The Great Gatsby: What the 2013 Movie Says About Our Society Today

Leonardo DiCaprio as the Great Gatsby in the 2013 film.
Leonardo DiCaprio as the Great Gatsby in the 2013 film.

I first read the Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald when I was nineteen. Because of the generational differences and having never watched the movie at the time, I missed a crucial bit of information: What the “Eyes of T.J. Eckleburg” meant. I figured that it was some vague cultural reference, valid only to the 1920s, and unimportant to the plot. One day, however, I got an itch to read up on what the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg were exactly, and what I discovered further unlocked the message of the story: the loss of morals for the chase of material wealth in America does not equal happiness and is not the real American dream.

For those who are as confused about this symbolism as I was, T.J. Eckleburg was an oculist, or glasses doctor, in New York. He had billboards where he stared down at passersby with vacant eyes hidden behind spectacles. The feeling of these ads was rather creepy – a Big Brotheresque god-man watching you, not letting you see what he is thinking of you, but certainly not looking pleased. We all know that stony, unnerving look of disapproval from our parents, or teachers, or other elder figures. It is not a look you want to be earning. One such T.J. Eckleburg billboard was located on the road going into New York City from Long Island, near the mechanic’s shop where Tom Buchanan’s mistress lived with her husband. These eyes silently witnessed all the sinning that goes on in this book – Daisy Buchanan committing a hit and run on Tom’s mistress, Jay Gatsby taking the blame, Tom visiting his mistress with her husband, the lying, and various other shenanigans. These eyes were there to silently judge them as they all traveled into the city to drink and carouse, and watched them leave again with their consciences dirty.

T.J. Eckleberg
T.J. Eckleberg

T.J. Eckleburg’s eyes were hence a symbol for the lack of morality practiced by the characters in this book. And perhaps this symbol goes even deeper, suggesting the confusion of material wealth with happiness. Somewhere along the way, someone confused happiness with wealth and pleasure. But clearly, at least judging by these characters, wealth is not enough to make you happy. Jay Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan, Tom Buchanan – they are some of the unhappiest people I have ever “met” through literature. Their splashy lifestyles and lack of morality as they idly chased what they wanted, feeling entitled to all, and spending money without worry does not seem to bring joy to anyone, only hurt.

This is indicated by Daisy’s unhappy marriage to Tom that she remains in, even after having the opportunity to leave, in order to continue living her lavish lifestyle; Tom’s need to cheat on Daisy with Myrtle Wilson and his almost sadistic enjoyment of getting away with the affair under Mr. Wilson’s nose; Myrtle’s tolerance of Tom’s cruelty and his wife in exchange for a nice secret apartment in the city, servants, parties, and the attention of everyone around her that she would never have received in her real life living above a garage; Jay Gatsby’s need to shamefully hide his past and run an illegal business in order to stay rich and respected; and Jay Gatsby throwing lavish parties that he does not even enjoy himself except to impress people, which do not earn him many real friends who genuinely care whether he lives or dies. In the Great Gatsby, and also in real life, momentary pleasure is everywhere, but consequences are too. Living without morals or ethics can be fun, but the wake of destruction that lifestyle leaves behind is terrible for all involved. All the characters in this book suffer in the end for their actions. Jay Gatsby even ends up dead because of his involvement with Daisy Buchanan and her selfishness.

With such a deep moral message in this book, it may be a challenge for a director to convey that message in a movie. But it is not impossible. Does the new Great Gatsby movie accomplish showing the moral of the story well? And if not, why does it fail? Is its failure a possible reflection of our modern-day values and morality?

Undoubtedly, there is something exotic about Gatsby’s world. A rich man, in a huge mansion on the bay, throwing parties of excess regularly, is something many people are fascinated with. This is primarily because, typically, people do not live in mansions on the bay and they just don’t have the money to set out massive spreads of roasted pork and fish, hire orchestras, and set up carnival tents in their yards. The people who do possess the ability to throw such parties may simply not be as fascinated with this story. Also, The Great Gatsby is set in a different era, where everything from small talk to hair is wildly different from today. Seeing such an era portrayed is fascinating and exotic, a taste of something we can never experience. But focusing on this is not what the Great Gatsby is supposed to be about.

