The Resolution Project Book Thirty-Nine: The Great Gatsby (1925)

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books / the resolution project

Note: As I wrote most of this while on vacation in sunny San Diego, this post is a little bit more abrupt than the normally cutting-edge literary journalism you’ve all come to know and expect from me. Also, as most people probably know The Great Gatsby fairly well, (after reading it in high-school English, for example) I’m finding it hard to say something fresh about the book. That said, whether it was due to a fault in the Canadian education system or just a personal failing of mine, this was in fact my first read of the book. I read some Fitzgerald in university, mostly short fiction, and of course knew the basic story of the book, but have only got around to actually reading the thing just now. Leave your angry comments below. Also, what do you think of the new site design?

“Something in her tone reminded me of the other girl’s ‘I think he killed a man’, and had the effect of stimulating my curiosity. I would have accepted without question the information that Gatsby sprang from the swamps of Louisiana or from the lower East Side of New York. That was comprehensible. But young men didn’t – at least in my provincial inexperience I believed they didn’t – drift coolly out of nowhere and buy a palace on Long Island Sound.” (p.50)

The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that.

The Great Gatsby cover

First off, read this, Roger Ebert’s completely justified vitriol concerning a dumbed-down version of The Great Gatsby. While it came out later that the version he was so angry about was actually intended for students of English as a Second Language, the central question still remains: why did they feel the need to change Gatsby of all things? There have been plenty books you might call “easy-to-read” printed in English, so why take one of the most celebrated of all time and render it utterly toothless? My answer to that is perhaps the people behind the project felt that Gatsby is such an essential American story that it should be taught to those just acclimatizing themselves to the country.

Maybe the idea of the “self-made man” still has such a hold over the American consciousness that teaching new immigrants how to reinvent themselves as citizens of the great Melting Pot is of the utmost importance to the nation’s education system. While I can kind of empathize with the idea behind the project, the execution is, of course, appalling. It’s not like the story is especially hard to follow or anything, it’s a simple tale, just extremely well told. Bringing Fitzgerald’s prose down to the level of a “Meet Dick and Jane” vocabulary is a goddamn travesty, as it’s by far the best part of the book. Also there’s the small matter of the translator basically not even understanding the central resolution of the story, that for all of his wealth and fame Gatsby didn’t get the one thing he really wanted. He by no means could be considered a “success”, as Margaret Tarner would have you believe.

Tangent, sort of related by way of the idea of adaptation: Don’t even get me started on Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming Great Gatsby 3D. Sure, make a new version of the movie. The cast and everything look great. Luhrmann proved with Australia that he can make a film that at least depicts the inter-war period visually fairly well. My only problem with the project is the 3D. There were no alien vistas, giant monsters or roller-coaster rides in the book, so why make the film in a gimmicky format that is mostly conducive to displaying those sorts of visual elements?

The producers should look at something like Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, or Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard for inspiration instead, which both show off decadent parties and gorgeous architecture (which I’m assuming is the only reason 3D was brought in, unless a massive rewrite of the text was in order, see above), but maintain their visual interest by way of camera movement, lighting and creative mise-en-scene. So, in short: Fuck 3D movies, especially when you’re adapting a great classic of literature that is not about fighting things or flying around.

Getting back to Gatsby, I honestly loved almost everything about the book. There was a little bit of racist stuff that rankled; a few epithets against black people and Jews which, since I am no real scholar of racial slurs, I couldn’t tell you if those terms would have still been in circulation in the Roaring Twenties. Not that that made it right to use that sort of language then, of course, but you get the idea. Other than that, though, I’m sadly at a loss when it comes to thinking up talking points about the book. It is a classic, and will continue to be a classic long after “easy reading” editions and 3D movies have long since gone the way of the dodo (the video game adaptation’s still pretty cool though, check it out). I’d like to come back to West Egg some time in the future, perhaps once my memories of Comic-Con 2011 have faded somewhat. I’m going to try and talk a little about that soon, too.

Here’s something really interesting that happened to me at Comic-Con:

Lev Grossman and I

The gentleman in the picture with me (I’m the one with the hat) is Lev Grossman, who you may know as one half of the team who decided on Time’s 100 books list. He was there signing copies of his novel The Magicians, which is an excellent read, kind of like if a kinder version of Bret Easton Ellis wrote about the Ivy League version of Hogwarts and also about Narnia. Check it out, the next one in the series, The Magician King, is coming out soon, and promises to be even better.

The Magicians cover

Total pages read since January 1st: 9440 pp.

Total entries on the Time 100 list read since January 1st (not including ones read before 2011): 25

Next up on the Resolution Project: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1986)

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The Author

Matt Bowes is a self-proclaimed cultural commentator/arbiter of good taste from Edmonton, Alberta. He enjoys movies and books, and writes about them sometimes at thisnerdinglife.com.

1 Comment

  1. This is my favorite book of all time and I have regarded it has completely unacceptable to the motion picture medium, at least if the filmmaker is adapting it for Hollywood. However, I did find that this interpretation of it was the best by far, even if it did have a long way to go. I appreciate your review of the film, but suggest that you give the book a solid read through. The prose is worth your time!

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