Why The Great Gatsby Remains The Best Reflection Of The American Dream

We say the book is the Great American Novel of the 20th Century - it is looking pretty prescient of the 21st Century too
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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald was published in 1925, before its author was even thirty years old. In the book, Fitzgerald more or less predicts the Stock Market Crash of 1929. After a summer of wild parties and booze-soaked soirées, a drunken Daisy runs down Myrtle killing her in the road, and on that night Gatsby’s dream dies too. Fitzgerald once said of the 1920s that he was pretty sure “living wasn’t the reckless, careless business these people thought.” He knew something was fundamentally wrong with the moral fabric of society and he predicted that it was only a matter of time before the whole “bonanza” came tumbling down. And it did. “As if reluctant to die outmoded in its bed, the decade leapt to a spectacular death in October 1929.” The morning after Daisy kills Myrtle, her long-suffering husband Wilson kills Gatsby as he finishes taking a swim in his spectacular pool.

Now, in our own time, we see a similar sense of moral unease about the way people are making money, the way the American Dream is being realized. That was true when we made the film a few years ago and I think it is still true now, maybe even more so. Certainly, the bankers, the politicians, and the real-estate moguls, the very same ones who would have attended Gatsby’s glittering parties almost a century ago, are still the ones running the show. Maybe they never stopped. Either way, critics tend to say that The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel of the 20th Century — I would proffer that it is looking pretty prescient of the 21st Century as well. You certainly could not get a better reflection of the period we are in currently, for my money, than Nick Carraway’s observation the first time he attends one of Gatsby’s parties: “It’s like an amusement park.”

When I was a very young boy, growing up in a small town in Australia, my father ran the local cinema, down the road. Naturally, I saw a lot of movies. But from the moment I saw Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I knew what I wanted to be. I wanted to be Robert Redford. To a kid like me, a dreamer growing up in the middle of nowhere, he was the coolest. And so I guess it makes sense that I can still remember when, a few years later, I went to see his 1974 version of The Great Gatsby, full of excitement; after all, this was “the new Redford film.” I remember, when the final credits rolled, that I sat there in the dark thinking “wow, that was really, really beautiful, but I don’t ‘quite get it’” — to be honest, I left the cinema with no clear idea of who this Gatsby character was. Had he killed a man, or hadn’t he? He sure looked great in his pink suit and flashy yellow sports car, but was I even supposed to like him? A few years after that, in high school, I read the book, as do most kids. But, like most kids, that didn’t help at all. Probably, it made things worse. As time passed, Redford, of course, stayed cool as hell in films like All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor, The Natural — the list goes on and on and on — and I started to gravitate more and more towards theater and the many other creative aspects of my life. For a long time, I confess, I gave no further thought to the perennially mysterious Jay Gatsby.

Whenever I finish any long project I like to go off on what I call “a debriefing adventure” — to rest and to get my “imaginator” running again. In 2001, I’d just finished Moulin Rouge and I decided that this time I would take the Trans Siberian Express across Russia, from Beijing through Manchuria and Irkutsk and on to Moscow. Alone. I suppose I thought this would be romantic. A first-class cabin was reserved and off I went. And, well, my cabin was a sardine tin, with a rackety air conditioner and an old babushka handing me a hose and yelling “This! You go! Now! Shower!” I quickly realized that this was not going to be the great poetic experience I’d had in mind — it was going to be more like Crime and Punishment.

American actor Robert Redford on the set of The Great Gatsby based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and directed by British Jack Clayton
American actor Robert Redford on the set of The Great Gatsby based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and directed by British Jack Clayton
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Luckily, I’d packed a generous supply of Australian red wine, plus a few audiobooks on this new contraption called the ‘iPod.’ One of those books just so happened to be The Great Gatsby. A few hours into the trip and already feeling sorry for myself, I succumbed to temptation, uncorked the wine, put in my headphones, poured, and, as I lay back and began to listen — “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since” — watching the birch trees rush by through the darkening window — “‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had’” — feeling the rhythm of the train, the power of Fitzgerald’s storytelling, his incredible poetry, suddenly I found myself hearing and understanding Jay Gatsby for the first time. I spent the whole next day waiting for night to fall so I could have the same experience all over again. And when I finally did get to those immortal finishing words — “Tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther... And one fine morning — So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past…” — There I was, alone, racing across the plains of Siberia and, suddenly, I was gripped with an overwhelming passion to make a movie of the Great American Novel.

