“I love New York on summer afternoons when everyone’s away. There’s something very sensuous about it – overripe, as if all sorts of funny fruits were going to fall into your hands” (Jordan Baker, The Great Gatsby).
The hazy and dreamlike quality of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby seems, even now, to haunt the modern Hollywood generation. The history of the wealthy supernova of 1920’s Long Island and its decadent set of youthful and beautiful socialites reads like a Gossip Girl of its time. This is possibly why the book has seen six silver-screen productions and is now undergoing its seventh reinvention at the hands of director Baz Luhrman, with Leonardo Di Caprio in the role of the mysterious and elusive Jay Gatsby, and British starlet Carey Mulligan as leading lady Daisy Buchanan.
The obsession with this book has lasted eighty-six years since it was first published in 1925. Written by Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, it was his third published novel after This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned. Its original cover art done by a (then) little-known artist called Francis Cugat is now one of the most iconic works of cover art in American Literature. It is a haunting piece of two eyes and a pair of red lips, which stare vacantly out from a blue backdrop. It seems to symbolize the isolation of the novel, hinting at the character’s moneyed world that promises so much and yet delivers so little.
It was a world Fitzgerald understood very well, as part of the Jazz Age set (a term he coined himself). He said whilst editing the book that he felt ‘an enormous power in me now, more than I’ve ever had’. The Great Gatsby would prove to be his most famous work and was recently named the second ‘Best novel of the 20th Century’ by the Modern Library.
In many ways it is ironic that Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s passionately lonely character, has so many ardent followers and fans outside of his literature, with some of the most successful actors of their generation vying to play him. Warner Baxter, Alan Ladd, Robert Redford, Toby Stephens and now Leonardo Di Caprio have all embraced the role of Fitzgerald’s tragic hero.
Which leads again to the question: what is it about Gatsby that makes him the hero of a literary generation? Ostensibly, he is an outsider, living in his secluded mansion on West Egg, throwing the most amazing and glamorous parties for people he doesn’t even know. Underneath the façade, however, is a man more complex than simply an eccentric millionaire. Gatsby is a man who has revolved his whole life around love, changing his name and identity all for the girl he is infatuated with. He holding these parties in the hope that, perhaps, one day, she will turn up to one of them. The paradox of Gatsby is what makes him such an appealing character: his capability for at once appreciating both the superficial and the complex nature of the world. Like Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, he falls under the famous epithet: ‘A phoney, but a real phoney’.
The story of The Great Gatsby is itself elusive and hard to pin down; is it a tragedy, a love story, both, or neither? Its malleability is what makes it so appealing to directors and actors alike. It boasts money, glamour, beautiful people, affairs and murder; all the makings of our modern teen dramas like The O.C and Gossip Girl; but Gatsby is more than this. Fitzgerald agonized over a name for the novel flitting from Gatsby; Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires; On the Road to West Egg; Under the Red, White, and Blue; Gold-Hatted Gatsby and The High-Bouncing Lover. He chose, in the end, to name it after its protagonist simply adding the word ‘Great’ before it. Gatsby is a ‘great’ character indeed, embodying, like Willy Loman in Death of A Salesman, all the triumphs and failings of the American Dream. He is the classic example of how money can’t buy happiness, but his lifestyle characterises an age’s mistaken impression that anything can be purchased with enough money.
We can’t seem to let Gatsby lie and now Baz Luhrman is giving this timeless American classic a twenty-first century twist with the new technology of 3D. The addiction with Gatsby continues, now allowing you to see him closer than ever through your 3D glasses. The capabilities of modern cinema may lend form but it’s my guess that this ever-evasive figure will remain still just out of reach of the real world; just as he ever has done.