When “The Great Gatsby” was published, on April 10, 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald, living high in France after his early success, cabled Max Perkins, his editor at Scribners, and demanded to know if the news was good. Mostly, it was not. The book received some reviews that were dismissive (“f. scott fitzgerald’s latest a dud,” a headline in the New York World ran) and others that were pleasant but patronizing. Fitzgerald later complained to his friend Edmund Wilson that “of all the reviews, even the most enthusiastic, not one had the slightest idea what the book was about.” For a writer of Fitzgerald’s fame, sales were mediocre—about twenty thousand copies by the end of the year. Scribners did a second printing, of three thousand copies, but that was it, and when Fitzgerald died, in 1940, half-forgotten at the age of forty-four, the book was hard to find.
The tale of Fitzgerald’s woeful stumbles—no great writer ever hit the skids so publicly—is suffused with varying shades of irony, both forlorn and triumphal. Fitzgerald was an alcoholic, and no doubt his health would have declined, whatever the commercial fate of his masterpiece. But he was a writer who needed recognition and money as much as booze, and if “Gatsby” had sold well it would likely have saved him from the lacerating public confessions of failure that he made in the nineteen-thirties, or, at least, would have kept him away from Hollywood. (He did get a fascinating, half-finished novel, “The Last Tycoon,” out of the place, but his talents as a screenwriter were too fine-grained for M-G-M.) At the same time, the initial failure of “Gatsby” has yielded an astounding coda: the U.S. trade-paperback edition of the book currently sells half a million copies a year. Jay Gatsby “sprang from his Platonic conception of himself,” and his exuberant ambitions and his abrupt tragedy have merged with the story of America, in its self-creation and its failures. The strong, delicate, poetically resonant text has become a kind of national scripture, recited happily or mournfully, as the occasion requires.
In 1925, Fitzgerald sent copies of “Gatsby” to Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, and T. S. Eliot, who wrote thank-you notes that served to canonize the book when Wilson reprinted them, in “The Crack-Up” (1945), a miscellany of Fitzgerald’s writing and letters. All three let the young author know that he had done something that defined modernity. Edith Wharton praised the scene early in the novel when the coarsely philandering Tom Buchanan takes Nick Carraway—the shy young man who narrates the story—to an apartment he keeps for his mistress, Myrtle, in Washington Heights. Wharton described the scene as a “seedy orgy.” With its stupid remarks leading nowhere, its noisy, trivial self-dramatization, the little gathering marks a collapse of the standards of social conduct. In its acrid way, the episode is satirical, but an abyss slowly opens. Some small expectation of grace has vanished.
I thought of Wharton’s phrase when I saw the new, hyperactive 3-D version of “The Great Gatsby,” by the Australian director Baz Luhrmann (“Strictly Ballroom,” “Moulin Rouge!”). Luhrmann whips Fitzgerald’s sordid debauch into a saturnalia—garish and violent, with tangled blasts of music, not all of it redolent of the Jazz Age. (Jay-Z is responsible for the soundtrack; Beyoncé and André 3000 sing.) Fitzgerald’s scene at the apartment gives off a feeling of sinister incoherence; Luhrmann’s version is merely a frantic jumble. The picture is filled with an indiscriminate swirling motion, a thrashing impress of “style” (Art Deco turned to digitized glitz), thrown at us with whooshing camera sweeps and surges and rapid changes of perspective exaggerated by 3-D. Fitzgerald wrote of Jay Gatsby, “He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.” Gatsby’s excess—his house, his clothes, his celebrity guests—is designed to win over his beloved Daisy. Luhrmann’s vulgarity is designed to win over the young audience, and it suggests that he’s less a filmmaker than a music-video director with endless resources and a stunning absence of taste.
The mistakes begin with the narrative framing device. In the book, Nick has gone home to the Midwest after a bruising time in New York; everything he tells us of Gatsby and Daisy and the rest is a wondering recollection. Luhrmann and his frequent collaborator, the screenwriter Craig Pearce, have turned the retreating Nick into an alcoholic drying out at a sanatorium. He pulls himself together and, with hardly any sleep, composes the entire text of “The Great Gatsby.” He types, right on the manuscript, “by Nick Carraway.” (No doubt a manuscript of “Lolita by Humbert Humbert” will show up in future movie adaptations of Nabokov’s novel.) The filmmakers have literalized Fitzgerald’s conceit that Nick wrote the text—unnecessarily, since, for most of the rest of the movie, we readily accept his narration as a simple voice-over. Doubling down on their folly, Pearce and Luhrmann print famous lines from the book as Nick labors at his desk. The words pop onto the screen like escapees from a bowl of alphabet soup.
When Luhrmann calms down, however, and concentrates on the characters, he demonstrates an ability with actors that he hasn’t shown in the past. Tobey Maguire, with his grainy but distinct voice, his asexual reserve, makes a fine, lonely Nick Carraway. He looks at Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby with amazement and, eventually, admiration. As Nick slowly discovers that his Long Island neighbor is at once a ruthless gangster, a lover of unending dedication, and a man who wears pink suits as a spiritual project, some of the book’s exhilarating complexity comes through. (The love between Nick and Gatsby is the strongest emotional tie in the movie.) DiCaprio, thirty-eight, still has a golden glow: swept-back blond hair, glittering blue-green eyes, smooth tawny skin. The slender, cat-faced boy of “Titanic” now looks solid and substantial, and he speaks with a dominating voice. He’s certainly a more forceful Gatsby than placid Robert Redford was in the tastefully opulent but inert adaptation of the book from 1974. DiCaprio has an appraising stare and he re-creates Fitzgerald’s description of Gatsby’s charm: that he can look at someone for an instant and understand how, ideally, he or she wants to be seen.