My first encounter with Gatsby – a story in three acts
Act 1: A tough decision
Until last week I was still a Gatsby virgin. Somehow it had escaped me for 45 years, a white and embarrassing blind spot in my education. I knew it was considered one of the greatest American classics, but I had only a vague idea about what it was about. Something about rich people in the 1920s. Possibly some parties. That was the level of my knowledge.
When the recent movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby arrived I suddenly needed to make a choice. I knew that I was about to lose my Gatsby virginity. The question was how and where. Did I want our first meeting to take place in a theatre or on a book page?
I kept wrestling with the question for a while. It was a tough call. My previous experience with movie adaptations of beloved novels was that you usually end up preferring the format you first encounter. Somehow it imprints you.
If you watch the movie before reading the book, the images from the movie will pop up in your head as you’re reading the text. And the other way round: if you read the book first, you’ll compare every image in the movie with the ones that you’ve created in your mind, which you’ll regard as the “original”, the film being but a pale copy.
To see or not to see? I just couldn’t make up my mind, so I did what you do in case of doubt: I asked Twitter. Not that it made me any wiser. Twitter rarely does. There was no consensus. Half of the replies urged me to read the book first, half argued for the opposite.
In the end I decided to leave the novel alone until I had seen the movie. The tipping point was that I figured I might bring a somewhat different perspective, since many bloggers probably have read it, if nothing else as mandatory reading in high school. Perhaps my fresh eyes and lack of expectations would turn out to be useful. And if the novel was anywhere near as good as it was claimed to be, it shouldn’t have any issue with coming second.
Act 2: The movie
So how shall I best describe my experience with The Great Gatsby movie? I’m fumbling for words, dumbfounded by all the visual, musical and emotional impressions. Here’s what pops up in my mind right now as I’m thinking of it:
Shirts swirling through the air
Snowflakes swirling in the sky
Words and letters swirling over the screen, beautiful lines, read aloud from the book
Dancers swirling over the floor
(That’s a lot of swirling, but this is a movie that swirls.)
So much sadness, despite all the seemingly happy faces on the screen
Leonardo DiCaprio shifting between being shy, awkward and super romantic within a couple of minutes, surrounded by a cascade of flowers
Toby Maguire being adorable
Joel Edgerton being creepy
Carey Mulligan tipping over from sweetness to being plain horrible. God, I hate her! No, not her, the character… Got to keep them apart!
The unmatched loneliness of big scale parties and “friends” that are no more than acquaintances
A yellow car roaring through the night, a pair of glasses watching
Old sport, old sport, old sport, hitting me like a whip. One or two are barely noticed. After the 500rd stroke I’m bleeding.
Music. Oh, the music! Bold and out of control. Leaving me speechless
Was THAT shot from Sunset Boulevard?
The green light on the other side of the bay. Unreachable, untouchable and making me want to cry, as it’s burning a hole into my mind while fading away, leaving nothing but emptiness. Life isn’t easy. Life isn’t fair. Rich or poor, this is what it is. Abandon hope all ye who enter here.
Shirts swirling through the air
Act 3: A heart-breaking realization
I took up reading The Great Gatsby the very next morning and it didn’t take many pages before I had reevaluated myself completely as a writer. It sang to me, every sentence like a perfect piece of art, concentrated and full of flavour, like the sauce you get in ridiculously expensive restaurants. You look in disbelief at the tiny spots of it on your plate, as if someone has spilled it out, wondering if this is all there is. And then you taste it and it’s so intense that you immediately realize that you don’t need any more; there’s enough of it to leave you completely satisfied.
How had I ever come up with the idea to enter a writing profession? Who did I think I was? Looking at the quality of my writing compared to the one of Scott Fitzgerald, I was nothing, just someone scribbling mindlessly. At last my eyes had opened to the sad truth, that I was a second rate writer. The realization weighted heavily on my shoulders. Now I knew what a real writer who knew what he was doing could accomplish. So what was the point for me to write at all?
Once again I shared my despair on Twitter and a friend sent me some words of sympathy. For my recovery she recommended me to read some truly bad books. And I think she’s onto something there. Aren’t they a much better source of inspiration for writing than the good ones? Unlike The Great Gatsby, they invite you to think highly of yourself: “I could do that! I would even make it better!”
And besides, in the end the purpose of writing isn’t necessarily to excel in it. Some of us write just because we…ehm… kind of enjoy it. As much as we hate it from time to time, we can’t be without it. So we keep doing it, even if we’re no Fitzgeraldses.
The beginning of a relationship
In conclusion this isn’t the last I’ll see of Gatsby. Our relationship has barely started. From now on, this will be a book that I’ll return to so I once again can see the performing act of the equivalence of Mozart, words replacing the violins.
For this I thank Baz Luhrmann. God knows how many more years I would have waited to read the book if it wasn’t for the beautiful, sparkling and loving (and actually surprisingly faithful) introduction he made with his movie.
The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann, 2013) My rating: 4/5
Some of my colleagues in the Swedish movie blogger network Filmspanarna also watched The Great Gatsby. Here’s what they made of it.