What Luhrmann’s Lacks, Fitzgerald’s Struggles Under: The Weightiness of Death in “The Great Gatsby”

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby” is lush like Keats’ poetry. Reading the novel in high school, I missed this lushness, the passages dripping with beauty and the prose rhythm he develops so wonderfully through Nick’s narration — a rhythm that becomes physiological as the words start to beat along with your heart. I hadn’t re-read “Gatsby” in about 9 years: Obviously, my 16 year-old opinions on literature were the correct ones. But perfect Carey Mulligan drove me to a second reading last week, and this time I was floored by the weightiness of the story Fitzgerald tells.

And it is exactly this weightiness that I think I missed as a high school reader, and exactly the weightiness that Baz Luhrmann’s film misses. On the whole, I liked Luhrmann’s interpretation of the text. One of my reservations about the film version, though, is that it doesn’t capture the abject dread that permeates the text even from the very beginning. In the book, even before that iconic line about driving towards death is uttered by Nick, the reader knows subconsciously that this whole novel, this whole time, has been a race towards death.

Indeed, as far as I can make any definite claims about a novel so enigmatic and so inscrutable, this story is finally a story of death. Yes, it is about the Twenties and about money and about class, but these things are shallow things; they do not weigh, they are not heavy like death is. And death hangs over this book; it drips off of the characters’ tongues and clothes and ideas and lives. Their money makes them careless, but death will have them, too, in the end.

It’s not only about death in the literal sense. Sure, some of the characters die, but death in this novel captures not only bodies, but also the intangibles — it captures dreams and it captures eyes and it captures our hearts as readers. And when we feel the weightiness of this in the tone and text of the novel, we know intrinsically that “Gatsby” is about more than unbridled spending and a sense of entitlement by the upper class.

It’s hard to put one’s finger on anything in the novel, and harder to represent something as intangible as death, but I think this is what Luhrmann’s film lacks. And it’s a shame, because in a world where nothing is so certain as death, and nothing so prevalent as excess and pride and self-centeredness, perhaps being reminded of the end to which we are inevitably, always, unceasingly moving is good in fact for our souls.

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lc-e1358128566135Laura Creel (@Little_Utopia) is the managing editor of Little Utopia.

Previously from Laura Creel:
Please, Google Glass, I’m Just Not That Cool
Charles Ramsey, Amanda Berry and the Value of Human Connection
A Discussion on Leaning In and Having It All, and Why It’s Maybe Not For Me
What Amanda Berry Has Taught Me
Zach Braff the Everyman

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5 responses to “What Luhrmann’s Lacks, Fitzgerald’s Struggles Under: The Weightiness of Death in “The Great Gatsby”

  1. I thought he turned something closer to an Ayn Rayn romanticism of the uncompromisable individual force of the human will into something more like E. L. James. I didn’t expect anything else from Hollywood though

  2. I haven’t read that since I was 16 either but now want to! I loved your article and think you hit it right on the head (despite not seeing the movie yet, I can already tell from previews that your analysis is right and they chose glamour over the weightiness of death). Also, I’ve never thought of death so optimistically until now, seriously. You nailed it 🙂 Great article!

  3. sbeditor11: Thank you for your kind words! I’m glad that it made you think. I would recommend the film, despite my reservations, because it’s a visual circus, but definitely re-read the book. That’s where the awesome lies!

  4. TheIdleSavant: It’s been a long time since I’ve read Ayn Rand, so that’s principally why I’ve avoided answering your post: I’m not sure that I can comment knowledgeably on it. I can, I think, comment on James, though, even though I’ve only read snippets of her work. I assure you, those few snippets were enough.

    I don’t know that I would say the Luhrmann’s film resembles James’ work. It’s not lurid or salacious, and I do think it has artistic merit. I don’t think James’ work can be classified as “art,” although I’m sure some would argue with me, and I know her books are lurid and salacious.

    I understand what you are saying, though, in that Luhrmann plays up the love story aspect. I don’t mind that, though. I thought some of the best chemistry and acting in the whole movie came in Daisy/Gatsby flashback scenes and in their meeting again in his house. And I don’t know that I would personally make this claim, but I think some people would argue that Daisy is not a pinnacle of achievement for Gatsby, but that he really loves her, and that the love story really drives the entire plot. If I understand your comment correctly, it seems like you would think differently. Thoughts?

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