What is it about the book The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald that has such broad appeal in the 21st century? Last week, I went to see the Baz Lurhmann version of the story in the very appropriate Grade II listed-Art Deco context of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Hall.
While I am not ashamed to admit that I think Luhrmann’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet is excellent, the problem with his version of Gatsby is that the plot isn’t in need of his embellishment. Shakespeare’s dialogue is, of course, evocative; however, the simple plot relies on support from performance and stage setting. F Scott Fitzgerald’s text on the other hand is such a nuanced story that there is very little scope for the director and actors to do apart from endeavour to live up to the source material. This obviously was the conclusion that New York theatre company Elevator Repair Service came to when they decided to inaugurate ‘Gatz,’ a seven-hour performance that involved a word-for-word reading from the book.
The decade in question was characterised by a boom for the US economy. The contemporary resonance could be something to do with reassessing our values in a time of recession. The mansions and extravagance perhaps bring to mind the individuals and organisations that got rich in the 80s and 90s and by all accounts continue to do so, while ordinary tax payers struggle and the gap between rich and poor widens. Nearly one hundred years after the book was published, the rich still sometimes seem to live by a difference code of law and ethics.
These themes are combined in F Scott Fitzgerald’s book with a period of stunning visual culture and his amazing piquant dialogue: “For a while these reveries provided an outlet for his imagination; they were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing.” His characters are believable although they are highly stylized. Not an overnight success, The Great Gatsby became popular during World War II when it was distributed to the American armed forces to remind them of home.
As the book was released from copyright restrictions in 2011, we will probably see more adaptations. It is hardly surprising that artists and directors want to tackle the material – often with very charming results. Lucy May Schofield has produced an intimate watercolour (which, I must confess, hangs on my bedroom wall) and I also found this wonderful cover design – both would encourage me to read the book if I hadn’t already. Although not a perfect film, if Luhrmann’s adaptation encourages a few new readers of the original text, that can’t be a bad thing.