Borne Back: Explaining The Popularity of 2013’s “Gatsby”

Earlier this year, I was at a party when it came up in conversation that I was a film student. As is often the case, I was promptly asked what my favorite movie is, to which I gave my usual “that’s a hard question” before listing a couple random good movies to answer the question. I then turned the question back on her, my usual tactic. Her answer:

“I don’t see a lot of movies, but I guess lately I really loved The Great Gatsby.

It’s something I’ve heard a lot over the past year among people my age. (and in fact, songs from the film’s high-charting companion soundtrack were playing at that same party).The most recent film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, starring everyone’s favorite Oscar-loser-who-doesn’t-need-your-sympathy Leonardo DiCaprio, is an anomalous success story.

Many would likely argue that this success is unsurprising given the novel is one of the most-read American novels ever. But what’s surprising isn’t that the movie did well, it’s that it became popular among the youth demographic. You know…people who aren’t known to run out to see the newest adaptation of great American novels taught in high schools. How did Warner Brothers and director Baz Luhrmann engineer a stuffy 1920s book into a mainstream youth-oriented pop culture hit?

The film, released almost exactly a year ago, made $50 million on its opening weekend (an impressive feat given competition from Iron Man 3) on it’s way to an eventual $350 million global gross. Luhrmann, the Australian master of bombast (of Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge fame), was coming off of Australia (2008, with Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman), a notorious debacle which understandably made him step back and return to the type of flashy, energetic, all-inclusive stuff he had been making before. It’s definitely encouraging to see him rebound so well, and it was also undoubtedly the right choice for the studio to move Gatsby from its original Holiday 2012 release date to Summer 2013, when many of the kids who just read the book were getting out of school.

But just because teens are familiar with the book doesn’t mean it’s a sure bet. In 10th grade my English teacher showed the class the Robert Redford version from 1974 and it was boring. Really, stupidly boring. I ended up watching Pineapple Express on my iPod in the back of the room. Based on this alone, I would have expected many students would actually be turned off by the movie, knowing it’s based on a stuffy 1920s story about the failure of the American Dream and the futility of reliving the past. If you had a boring experience with the book in the classroom, why spend money on the movie?

But, Redford notwithstanding, my 10th grade teacher did a good job relating the themes of The Great Gatsby to our lives, making it one of my favorite books I had read in high school. And so, two years later I found myself at a midnight screening of The Great Gatsby. The theater was packed full of people of high school/college age. A friend of mine even wore a Great Gatsby t-shirt, as if it was a superhero movie. It was immediately clear to me that there was something different about this movie that was drawing people my age to it, and it wasn’t scholarly interest.

So, returning to my question: How could a symbolism-rich literary adaptation of a high culture novel from the 1920s gain and maintain popularity amongst the youth culture that in the same year made The Hunger Games: Catching Fire 2013’s highest-grossing movie, while simultaneously remaining fixated on Miley Cyrus and listening to Blurred Lines on the radio every five minutes?

Whether or not you agree that the movie was any good (I’m fairly indifferent to it), Warner Brothers was successful in every way regarding the production and marketing of the film. What Luhrmann and Warner Bros did was take a good look at today’s pop culture and asked themselves, “how can we make a Gatsby for them?” And they did it. It begins with Luhrmann’s trademark flamboyant designs, here employed in the movie’s many party scenes:

“Oh my God, people in the 1920s liked to party, too! And they liked to spend money! And drive fast cars! They were just like us. I literally CAN’T!”

Of course, at times the film meshes the 1920s and the 2010s together so aggressively that it literally makes no sense, hence the anachronistic use of hip hop and the strange racial stuff going on that I won’t even touch.

I’m not saying the book itself can’t relate to our times without the amount of congruencies the film creates; The Great Gatsby is essentially timeless. But the movie goes to such great lengths to appeal to its intended audience that it eventually diverges from the book’s most important message: that all of the glamour, money, and excessive partying of the roaring ’20s was just a way to fill a void, and that it eventually leads to ruin.

Forget that Fitzgerald had a supremely important message to tell — why does the book have to be such a buzzkill? It’s so cynical. What self-respecting mainstream audience member wants to see a movie that basically takes mainstream culture and says, “yeah, you’re actually living an empty, soulless existence and you should really cut it out.”? That doesn’t sound like $350 million worldwide. That sounds like Robert Redford being boring. Luhrmann doesn’t want to bore his audience anymore. That’s what Australia was for.

So instead, the movie fixates on all the stuff that the book was undermining. The huge parties, the melodramatic love triangle. It’s no accident that the two Oscars the movie won were Best Production Design and Best Costume Design. These are awards focused on looks, exteriors, surfaces. Luhrmann keeps some of the symbols, like the eerie billboard that graces the book’s famous cover, but without the actual words to accompany it, it loses all of its meaning. It’s just an eerie billboard now. Iconic, but void of substance. I guess that makes it symbolic in a different way. Meanwhile, one of the most poignant and visual symbols in the book — a fake, hollow library — is nowhere to be found.

Most importantly, the filmmakers appealed to the youth market on an ideological level, effectively changing the very DNA of the story to fit today’s youth culture, which is undeniably marked by excess and egocentrism (something I’m fairly certain most would agree with, even those who engage in it).

To best illustrate this, look at Executive Producer Jay-Z. He also executive produced the film’s soundtrack, performing the first track “100$ Bill” a charming rap about money, and from what I can tell, it isn’t very critical of wealth (not that I’d ever except Mr. Carter to be critical of wealth). On the album’s cover, the letters “JZ” stand in for the “JG” of the film’s poster design, basically indicating Jay-Z as a modern James Gatz. Why he’d want to equate himself with the tragic figure of the book is beyond me — maybe it’s because Jay-Z chooses to ignore the pessimistic-yet-necessary tragedy of the book, as Luhrmann seemingly has.

Hold it right there, you might be thinking. So the film focuses on the parties and the money, but couldn’t you argue that this is just because the characters in the book also focused solely on those things? Isn’t it just putting you in the position of this world? Sure, but while the book makes abundantly clear by the end what it wants to say. The film doesn’t. And so, the one line that resonated with me more during the movie than in the novel is when Daisy exclaims, “Everything is so confused!”

During a film history class this semester I learned about the “Australian heritage film,” a type of film that has received criticism for projecting a desired image of Australian society onto the past, so that the past confirms the present and validates current lifestyles while remaining nostalgic for the past. It may or may not be coincidental that Luhrmann is Australian, because based on this description, he has created an “American heritage film”, one which confuses the past and present, not just artistically (which is ultimately the conscious decision of the director) but ideologically. A society obsessed with excess is not censured but celebrated.

Say what you want about the film itself. I personally think it’s kind of hit-or-miss, but it’s decently made and moves along at a brisk enough pace.  I certainly understand the appeal. My point isn’t to say anything about the quality of the movie. It’s just to say that this isn’t the same story that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, for better or worse.

In the novel, Gatsby’s life was the tragedy. In the movie, the only tragedy is Gatsby’s death. And that is essentially what makes Luhrmann’s film a Gatsby for the YOLO generation.

– Sam

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