Splashy Party Scenes Like This Take Up a Lot of the Movie's Focus.
Splashy Party Scenes Like This Take Up a Lot of the Movie’s Focus.

The new movie does devote more energy to its visual effects – wardrobe, party scenes, violence. Color and sound is bright, as if emphasized over morality. The decision to present the movie in 3D further enforces the appearance that this movie is for the special effects and not the emotional story line. It chooses to zero in on the exotic.

This movie’s focus on these exotic fascinations rather than the moral of the story may suggest our society is more interested in the facade, not the reality; in what we can see and cannot have, not the heart of the message. This is ironic, since The Great Gatsby is all about people living under a façade and not seeing the reality, often by choice. Beneath the exotic world of Gatsby is a moral message of unhappiness in the loss of morals and in chasing material wealth and finery. The characters feel this unhappiness, but do not consider why and try to make changes to their lives. If our movies today choose to focus on the façade of radiance rather than the inherent message, it says a lot about how deeply people wish to explore ideas of morality today. It would seem that they are more interested in the façade and the glamor, just as people were back in Fitzgerald’s day. Hence, it seems we have not learned the importance of morals. And we have not reevaluated our morality any more than Fitzgerald’s characters did.

Perhaps another indication of lack of morality in this movie was the director Baz Luhrmann’s departure from the plot. To make the movie “more immediate and dangerous,” he has Nick Carraway narrating from a lunatic asylum. He changes the narrative in places to make it seem like more of a memoir than simply a tale of a man’s experience with a lifestyle he discovered he was too moral for. Again, he is focusing more on the exciting and exotic – sociopaths, driving an innocent man to insanity with their wicked behavior. The book is far more subtle than that. His creative freedom is a great way to add spice to a classic tale, but it shifts the audience’s perspective away from where the original story intended it to go. The fact audiences are willing to let their perspective be diverted in such a way may suggest that the average public just wants to see something new to stimulate their senses, rather than appreciate an old tale and its message.

Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway in the Mental Asylum.
Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway in the Mental Asylum.

But is Hollywood’s recreation of the Great Gatsby really an accurate reflection of our society’s moral state? When we take a look at reviews of the new movie on popular reviewing sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, we discover what may come as a surprise: Many viewers can tell that this movie is trying to be a sensation, that it is all an elaborate show with no emotional or moral depth. They lament how the movie focuses on the vulgar and the splashy, not the true feelings of characters. Many feel that the special effects are overdone, further voicing their disenchantment with the material and their deeper interest in the emotional. Emotional development of characters is largely missing, many reviews state; the characters are cast well, played well, but not given the time in the movie to win our hearts or break our hearts. The thing that seemed to irritate audiences most of all was the movie’s deliberate departure from the story line: modern hiphop beats thrown on the soundtrack, extra narratives by Toby Maguire. “You may certainly be impressed, but you may not be moved,” wrote Tom Long of Detroit News.

Perhaps our society is not as shallow as it seems, and not as determined to see something shocking and new? Perhaps it is really Hollywood determined to focus on the glamorous façade? The viewing public seems to actually care about moral messages and it does indeed glean the moral messages from books; and then it expects those moral messages to be delivered in the movies based on the books. For some reason Hollywood thinks that people just want the glitz, and they choose to focus on that. They try to make sensations in their movies, failing to deliver any meaningful content to viewers. Their idea of what sells seems to work – The Great Gatsby grossed over $144,840,419 in 2013. But Hollywood does have the advantage of advertising, of making people want to see the movie to form their own opinion, and of catching “unaware” audiences who have not read the book. People may not agree and may not really be influencing this focus on the material side of stories such as the Great Gatsby, and may instead want more. The reviews on sites such Rotten Tomato speak volumes about what audiences really think.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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When I was 7, I wrote a story about a raven named Nalwut. Now I'm 22 and author of 3 novels. I spend my days freelance writing, playing with my dogs, and drinking mimosas.

