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The Great Gatsby: Don’t let the new movie fool you, it’s still one of the greatest books


By David R. Altman

Books & Writers Editor

If you’ve never read The Great Gatsby, or even if you read it back when you didn’t enjoy it, you owe it to yourself to read it again. And, I beg of you, please don’t go see the new movie until you have read the book. To experience F. Scott Fitzgerald, you must read his work. 

At seventeen, I was more interested in reading Ernest Hemingway and Robert Frost than I was in understanding F. Scott Fitzgerald or T.S. Eliot. That wasn’t because I had a high school English teacher who pushed one author over another; Ms. McNair was extraordinary, encouraging us to read anything we loved, and each of us, as 11th graders, did just that, becoming odd among our classmates not because we liked certain authors but because we simply liked to read.  

But time has a way of reversing our interests and life can change not only our pursuits but our points of view. I still love Frost, but haven’t read Hemingway since my twenties. Fitzgerald was writing about things I couldn’t know at 17, much less ever experience.The loss of love, the gaining of true friendship and a life restarted several times after multiple failures are the sorts of subjects you sometimes simply have to be around long enough to understand.  

I read the book (again) last month in anticipation of the latest (and sixth) movie version of The Great Gatsby, this one starring Leonardo DiCaprio (as Gatsby) and Tobey Maguire as his neighbor (and narrator of the film), Nick Carraway. In the last major big screen version of Gatsby, Robert Redford played Gatsby with Sam Waterston the narrator/neighbor. 

The newest version of The Great Gatsby is not a great film. It was flawed from its odd production techniques to its out-of-place soundtrack. For example, you occasionally see the actual script flowing across the screen in distracting fashion as Maguire’s character, Nick, is writing it as therapy to help cope with the shock of losing his friend Gatsby. And, while we had the (sometimes campy) Nelson Riddle orchestra doing background music for Robert Redford and Mia Farrow in the 1974 version (for which Riddle won an Oscar), the new one inserts a unique musical twist: rap music being played at Gatsby’s extravagant 1920’s parties.  That’s right, rap music.  See tracklist.

Once you’ve seen the closing credits and Jay-Z’s name comes up as film’s musical executive producer, you clearly see where the nod to pop culture began and the historical accuracy ended. Instead of Duke Ellington we got Goonrock and Fergie. Instead of Louis Armstrong, we got Kanye West and, of course, Jay-Z.  While these are popular, modern-day performers, inserting their music into The Great Gatsby simply makes no sense. 

Jazz was a huge part of the twenties scene, and while there was a lot of it in this film and in the 1974 version, I’m not aware of any rappers back in the 1920s.  

Talk about out of place.  It would be like inserting the music of Pink Floyd into the score of Gone With The Wind or writing Dave Brubeck’s sound into The Life of Pi — it would not only diminish the movie but would create a factual distortion that would be hard for the viewer to overcome.  

  Anyway, except for DiCaprio’s all-grown-up and impressive performance of Gatsby and McGuire’s beautifully underacted role of Nick Carraway, this movie is as forgettable as the book is not. It has opened to mixed reviews (at best).

If you are over forty and have never read Gatsby, don’t see this new movie. Unlike seeing Gone With the Wind before reading Margaret Mitchell’s classic book, this new version of Gatsby does not capture the spirit of the book’s extraordinary blend of language, romance and drama. 

When the book came out in 1925, the New York Times called it “a mystical, glamorous story” although it was some twenty years later when The Great Gatsby became required reading in many high school English classes, perhaps sadly turning off an entire generation of (inexperienced-in-life) readers who would never again pick up the book. 

TIME Entertainment rates Gatsby the seventh greatest book of all time (Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was number one on that list and Shakespere’s Hamlet was number five). 

So, if you’ve got a summer vacation planned and you need a good (relatively short) book to read, put down Vince Flynn and Nora Roberts and treat yourself to a classic. 

Check out The Great Gatsby at the library or download it onto your Kindle and settle back. Fitzgerald will create for you one of the most unforgettable, vivid and beautifully written stories you will ever read.

Then, if you must, go see the movie. But only if it’s raining at the beach.                                                    

For information on the Books and Writers section contact Dave Altman at 

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Mrs. Richard Davis
0 #1 Mrs. Richard Davis 2013-05-30 21:49
Dear Mr. Altman
I enjoyed your article and as I am well over forty, you have inspired me to read The Great Gatsby. My education is sadly lacking as I have not read the book nor seen any of the movies. I will try not to compare it to Vince Flynn (one of my favorites) but will diligently read it until Daniel Silva's "The English Girl" comes out....then it's goodby Fitzgerald.

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