Why try to improve on perfection?
Published 27/11/2010 | 05:00
British and Irish television viewers have been wallowing in the cosy, reassuring make-believe of Downton Abbey, while in the United States F Scott Fitzgerald's little novel about a love-lorn fantasist with untold wealth is currently all the rage.
Yes, the recession is responsible for strange cultural side effects. So what now for poverty-stricken Ireland -- a sudden craving for the fantasy world of James Stephens's The Crock of Gold?
Certainly, 84 years after its first publication, The Great Gatsby has become an unlikely American phenomenon. A staged eight-hour reading of the entire book (with a dinner-break halfway through), has been a most surprising Broadway hit, the Washington Ballet recently performed an acclaimed dance adaptation, while sales of the novel have been soaring.
Indeed, such is the current Gatsby mania that a new movie version, directed by Baz Luhrmann, is due to begin shooting soon, with Leonard Di Caprio as the doomed hero and Carey Mulligan as the unattainable Daisy.
I hope it will turn out to be better than the 1949 version, in which the makers, eschewing all ambiguity and subtlety, portrayed Jay Gatsby simply as a gangster. Still, the sad-faced, softly spoken Alan Ladd brought a poignantly mysterious air to the role, which is more than could be said of Robert Redford's blank performance in the fatally earnest and dull 1974 adaptation.
The basic problem is that the book, more than most novels, is peculiarly unfilmable. Gatsby's name may be in its title, but the most important character is Nick Carraway, through whose eyes and sensibilities everything that happens is registered. It's his narrative voice (in Fitzgerald's beautiful prose) that beguiles us, but how do you translate that into filmic terms? And how do you give substance to Gatsby himself when for Nick he remains to the end an enigmatic figure?
I certainly hope that Luhrmann reins in his flash tendencies and doesn't desecrate one of the few perfect novels written in the last hundred years.