For my wife Catherine Martin and me, part of our creative joy is immersing ourselves in and living the life of whatever project we’re doing. Once we are committed, we take all our creative collaborators into that world with us. For Moulin Rouge we moved to Paris and steeped ourselves in the world of the fin de siècle and the Montmartre of the 1890s. For Gatsby, we followed in Fitzgerald’s footsteps, arriving in New York City by ocean liner, as Fitzgerald once had, to glimpse that “Incalculable city … built on a wish… a miracle of foamy light suspended by the stars… this was the greatest nation and there was gala in the air!” Soon, there wasn’t an inch of Long Island that we hadn’t covered. Or a fingerbowl of champagne we hadn’t drunk. And on the way back into Manhattan, yes, we too put the top down and absolutely: “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.” With our team, we went on to read all of Fitzgerald’s love letters and short stories, and we met with the leading scholars, and were very fortunate to have their help, especially the wonderful Anne Margaret Daniel and James L. West III, who edited Trimalchio, the early galley version of The Great Gatsby, as well as Don C. Skemer, the curator of rare books at the Princeton Library. We even had the good fortune of spending one warm summer afternoon amid the campus ivy, thumbing through the original handwritten manuscript of the book that you now hold in your hands. Of course, we couldn’t help but also experiment with F. Scott and Zelda’s infamous passion for alcohol… Did I mention that? Maybe we went a bit far with that one… To quote him: “One’s perfect, two’s too much, and three is never enough.” Sadly, we were never arrested for dancing in the fountain outside the Plaza Hotel, but writing this reminds me… Jokes aside, I can say honestly that I feel like I did come to know F. Scott.

One thing I learned, and this was a major signpost for both me and my cowriter and longtime collaborator Craig Pearce, as we worked on the screenplay, is that Fitzgerald was a great fan of Joseph Conrad’s work, especially Heart of Darkness (1899). Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which is a retelling of that book, is one of my all-time favorite films; and, like the book, the film is built on the Orphean myth of an innocent who journeys into an underworld, a place of lost souls, encountering an iconic, demonic figure. In Apocalypse Now this is Marlon Brando’s Walt Kurtz. What is interesting about these characters is that while they at first appear to be the main characters, they don’t actually transform or evolve at all as the story progresses, as we might expect of a protagonist. Instead, Kurtz dies the same man he was on the day Willard finds him, with ‘the horror’ on his lips. Gatsby, another of these characters, we realized, dies the same “elegant roughneck” that he was on the night Nick first meets him at one of his parties, with “Daisy” on his lips. In Apocalypse Now it is Willard, the narrator, who is transformed, through his encounter with Kurtz. And in Gatsby it is Nick Carraway, also the narrator, who is transformed through his encounter with Jay. While the novel is named for Mr. Gatsby, the truth, we realized, is that this is Nick’s story.

Fitzgerald is very deft at this: Nick is actually writing his own book, within Fitzgerald’s book, about the strange, slightly ominous neighbour he just so happens to have moved in next door to. In the early pages, he tells us about “Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book.” In Chapter 3, he reflects, “Reading over what I have written so far…” In other words, Nick is using the process of writing to chart the course of his changing feelings for Gatsby. At the outset he confides to the reader that Gatsby “represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn,” but by the end, the last thing he calls out to Gatsby before he dies is: “They’re a rotten crowd…. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” It is Nick who is transformed by his journey into and then out of disillusionment.

