The Great Gatsby and the Great Draper
by Bob Schwartz
At this point, the reviews of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby are mixed, which isn’t surprising. His love of over-the-top spectacle is not to all tastes, and has a tendency to obscure story for fireworks. (His best movie may be his first, most personal and sweetest, the little and lovely 1992 romantic comedy Strictly Ballroom).
Literature to film goes in all directions. Small gets bigger as even the shortest stories are adapted. Big gets smaller, given the need to cut out sometimes huge chunks of narrative. Big gets bigger, as in Gone with the Wind. Big stays big, trying to preserve and show everything, as in Peter Jackson’s still-not-completed Tolkien opus.
The Great Gatsby is a little book. You can read it, even out loud, in a few hours. What has made it endure as one of the great novels is how much Fitzgerald packed into it. Word for word, it is one of the best fictional descriptions of a moment in history; not just that critical moment of the early 1920s either, but maybe every time the country is changing radically, as fortune swings in a blink between good fortune and bad.
Gatsby is not about the parties or the mansions. You can argue that the colorful wildness and glamour and licentiousness make the tragic end starker, so that when narrator Nick Carraway announces that the party is over, we get it. But we can miss the point.
Gatsby is a touching little story about a lost soul in a lost time. The only two ways to tell this story on film are to keep it small, or to actually rewrite and expand the story beyond its outline, to hours and hours of film.
The expanded story is already being made, by Matthew Weiner. Mad Men is the extended, history-spanning story of a fatally charismatic and ambitious man, so ambitious that in keeping with the dynamic times he lives in, he sheds his entire early life and identity to become a successful man of mystery. But he never stops trying to fill the holes that he knows are still there.
Every man wants to be him, every woman wants to have him, nobody knows him. The only difference between James Gatz/Jay Gatsby and Dick Whitman/Don Draper is that so far Draper has managed, somehow, to outlive his younger manhood to reach his middle years without crashing—but coming close almost daily. So just in case the Baz Luhrmann Gatsby doesn’t prove satisfying, don’t worry. The murky madness and capriciousness of Gatsby’s go-and-stop American dream is on view in the epic of Mad Men.