I haven’t seen the new Gatsby film but from what I’m hearing it doesn’t exactly surpass the book. The writer Irvine Welsh tweeted yesterday: ‘Two hours in, I never wanted to see anything by F Scott Fitz again. Please: read book first or don’t let this movie put you off the book’ and also ‘Gatsby looks great, acting is good, but I sensed they wanted to make a ‘movie of this classic novel’ rather than actually felt the material.’ It’s not true that film can’t improve on literature – Kubrick’s version of The Shining has a better ending than the book – but when directors try to update a modern classic embarrassment generally follows. You get Baz Luhrmann doing Romeo and Juliet, and making it about drug dealers or something, and it just doesn’t work. The more I read about Luhrmann’s Gatsby film, the more it sounds like the Entourage version.
There is a condescending contemporary idea that people cannot ‘get’ classics if they are not made more ‘relevant’ to people’s lives. True, great writers were creatures of their own time and their works are littered with archaic signifiers and allusions that make little sense today. Nicholas Lezard points out that Dante’s Inferno is filled with the poet’s axe-grinding and Florentine political allegiances – ‘He loathed some people so much – those who had behaved treacherously to guests – that he couldn’t even wait for them to die.’ So good translations, contextualisations and commentary are essential. But what do you make of education curricula that encourages schoolkids to recreate World War Two using Mr Men characters? And we wonder why we are turning out generations of young adults who can’t write a job application that most people would understand.
Consider also the impact of set and setting on the plot. Many classical storylines are driven by customs and taboos that no longer exist. In her excellent essay on Fitzgerald, Sarah Churchwell explains that transported to a contemporary setting, no one would care where Jimmy Gatz’s money came from. He could be exposed as a Russian mafiosi and today’s London elite wouldn’t blink. As Churchwell says, ‘Today the illusion of Jay Gatsby would not have shattered like glass against Tom Buchanan’s ‘hard malice’: Gatsby’s money would have insulated him and guaranteed triumph – an outcome that Fitzgerald would have deplored more than anyone.’
There are of course contemporary dramas like The Wire and Breaking Bad that in their richness and moral complexity echo the ancient Greek tragedians and the great Russians. Don Draper is a Gatsby in his way. But David Simon, Matt Weiner and Vince Gilligan were trying to create something new whereas today’s liberal pedagogues and celebrity directors who rework classic art just end up patronising the audience and wasting everyone’s time. The scramble for timelessness is a fool’s game and good writers know this. I remember seeing Bret Easton Ellis, at a reading in Manchester, responding to a criticism that his novel American Psycho had become dated. Ellis said that (I paraphrase) ‘It was dated while it was being written.’ Like the political references of Dante, the long closed bars, restaurants and forgotten Manhattan topography of American Psycho didn’t make the novel any less fresh – in fact, it’s that very archaic nature of such references that makes the feel of the novel. You don’t achieve timelessness on purpose. You achieve it when you write a great story.
And the demand that everything be made ‘relevant’ always reminds me of the office bore who tells you, ‘There’s more to life than books, you know. Live in the real world.’ As if the world of books, stories and dreams were any less real than mortgages, barbecues and fucking pension plans?
(Image: Rigo Design)