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‘Gatsby’: What’s so great?

In Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” opening Friday, Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan star as Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan.

Warner Bros. Pictures

In Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” opening Friday, Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan star as Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan.

What’s so great about Gatsby? Well, let’s start with its track record.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 masterpiece “The Great Gatsby” began life as “Trimalchio in West Egg,” and was, for a short while, to be called “Under the Red White and Blue,” before Fitzgerald settled on the now iconic title. It got mixed reviews upon publication (though it was championed by T.S. Eliot and Edith Wharton) and only sold about 20,000 copies in its first year.

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But in 1926 there was both a successful Broadway stage adaptation by Owen Davis, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for his play “Icebound,” and a silent feature film by journeyman director Herbert Brenon. According to a letter from Zelda Fitzgerald to her daughter Scottie, as reported recently in the Huffington Post, the film was “rotten and awful and terrible and we left.”

But the book has never been out of print. During World War II, 155,000 copies were sent to soldiers as a piece of Americana. In the 1950s and ’60s, it began to be taught in high school classrooms, and there were plenty more adaptations of it to come. John Harbison premiered his opera “The Great Gatsby” in 1999. (It will be performed by Emmanuel Music at Jordan Hall on May 12.) Playwright Simon Levy presented his stage adaptation of the novel in the summer of 2006. Earlier that year, the New York theater company Elevator Repair Service first put on “Gatz,” a six-hour live reading of the entire novel.

That 1926 movie, which has been lost except for a trailer that somehow found its way to YouTube, was the first of five films based on the book. The newest, with Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, opens Friday.

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So, again, the question: What’s so great about it and why has it become such a prominent element of our literary/pop culture?

The simple answer may be its simplicity. The story, set in 1922, takes the shape of a remembrance by the book’s first-person narrator, Nick Carraway, a Midwesterner who fought in World War I, came back disillusioned, and decided to start over in New York. That’s where he meets up with his second cousin once removed, Daisy Buchanan, and her husband, Tom, whom Nick knew in college. The relatively few other important characters are Daisy’s hot-to-trot friend, Jordan Baker; Tom’s mistress, Myrtle; Myrtle’s unsuspecting husband, George; and Nick’s mysterious and enormously wealthy neighbor Jay Gatsby, who is eventually revealed to be a truly self-made man.

Some think of Gatsby as a romantic figure, others see him as a hollow shell of a man; to some, Daisy is a tragic heroine, to others she’s a mindless twit.

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It’s a story of rich people leading reckless lives, of infidelity and other types of cheating, of carefree excess, impossible dreams, nasty attitudes, and brutal behavior, all of it constructed with layers of irony, everything leading to tragedy. The central plot is that Gatsby, who believes he can have anything he wants, only wants Daisy, another man’s wife, and he cannot have her. Fitzgerald’s book is beautifully written, showing off a masterful control of language, and most important, its characters are open to interpretation. Some think of Gatsby as a romantic figure, others see him as a hollow shell of a man; to some, Daisy is a tragic heroine, to others she’s a mindless twit; Nick might come across as a passive observer or, because of his conflicted silence, someone as immoral as — Fitzgerald’s words — the “rotten crowd” he runs with. The book is short, and can be read in a couple of hours, but most people who do so are still thinking about it days later.

Those purists who consider “The Great Gatsby” to be the Great American Novel will never be satisfied with a film version of it. They’ll argue that the book, seen through Nick’s eyes, is too interior to translate to the screen. But the studios keep trying. Here’s a look at what’s been produced so far, and what’s opening later this week.

The original silent version is lost, but a Nov. 22, 1926, review in The New York Times by Mordaunt Hall doesn’t make you want to find it. All he can say about Warner Baxter as Gatsby and Lois Wilson as Daisy is that they both give “conscientious performances.” Hale Hamilton is “competent as Daisy’s faithless husband,” and the work of Lynn native Neil Hamilton (who years later played Commissioner Gordon on the “Batman” TV series) “is mostly artificial.”

If anything positive can be said about the 1949 version, directed by Elliott Nugent, it’s that no one was afraid to veer from the source material. Gatsby (a stiff Alan Ladd) isn’t the book’s mystery man with hints of a dark past; he’s a gun-toting, hot-headed gangster, complete with two henchmen. The overly moralistic film opens with Nick (Macdonald Carey) and Jordan (Ruth Hussey) — two opposites who, in the book, couldn’t possibly attract — happily married 20 years after the story’s events. The brutish Tom Buchanan (Barry Sullivan) is portrayed as a fairly nice guy with an eye for the ladies. Daisy (Betty Field) is merely bubbly and whiny. The only strong performance is by Shelley Winters as the trampy Myrtle. A sequence featuring a consequential car accident is absurdly animated, causing laughter instead of shock.

Paramount Pictures

Robert Redford and Mia Farrow played the roles in the 1974 film.

The 1974 version was fraught with offscreen drama: after screenwriter Truman Capote was fired for tampering with characters, Francis Coppola turned in a final script; Ali MacGraw was set to play Daisy, with her husband Robert Evans producing, but she left Evans for Steve McQueen, and was replaced by Mia Farrow. The movie flopped at the box office. Robert Redford, as Gatsby, boasted a winning smile, but at 38 (Gatsby is 32) looked too old for the part, and there was no chemistry between him and Farrow. The script stayed mostly faithful to the book, and the production is quite handsome. But the film ran on too long, and too many parts were miscast — notably Bruce Dern as Tom and Sam Waterston as Nick — with only a tawdry Karen Black shining as Myrtle.

Veteran made-for-TV movie director Robert Markowitz tackled the version televised in 2000, with results that might have pleased fans of low-budget Hallmark movies, but certainly not lovers of the book. Everything is over-amplified, from behind-doors arguments between characters to the smirky smile on Gatsby (Toby Stephens) to the annoying preponderance of flashbacks (in one case a flashback within a flashback) that tell everyone’s back stories. Mira Sorvino gets top billing as a fussy, idiotic Daisy, and Paul Rudd comes close to falling asleep onscreen a couple of times in a flat performance as the confused or maybe just bored Nick. The script somehow forgets to mention that Nick is Gatsby’s neighbor, and its writer has the gall to invent the idea that Daisy was the impetus to have James Gatz change his name to Jay Gatsby.

There are no doubt two camps of people waiting for the new Baz Luhrmann version — those with bated breath and those with clenched teeth. Here’s what can be reported: The director of cinematic spectacles including “Romeo + Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge!” stays quite faithful to Fitzgerald, opening and closing the film with the same lines used to open and close the book. The film, like the novel, is profoundly sad: People don’t achieve their dreams, or they end up dead, or they continue being part of a “rotten crowd,” or they tuck their tail between their legs and go home. But it’s been Baz-ified, Luhrmann-ized. It’s big and loud and glitzy and, yes, there’s a quick taste of hip-hop on the soundtrack. And DiCaprio, at 38, the same age as Redford when he made it, looks younger than his age. But only time and ticket sales will tell if he and Luhrmann have made the greatest Gatsby.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.
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