes several references to God, but these are nebulous and theologically inconsistent at best, such as referring to a man being “richer than God,” “I will tell you God’s truth,” “he was a son of God, chasing his destiny,” “free to romp like the mind of God” and “God sees everything.” There is, however, some significant symbolism in the eyes watching over the valley of ashes being like God’s omniscience, more than implying that the catastrophic events befalling the story’s characters are as God’s judgment for their immorality.