A friend once wrote a review of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises for our high school newspaper. At the time, I thought that was a little weird. Who reviews a book decades after it’s been declared a classic? Even weirder was that he gave it a bad review. Awkward dialogue, he wrote. Boring story.
I gave him grief about panning the book. You can’t give Ernest Hemingway a bad review.
Why not? he asked
That stumped me. I hadn’t thought of a reason because I didn’t need a reason. It was the Sun Also Rises. It was a classic. It was Ernest Hemingway. That spoke for itself.
But it didn’t speak for itself and I did need a reason. And I didn’t have one because I didn’t know why it was a good book.
I remembered that conversation this past weekend when I saw the new Gatsby movie. I realized my friend had already grasped at age 17 what took me many more years to understand: You don’t have to like something just because it’s a classic.
I read Gatsby my senior year of high school, just like everyone else. It was a story about a guy in 1920s New York who sells his soul to make a bunch of money and impress a married woman he loved, and it ultimately costs him everything. I didn’t like it. Awkward dialogue. Boring story. Contrived ending. Wooden characters. Why would anyone, especially a high school senior, like a book in which the protagonist calls people “old sport” all the time?
Years later, I thought Gatsby deserved another try. I read it slowly. I read it again. I listened to a BBC Radio production of it while I had a long stay in the hospital. Then I read it again.
Having read and listened to it several times as a mature adult who was sensitive to all its subtleties, I reached a conclusion: Awkward dialogue. Boring story. Contrived ending. Wooden characters.
My problem is I just don’t get it. When I read a novel, I like a good story, and it doesn’t seem like there is much of a story there. A bunch of people drinking and and cheating and moping. Staring at lights in the distance. It’s an elegant All My Children.
And what about the character of Gatsby? He was a high-priced stalker with a big house and shady background, a guy who thought he could impress a woman by throwing a lot of nice shirts at her. He threw parties he didn’t attend for people he didn’t care about. All this to win over a woman who seemed shallow, without a mind of her own. How bad could I feel when he gets shot in his own pool?
But it seems I’m on the wrong side of good taste. Even though Gatsby was hammered in initial reviews, many consider it to be the American novel of the 20th century. It still sells half a million copies a year and, partly because of the movie, will probably sell many more for years to come. Maybe it’s our Don Quixote.
So I probably stand alone when I admit that I thought the new Gatsby movie is better than the novel — and, by the way, much better than the 1974 movie starring Robert Redford, which adhered more closely to the original story.
I know it’s not a fair to compare words on paper against a movie with a multimillion dollar budget. But even beneath all the fireworks, the movie tells a story that was invisible in the novel. It’s also a feast for the eyes, especially in 3-D at the theater. Every frame of it seems to be interesting, like its own painting. It has a fast pace and sound track that inject some adrenaline into a novel that seems to be napping after a three-martini lunch.
It’s not perfect. I’m not sure why they have the narrator, Nick Carraway, write the story as he sits in a sanitarium, with the words coming out of his typewriter like it’s an Electric Company for post-graduates. And while I thought Leonardo DiCaprio was fantastic as Gatsby, he never quite figures out what kind of accent he wants to have (“old sport,” still used way too often, comes out about seven different ways).
But overall, it was a lot of fun and kept my attention throughout. Actually, maybe the movie helped me figure out what I was supposed to get about the book all along.