As I have mentioned several times in the previous posts, I am in favor of reading the book before seeing the movie. That said, I did see the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby many years ago before ever reading the book.
I know. I’m so ashamed.
In my defense, I was still in high school I think, and I really only watched it because I totally love Robert Redford. I was just a little girl when the movie was made, but by the time I was in high school, he was already way too old for me. Nonetheless, I had total teen fan-girl crush on him. Now, I know that is no reason to watch a movie based on a book that critiques the social mores of the 1920s, but hey, I was a shallow teenage girl once upon a time ago.
I have to admit that I do not remember much about the 1974 film, except that I did not like Mia Farrow. I thought her portrayal of Daisy Buchanan was just terrible. She was flighty and flakey and no depth whatsoever. I felt she just flitted about, dancing and singing whenever someone talked to her and basically acted like an airhead. Not to mention that she totally broke Robert Redf…er I mean Jay Gatsby’s heart twice. Oh, and yeah, I do intend to completely ruin the plot, so if you have not read the book or seen the 1974 version of the movie and know nothing of the story, you might want to stop reading this until after December.
Having read the book, my opinion of Daisy Buchanan has not improved at all, but I am even more unhappy about Mia Farrow’s performance. Daisy Buchanan is an utterly shallow person. She is selfish, unaccountable, obtuse, and dishonest, traits which are hidden by her beauty and overwhelming wealth. To play her as a flighty airhead who is just too confused by love and trapped in an unhappy marriage and just doesn’t really know what to do about it, I think unfairly downplays the complexity of her character.
Now, I can understand why she married Tom Buchanan instead of Gatsby. In the movie, it is clear she did not marry Gatsby because he was poor. In the book, it is unclear what she knew of his financial standings. He tried everything he could to cover up his poverty and let her think he was wealthy. Then he left town and went to Europe, leaving Daisy alone and broken-hearted. Granted, he went to war, but when the war was over, he did not return to the US, but instead went to Oxford where he apparently did not attend the college. Jay had not made his fortune yet and did not want to return to Daisy a pauper. In his absence, Daisy met Tom Buchanan and probably any number of endless suitors. Tom was handsome, rugged, confident, rich, and most importantly, present. While he may have been a bit of a brute, a racist, and an all around jerk, he did love Daisy.
Daisy was a young girl, probably just out of her teens, naive, anxious to fall in love and get married. Tom Buchanan, in his youth, was everything a young girl in her situation could hope for. Gatsby was, quite frankly, not around to marry.
As an adult, Daisy was rash, careless, shallow, and above all, rich. She carries on an affair with Gatsby leading him to believe she never loved Tom. She always loved Gatsby. And though she promises to leave Tom for Gatsby, I don’t think it’s clear whether she would actually follow through with that promise.
Tom in turn, treats Daisy like she is a child, is a bit of a brute, carries on lurid affairs not even trying to conceal his infidelities from his wife. Yet, when he finds out about Daisy’s affair, he sort of loses his mind. In addition, he’s a small-minded bigot who is callously indifferent to the suffering of other people and the problems he creates for them.
The story is told through the eyes of one of Daisy’s distant relatives, Nick Carraway. He is obviously from a family of means. He’s a Yale graduate, a veteran of The Great War, and is a bond salesman. He does not live the life of a wealthy man, but as a somewhat above average working man. He lives in West Egg New York and is Gatsby’s next door neighbor. He is pulled into Gatsby’s world through his friendship with Gatsby and his relation to Daisy.
At the beginning of the book, there is a lot of mystery around Gatsby. He throws lavish parties that all the best people attend, but he almost never makes an appearance himself. There is no shortage rumors about who he is and how he made his wealth. The rich and important people who attend his parties and enjoy the fruits of his supposed ill-gotten gains have no qualms about disparaging him at every turn. Tom Buchanan is no exception. In fact, as the story progresses, Tom makes it his goal to expose Gatsby for a fraud, probably because he rightly suspects his wife of having an affair with Gatsby.
Nonetheless, it becomes clear through the course of the novel that no matter how wealthy, Gatsby will never be able to really touch the inner circle of acceptability among the truly wealthy. At one point in the novel, Nick refers to Gatsby as a Trimalchio. This is a term I actually had to look up. It is from the Satyricon by Petronius. I read the Satyricon on college and one would think I know this word. Sadly, I did not recognize it. The word means a freedman who has worked his way to wealth and success by the fruit of his own labor. Among the truly wealthy, this means Jay will really never fit in with them. This is fine with Gatsby for the most part because the only person he cares about reaching is Daisy. But the distinction is important to Daisy. Tom may be a brute. She may be trapped in an unhappy marriage. She may even really love Jay Gatsby. She may really want to leave Tom. She does not, however, want to leave the comfortable trappings of a respectably wealthy society. Regardless of what happens at the end of the book, it is my belief that she never would have left Tom for Gatsby.
The real story in the book is not the love affair with Jay and Daisy. The real story is the excesses of the super rich; their careless indifference to the world around them; the exclusivity of their inner circles that cannot be penetrated by the newly rich and other impostors; and their unaccountability to their crimes and the lives they destroy in the wake of their fun and drama. The romance between Gatsby and Daisy and Tom’s affair with Myrtle are merely the best example of this.
The two victims in this book are Jay Gatsby and Myrtle Wilson. They were both trying to enter this exclusive world by two different paths. Both failed miserably. The hero, if one can be found here, is Nick Carraway. The story is told from his perspective. He illuminates this crazy lopsided world for us and tries to make some sort of sense of it while offering his own sort of commentary.
I am really looking forward to Baz Lurhmann’s version of this story. The novel is lax in lavish description of Gatsby’s parties and the rest of the world the wealthy embody. This lack of description can leave a director a great deal of latitude to make things as wild and as crazy as they like. After watching his version of Romeo and Juliette and Moulin Rouge, I know Lurhmann is up to the task. I just hope he does no just turn the movie into just a tragic romance, but can also capture the social critique that comes through in the novel. We shall see.
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