Most writers want to be somebody else. Joseph Heller wanted to be Groucho Marx. Norman Mailer wanted to be Ernest Hemingway. Ernest Hemingway wanted to be God. But that job was taken. So he became Ernest Hemingway instead. Mark Twain did not want to be Edgar Allan Poe, though Sam Clemens did imbibe from time to time. He had way too much Mississippi River in him to be anybody other than Tom Sawyer. After all, Tom could tell a whopper with the best of ’em. That’s a fact.
Thing is that Shirley Jackson wanted to be Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft. Flannery O’Connor wanted to be a saint. They both just about made it. Jonathan Franzen wants to be John Updike. John Updike wanted to be Henry Green and Proust while J. D. Salinger wanted to be Scott Fitzgerald.
Scott Fitzgerald wanted to be Zelda’s husband. Jay Gatsby had a lot of Fitzgerald in him, especially his desire for Daisy Buchanan. Thing is Fitz was that he was as much Nick Carroway as he was Jay Gatsby. Seems to me that Nick went east to become Herman Melville and go after the great American novel, the “Moby Dick” of the twentieth century. As John Lovitz used to say, “Could happen.” Nick managed to gather the material when he arrived East. Jay Gatsby was Captain Ahab and Daisy Buchanan was the whale. Daisy always wore white and her palace in East Egg was white.
The point of all this is that few things are as they seem on the surface. As my granny used to say, “It just ain’t so. You got to dig deeper, Boy, to get to the marrow of the thing.” And, as far as I am concerned, “The Great Gatsby” is not Jay Gatsby’s story. The character arc points elsewhere and that elsewhere is straight at Nick Carroway. Nick is the one who changes in the novel. From beginning to end, Gatsby is after Daisy. As he floats facedown and dead in the pool, he still believes he can have Daisy.
The movie folks don’t seem to get it. They continue to make movies, doing a Somerset Maugham where the Narrator Nick is barely a character and making Gatsby the protagonist. All through the novel, it’s Nick the reader sees change. It is Nick, the country bumpkin, who comes to the big bad city to make his fortune. It is Nick who gets the Daisy treatment. It is Nick who is impressed with Gatsby and all his parties. It is Nick whom Tom Buchanan confides in about his trysts with Myrtle Wilson. It is Nick who is sadder but wiser at the end of the novel.
If the focus is going to be on Gatsby, then what we get is a character study with a plot thrown in at Act 3. And one thing is for sure. Character studies do not good movies make. By the end of the novel, it’s obvious that Gatsby has been scratching at the wrong door all along. But Gatsby never gets it.
Why would Daisy give up everything for Gatsby? Things like a husband who got his wealth the legitimate way. He inherited it. Jay Gatsby got his the nouveau riche way. He gambled for it. Plus Tom Buchanan treats Daisy like a princess. Daisy is no Jordan Baker. She has enough self-understanding to know that she is fragile. It won’t take much to break her. Plus she and Tom have a child together. Old Gatz forgot that. For a mother, a child trumps a dream any day.
Besides she’s pretty happy in the cocoon her husband has made for her. He may be an s.o.b. but he’s the kind of s.o.b. who will give her the security Gatsby will never give her. The Gatz has beaucoup cash now. But her family warned her about the Panic of 1907. “Here today gone tomorrow,” her daddy wisely pointed out to the darling of his eye.
So where does this leave the film maker? With an older, but wiser, Nick Carroway. Mature enough to know that maybe, just maybe, he can make a life with Jordan Baker while he writes that “Moby Dick” of a novel he’s been meaning to write.
I know. That’s not in the novel. But who knows? It could be in the movie.
Do you have a favorite novel or a favorite writer?