The Magazine

Lost in Translation

‘The Great Gatsby’ on film is doomed to failure.

Feb 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 23 • By RACHEL DICARLO CURRIE
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American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.

If Turner was correct, then 1890—the year Census Bureau officials declared that the United States no longer had a “frontier”—marked a watershed. Throughout Gatsby, Fitzgerald connects the frontier with America’s historic capacity for reinvention, implying that the absence of a frontier means diminished possibilities. As UCLA’s Richard Lehan has noted, even the name of Gatsby’s mentor (Dan Cody) “suggests the beginning and end of the frontier,” a marriage of Daniel Boone and Buffalo Bill Cody. 

During his final visit to Gatsby’s Long Island mansion, Nick contemplates a time when all America represented the frontier, when European seafarers encountered “a fresh, green beast of a new world.” Both he and Gatsby are wistful for their own Lost Edens. Gatsby believes that marrying Daisy—reaching the green light—will consummate his dream. But Nick takes a different view, informing us that Gatsby’s dream “was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.” Unlike his West Egg neighbor, Nick recognizes the impossibility of repeating the past, but he also appreciates Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope.” While Jay Gatsby epitomizes “everything for which I have an unaffected scorn,” the onetime James Gatz “turned out all right at the end.”

In that sense, Nick’s contradictory feelings about Gatsby reflect Fitzgerald’s paradoxical attitude toward the American Dream. He certainly had a romantic attachment to his country’s founding ethos. In a 1929 short story entitled “The Swimmers,” he captured the abstract nature of Americanism: “France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter. .  .  . It was a willingness of the heart.” Years later, Fitzgerald asserted that American history “is the history of all aspiration,” making it “the most beautiful history in the world.” But he also lamented the gap in America between aspiration and reality. He feared that the aboriginal American Dream—the dream of Dutch sailors and westward pioneers—had become unattainable, but he admired those quixotic souls who still pursued it. “The test of a first-rate intelligence,” he wrote in 1936, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

Such nuance does not easily translate into cinema. So it’s no surprise that Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby avoided grappling with any of the Big Questions raised by the novel. It dwelt, instead, on lesser themes appealing to mass audiences: lost love, hedonism, Jazz Age excess. The result was decent entertainment, without evidence of its author’s underlying message about America. Fitzgerald wanted The Great Gatsby to be “a consciously artistic achievement.” And it is, in literary terms. Just not for the movies.

Rachel DiCarlo Currie is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

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