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Should You Go See “The Great Gatsby”?

The short answer is, “Go ahead, but read the book!”  However, the short answer is deceptively  simplistic.  The reality is that even when Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel, Hollywood’s third, is at its worse it may be due to his desire to be faithful to the written work.

For example, the two most egregious errors of the movie are the musical score and the presentation of the parties at Gatsby’s mansion.  The modern hip-hop music of Jay-Z and Beyoncé is wholly inappropriate, not to mention woefully anachronistic, and the party scenes are way overdone.  It may be that Luhrmann thought that an historically accurate rendition of Roaring Twenties’ bacchanalia and music would fail to capture for our contemporary jaded society Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Jazz Age decadence.

Two other shortcomings may be due to the same desire for fidelity to Fitzgerald’s story.  The acting (Leonardo diCaprio plays Gatsby and Tobey Maguire is Nick Carraway, the narrator and Gatsby’s neighbor) seems lifeless, and the computerized scenes (And, no, I did not waste my time and money on the 3-D version!) are ridiculous.  Nevertheless, they may be an attempt to portray respectively the detachment of the main characters from their surroundings or even from reality and the pervasive force of their illusions.

Fortunately, the movie in the main follows Fitzgerald’s story line.  Even more importantly, it preserves the novel’s reflective, at times philosophical, narration by Nick.  It does so by the happy technique of having Nick recovering in an asylum by writing the story of Gatsby.  Although this framework is not part of the novel, it does allow us to hear Fitzgerald’s very words, even that hauntingly despairing romantic anti-romantic passage with which he so famously concludes his great novel.

The Great Gatsby is a poignant critique by an American of American society.  It is much more than an exposé of the shallowness of Roaring Twenties frivolity and rebelliousness, a lifestyle that Fitzgerald not only knew about but also lived in many ways.  It can be understood as a commentary on the differences between the East and Midwest.  It also displays the futility of the frenetic forces of American progressivism to combat the powerful countercurrents of the past.

At its deepest and most universal The Great Gatsby is a cautionary tale concerning the destructive illusions created by living a dream.  Gatsby had a dream of being a member of the elite wealthy of American society.  Daisy and his love for her were an essential part of that dream.  He created a false persona to conform to his dream.  In the end he could neither escape his real past nor recapture a seemingly ideal moment from it and his dream consumed him.

Fitzgerald’s writing is richly textured and poetic, something that no movie can ever capture.  It is also a bleak and hopeless vision of human life in which “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.“

Fitzgerald’s masterpiece deserves a careful reading, yes, even a meditative one.  It reminds us that such an attempt at self-creation as Gatsby’s repeats the fundamental human desire to be like God and the disastrous consequences of self-deifying hubris described in Genesis 3 and 4.  It should lead us to examine our hearts in order to see whether we have fallen prey to this human tendency to live in a self-created dream world that we strive to make a reality.  But I speak as a Christian who believes in the possibility of change, of a turning around and going against the current, a painful turning around called repentance.  This repentance is not a human possibility.  It is only possible because of the One who entered the current of history from the outside and can redeem us from this present evil age, bearing us against the current to the new age created by God.

So, go ahead and see the movie, if you want to, but please, please read the book.

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