With the release of Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s, “The Great Gatsby,” an extravagant, 3D spectacle no less, the debate over literary license begins anew. Luhrmann has a history of appropriating literary lions — see his Romeo + Juliet as case in point — and making them palatable for modern audiences.
A traditionalist might argue that F. Scott Fitzgerald is turning over in his grave at Luhrmann’s creative interpretation. After pretty much drinking himself to death as he slogged away his waning years on sloppy screenplays, I seriously doubt Fitzgerald would be surprised at how cinema interprets the written word. They are, after all, different artistic mediums, film being one he could not master.
A post-post-modernist would argue that Luhrmann gets a new generation (or any living generation for that matter) interested in great works of literature. And, they’d have a point. Whether this 21st Century Gatsby ultimately sinks or swims, book sales will go through the roof. Already a staple of literature classes with an annual haul of nearly 500,000 in annual sales, Gatsby lives on well beyond the grave. The movie, however, will bring an “Oprah-sized” audience to the short novel and propel it to the top of many bestseller lists.
I’ll see the movie at some point. I won’t stand in line at midnight, but I’ll see it, eventually. And, with Luhrmann’s particular brand of eye candy, I figure I’ll be alternately appalled and enthralled by the dazzling pyrotechnics.
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Also, I’ll wonder why he made the curious choice to bring hip-hop to the Jazz Age. I realize the works of Jay-Z, will.i.am and Fergie resonate in a way with today’s young audiences that Coon-Sanders’ Original Nighthawk Orchestra never would. But why not give Coon a chance? It’s almost impossible to listen to his delicious “I’m Gonna Charleston Back to Charleston” without at least tapping your toes to the bawdy rhythms. That song and other Jazz Age staples such as Eddie Walters’ “Makin’ Whoopee,” Johnny Marvin & Leonard Joy Orchestra’s “Happy Days are Here Again” and the Colonial Club Orchestra’s “You’re the Cream in My Coffee” so perfectly capture the euphoric despair of Fitzgerald and his Lost Generation. Why not hear them in their original form, or at least in updated versions by today’s artists?
It’s a quibble I have, but in the grand scheme, a small one. The story is what matters here. When I’m asked for my favorite novel, I cringe to give an answer, feeling it’s like picking one child over another. But Gatsby’s up there. It’s definitely the book I’ve read the most often. And, perhaps, the fiction I’ve learned the most from.
On the following pages, I provide four life lessons I’ve learned by reading and loving The Great Gatsby.
1. Listen to dear old dad.
The Great Gatsby begins with my favorite opening line from a literary work.
“In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my head ever since.”
Whether it is a father or mother or some other mentor who offers advice, we should close our mouth a little more often, open our ears a little wider and hear what they have to say. Maybe they’re not always right, but more often than not, they have a nugget of wisdom that vibrates through us from our head to our toes with the clarity of a tuning fork.
For me, that epiphany was in those anxious moments before marriage. Dad and I stood off to the side, waiting our turn. “Don’t lock your knees,” he said to me.
“Right,” I said. We’d often sat in matching recliners on Sunday nights watching funny videos, laughing at poor bridegrooms with locked legs tilting, tilting, tilting and finally tipping over like a fallen tree.
“And breathe,” he said.
“Yep,” I said. “Gotta breathe. Got it.” I took a breath. I gulped air, sucking at least half of the room’s oxygen supply into my lungs, until I thought I might pass out.
Finally, the music started. My fiancée would make her appearance any second. I swallowed air, and, with my knees bent, bounced on the balls of my feet. Through the videographer’s lens I looked like a hyperventilating ape.
“One more thing,” Dad said.
“Your wife is always right.”
“Always agree with her and you’ll never have any trouble.”
And with that word, I got married.