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When Jay-Z, with whom I worked on the music for the film, first saw a rough cut, he said “It’s aspirational. This isn’t about whether Jay Gatsby is a criminal or not. The question we’re talking about is: is he a good person or not?” Near the end of the book, Gatsby reveals to Nick that he is, in fact, a lie, a self-invention. His real name is James Gatz, and he is a poor boy from nowhere, North Dakota, who was born with nothing save a grand vision for himself, “an instinct toward his future glory.” Gatz runs away from home at age 16 and works and apprentices and scrapes his way across America, from North Dakota until he lands in Louisville on the eve of World War I. There, he enlists in the army and meets a beautiful, rich girl named Daisy. He can’t tell her he’s penniless, and luckily, his uniform hides the truth. Instead of telling Daisy who he really is and where he’s from, he makes up a new name for himself: and Jay Gatsby is born. They fall in love, but then he must go off to the war. While he is away fighting (and becoming a war hero) Tom Buchanan, the richest man in America, swoops in and steals Daisy away. Gatsby spends the next five years, and indeed the entire book, trying to get back to that point where his American Dream all went wrong, to make Daisy love him again, for fear that unless he does so, unless he erases her love for Tom, he will never attain his ‘future glory’. Now, when Gatsby reveals this to Nick, Nick realizes that “oh no, that way lies madness…” He senses that Gatsby is so romantic, so aspirational, has such impossibly high ideals, that his dream cannot possibly end well. “It had gone beyond [Daisy], beyond everything. [Gatsby] had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way.” And of course it all ends tragically. Gatsby is too romantic to survive — he dies in pursuit of his “incorruptible dream.”

After seeing this tragedy unfold, what is Nick left with? The tabloid press and the summer’s revelers write Gatsby off as a climber, a bootlegger, and, finally, a murderer — but in Nick’s estimation, Tom and Daisy are the real villains. “They were careless people,” he tells us, “they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” After all, they can afford it. They were born with it. “It’s in our blood,” says Tom. The only vision he and Daisy have to offer the world is one of loveless self-preservation. Gatsby, on the other hand, is the hero, the only really and truly good person in the whole story, because he is the only one who aspires to a purpose higher than himself. He believes in love. He’s willing to take the rap for Daisy. He has “an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” Yes, Gatsby has impossible ideals: Daisy is the physical realization and the green light the metaphysical symbol, both always just out of reach. But Gatsby keeps reaching. That’s why he’s “Great.” And in the end, his tragedy inspires Nick to pursue his own ideals, his own purpose, to live for his art — Nick confesses in the opening pages that he has always wanted to be a writer— and that journey begins with him going back to his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota, after Gatsby’s death, to write down the story of his friend…

It is a story Fitzgerald was familiar with, because he lived it. There’s a moment in 1919, after he’s flunked out of Princeton, after he’s fallen madly in love with a girl who is just a bit “too good” for him (Zelda, the Daisy to his Gatsby), when he runs off to New York City to be a writer, an “ad-man” in this brand-new thing called “advertising” by day, an artist by night, promising Zelda that he’ll be a big success and that he’ll send for her and everything will be amazing. But he fails. And the girl doesn’t come. And so he’s forced to go back home to St. Paul, Minnesota (sound familiar?), his tail between his legs, destined, he thinks, to fade into obscurity. But instead, in drunken desperation driven by mad love, he drops his youthful pretension and starts to reveal his true self by chopping up all his bits of writing — his poems, lists, love letters, songs — and he sticks all of these disparate elements together with no fear of what this new form will be, or whether anyone will accept it — after all he has nothing left to lose — and he calls this crazy boozy collage of a mash-up This Side of Paradise. For what it’s worth, when we made the film, we tried, in style and in gesture, to keep this 23-year-old madness and lack of self-consciousness alive. When Fitzgerald’s manuscript is finished, he sends it to his publishing friend, Maxwell Perkins, and although the powers that be don’t really understand it, Max does; he senses in it something new, a modern idea, a fresh, vital form, and he wins his colleagues round, after they reject it outright, by offering his resignation: “If we’re going to turn down the likes of Fitzgerald, I will lose all interest in publishing books.” In the blink of an eye, Fitzgerald wakes up famous, and he and Zelda get married, and before they know it they are back in New York, this time riding on top of taxi cabs and splashing in fountains and across the front pages of this other new thing called “the tabloid media” as the flesh-and-blood embodiments of the Jazz Age, the “youthquake” and “the Metropolitan spirit,” terms Fitzgerald coins in this moment when “gin was the national drink and sex the national obsession.” In the years that followed, he became the torchbearer for his generation because his work, all of it, expresses something visceral that the youth know, but can’t quite articulate.

