Jay McInerney, writing in the Guardian last month, tried to understand the enduring power of The Great Gatsby. His answer was writerly: it's the prose, stupid. "Without Fitzgerald's poetry," McInerney says, "without the editorial consciousness of Fitzgerald's narrator Nick Carraway, the story can seem threadbare and melodramatic." According to McInerney, Fitzgerald's vivid, taut, witty prose is why the upcoming $120 million adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio will never equal the book—and why no future adaptations ever will either.
But one could argue that without that threadbare, melodramatic story, "Fitzgerald's poetry" would strike us as overwrought, decadent, purple. "A breeze blew through the room," Nick tells us upon entering the Buchanan estate, "blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling—and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does the sea." A couple paragraphs of this every so often is magical. A couple hundred pages, unmoored from any sense of forward propulsion, would be a poetic snoozefest. The prose needs the story the way a bullet needs a gun.
If the quality of the story is at least as important as the quality of the prose, we're still left with the question of what makes the story so compelling, so alive, so nation-shaping, so great? The short answer: wealth.
Wealth, and the particular habits of wealthy people, is not just one of the main concerns of The Great Gatsby, it's also a plot catalyst. It's why Daisy marries Tom instead of Gatsby; it's what Gatsby believes will win her back. It's why people flock to Gatsby's lavish house parties; it's why Gatsby's able to throw them. It's why struggling mechanic Charlie Wilson, feels so powerless when his wife begins cheating on him with Tom. It's why Daisy, in the end, doesn't leave Tom. If Fitzgerald's prose is the lifeblood of the book, money—who has it, who wants it—is its tirelessly throbbing heart. Wealth touches every surface of the story, inflects even the way characters talk. In that famous hotel fight, Tom takes aim at Gatsby's Tourette's-like overuse of the phrase "old sport," a poor attempt at sounding wealthy: "That's a great expression of yours, isn't it?"
Judging by the lustrous color palate, costumes, and set decor of the trailerfor Baz Luhrmann's upcoming movie and the "luxury rap" soundtrack accompanying it, the allure of wealth is also the draw of this latest version of Fitzgerald's novel.
From a cultural standpoint, you couldn't have picked a better time to turnThe Great Gatsby into a blockbuster movie. Now more than maybe ever, we seem obsessed with the habits, advice, and stories of wealthy people. Our music is about being wealthy; our TV shows feature wealthy people; our motivational quotes are attributed to wealthy, successful people; our policies are dictated by them. We regard hedge fund managers and rappers with the same mix of envy, disgust, fear, and admiration as Nick regarded Gatsby. They are transfixing. They are flawed. And when they fall, they usually take a lot of people down with them.
But from an economic standpoint, you couldn't have picked a worse time to adapt Gatsby. Why, in an America limping under historic levels of unemployment and income inequality, give us a story about a decadent era of oblivious wealthy people? Wouldn't John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath be more appropriate?
One wonders if the moviegoing public will realize that the real spoiler forThe Great Gatsby isn't that Charlie Wilson kills Gatsby, then himself. The real spoiler was written by history. Four years after the book came out, and seven years after the events depicted in the novel, Wall Street had its great crash. It isn't just the prose or the money-driven plot that makes Fitzgerald's fictional tragedy so true, so mythic, so great. What makes it endure is the fortuitous way the book, in its oddly sympathetic portrayal of a careless, self-centered, and wealthy elite, seemed to predict a national tragedy. One wonders if we'll be needing an adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath soon enough.