Why make a Great Gatsby movie? It’s 2013. I’m not trying to say that anything old doesn’t deserve to be made into a movie. And who knows, maybe it’ll wind up being a great film. But it just seems like such a joke. The Great Gatsby? The same book that every high school junior is supposed to read? The same book that lulls every high school junior to an early bedtime as they flip open to page one and attempt to start their required reading? They’re seriously making a Great Gatsby movie?
The Great Gatsby, probably thanks in no small part to its ubiquity on every single high school syllabus in America, it’s transcended literature. It’s like the Bible. Nobody actually reads The Great Gatsby. You’re supposed to, sure, but at this point, it’s been around for so many years, every single generation of students passing down the same worn paperback copies. It’s an ancient source material that’s rarely accessed directly.
No, I don’t even think most of our teachers have read The Great Gatsby. Go ahead teachers, tell me all about how small-minded I’m being. But take a look in the mirror and try to tell yourself that you’ve read the whole book. No, not just the selected readings you’re assigning to your students. I’m talking like every page, the stuff that’s not on the test. Reflections don’t lie.
The truth is, you go to high school and you listen to your English teachers talking about The Great Gatsby. When the lesson plan is a little thin for that day, teach might pull that trick where you go around the room, everybody taking a turn reading a paragraph, feeling bad for that kid who really, really doesn’t want to read out loud, but the teacher’s like, “Well, I could always give you a zero for class participation,” and so he has to sort of stutter along, sweating profusely the whole time, not looking anybody in the eye for the rest of the week because he’s just imagining them, laughing at him behind his back, ridiculing what had to have been his botched pronunciation of the world “irrecoverable.”
And then nobody thinks anything more about Gatsby until it’s time for the test. When I was a high school student, that meant going to a bookstore and buying the Cliff’s Notes, showing up at school the next day where the tech savvy kids were like, “Bookstore? What are you a noob? Sparknotes has this stuff online for free.” Today you can just go online and probably search for the most common Great Gatsby high school test questions, memorizing everything you’ll need to ace the exam.
I never read the whole thing and I got through high school English just fine. In fact, I was on the honor roll. I’m not bragging, I’m just pointing out that The Great Gatsby is this great American joke. This is what we’re passing off as high literature, in what members of Congress would tell you is the best education system in the world. Blah blah blah Jay Gatz. Blah blah blah Daisy. Something about lighthouses on opposite forks of Long Island. Swimming pools filled with champagne. I get it, how decadent.
And now a major motion picture? Starring Leonardo DiCaprio? This can’t be real. It shouldn’t be. Entourage already made fun of the whole idea, with Vinnie Chase starring in a Scorsese adaptation of Gatsby. We’re pushing here past art, past life. We’re at life imitating art imitating life. Doesn’t anybody remember when they did that whole season about the Aquaman movie? They weren’t suggesting that a big studio make an Aquaman movie. They were making fun of the whole big movie business. But it’s like Hollywood didn’t get the joke. Everybody’s laughing at them and they’re just like, “Hmm. The Great Gatsby. That sounds terrific. Get me DiCaprio on line one.”
I’m kind of getting carried away here, but over a decade after Gatsby was published, F. Scott Fitzgerald set out and moved to Hollywood to try his luck as a screenwriter. Despite his best efforts, he left after two years with barely one film to which he was loosely accredited with helping to write. What I’m getting at here is, just because something works in a book doesn’t mean it’s going to work in a movie. And I feel like this is blatantly obvious with The Great Gatsby. It needs a rest, from high schools, from movie screens. Perhaps generations from now somebody will be able to look at it with a pair of fresh eyes. Again, maybe I’m totally wrong, maybe it’ll wind up being a great movie, maybe Fitzgerald’s story about class and wealth and the 1920s will resonate with today’s audiences. But I doubt it.