Perhaps the success of Gatsby as a snapshot of its age also damned it to be frozen in time, neatly framed and hung up on a wall in the years that followed. What I mean is, even those who love the book may have convinced themselves that it is merely a beautiful object, to be handled with care, a poetic internal narration of a time gone by, one that we have convinced ourselves that we have left behind — when in fact what is so energetic about Fitzgerald’s book is that it is a living, breathing creature, its fundamental reflections of our society apply as much to now as to the Roaring Twenties.

But what is most powerful to me about The Great Gatsby is not its critique — it is its prescription. Jay may wear a bright pink suit and drive a flashy yellow sports car, but he shows us that the way to make the world great again is to live not for ourselves but for those ideals that are grander than ourselves. Yes, live for the green light, even though it is and always will be just out of reach. Fitzgerald liked to say, and I think he’s right, that the test of a keen intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in your mind, at the same time, and know that both are true. In other words, of course the green light is impossible to attain, and yet, it is all we have. And we must protect it. I think that if we can hold those two thoughts, if we can recognize just how confused everything is and still pursue art and purpose, as Gatsby inspires Nick to do, as Fitzgerald did and challenges us to do, then we will be all right in the end. I may have missed this the first few goes around, but I know now that this work is more necessary than ever.

F. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack on December 21, 1940, while eating a chocolate bar in his apartment in Hollywood. He was 44 years old, and had spent his last few years writing mostly unsuccessful screenplays for MGM Studios. He’d also completed 44,000 words of an unfinished novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon. Some people say that his books were out of print, but they’re wrong — that year Fitzgerald sold nine copies of Tender is the Night and seven copies of The Great Gatsby, earning royalties of $13.13. The rest of his books were sitting in a warehouse at Scribner’s or gathering dust on the shelves of bookstores around the country. Fitzgerald himself could occasionally be spotted, in those final years, wandering in and out of stores buying up copies of his own books, just so that they’d register some sales. In the months prior to his death, he expressed interest to his long-time editor, Max Perkins, in releasing a compilation of all his books, “perhaps with my name taken off them, to attract the under 36 crowd.” This went nowhere, as did many other half-baked schemes. Most depressing of all, to Fitzgerald personally, was the fate of The Great Gatsby. He wrote to Perkins:

Would the 25-cent press keep Gatsby in the public eye — or is the book unpopular? Has it had its chance? Would a popular reissue in that series with a preface not by me but by one of its admirers — I can maybe pick one — make it a favorite with classrooms, profs, lovers of English prose — anybody. But to die, so completely and unjustly after having given so much. Even now there is little published in American fiction that doesn’t slightly bear my stamp — in a small way I was an original.

I think it is safe to say that F. Scott Fitzgerald would be thrilled to know that this edition of Gatsby, written in his own hand almost 100 years ago, is being published right now — so that his green light will stay blinking out there in the darkness, at the end of Daisy’s dock, inspiring readers of this generation and many more to follow their incorruptible dreams.

This foreword by Baz Lurhmann accompanies the handwritten manuscript of ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Available now, in hand numbered, limited editions of 1,800, published by Saints Peres Books

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