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  1. Probably my most hated book I’ve ever read. Couldn’t stand it. I respect it though, because it wouldn’t be as popular if it wasn’t good, I just personally hate it.

    • Was telling a coworker basically the exact same thing last week. I loved reading books throughout school but this one was just horrible.

    • Robyn McComb

      I know a lot of people who hate this book! Was it because of the selfish characters that you didn’t like it?

    • Hate and respect usually don’t mesh together.

  2. I didn’t expect to like the movie as much as I did. It took a bit to get used to the music, but it did fit once I adjusted to it, which is probably due to the awesome amounts of style throughout the movie. It’s not a perfect movie, but definitely a very good one. Now, I know people who love the book that don’t like it as much, but that’s usually the case with books turned to movies. Though, I would have liked for a little more attention on Jordan, who was just kind of there to progress the plot (idk, maybe that’s how she was in the book as well).

    • Robyn McComb

      Jordan has definitely been neglected on both Great Gatsby movies. She was not a key figure in the book, but she was definitely an important part of Nick Carraway’s moral development and his realization that he did not want to be like or around these people anymore.

    • Lucilla Conners

      Well I guess I’m a dissenter in that respect, because I love the book AND liked the movie! And YES! I would’ve liked to see more Jordan was well. She kind of just drops off at one point.

  3. This one can’t beat Robert Redford’s Great Gatsby and that one can’t beat the book. Somethings needs not to be re-made or made at all into a movie. TOO many modern things in this movie and they should’ve stuck to the book itself.

    • Robyn McComb

      I agree with you 100% Hayley. Thought it is always interesting to see the adaptations to film.

    • How dare they do their own take on the book! I realize you are entitled to your opinion but so are they. The music was a unique infusion of old with new and they were trying to take a film that showed the flagrancy and fakeness of some of these people i the 20s and try to make it really connect to now. For one thing, because there are a lot of people that act in similar manners now. It is a social criticism of the past and present. I know there is a lot more to it also and there is so much that it is has to say, but I think a lot of people in modern times can take something from this film and story.

    • Baz used modern music to give the modern audience a sense of the energy that the jazz of the 1920’s gave to those people, used grandiose and flamboyant parties to try and give us an idea of how impressive the parties would have been to those living in the 1920’s.

      The Redford Gatsby was too slow and plodding, too boring, and for the most part was miscast. The actors and actresses in this film were wonderful and emotional, the environment was intense. While Baz did fall back on some unfashionable film tropes within the movie, I believe this film did the novel justice and envisioned the 1920’s setting in a more modern light to appeal to the modern audience.

  4. Thanks for a balanced take on it. I read the novel about 20 years ago (part of English lit class) and thought the novel wasn’t half bad, but it’s very character focused which is important to make its point. Granted losing “this character is thinking this” ability of the screen, it’s not an easy transfer from book to screen (a lot of classic novels suffer from this). Good to know if you go in with just watch the movie for what it is, it still works.

  5. H

    Thorough article! I wondered how many people, of those who had read the book and perhaps had seen older movies, thought that the music devoted to the “spectacle” rather than the story. When I had first seen trailers, I thought the music seemed to be a silly contrast to the film versions I had seen before. But soon I realized that the only way we could fully understand the grandeur lifestyle was to use current music that evoked those emotions. We hear Jay-Z and think of a self-made millionaire from OUR time. After that, some of the spectacle started to make sense to me. But with that said, this film was directed by Baz Luhrmann. It had to be outrageous.

    • I hadn’t considered this before, this makes a lot more sense now as I too complained about the mismatched music in the film but I suppose this could have been why they chose it. I do like the modern take on the novel, specifically because at the time it came out, many young people would have been studying it for GCSE’s. I think modernising it enabled them to understand and relate to the novel better (not that they wouldn’t be able to understand the novel anyway).

  6. ScorpiusNox

    Was Nick in an insane asylum during that movie? I got that he was receiving psychiatric care, but I assumed it was just for depression or what have you, something for which he could receive outpatient care. I guess it’s likely they didn’t have outpatient mental care back then, though. I, uh…I don’t know history so well <_< .

    Anyway, I really like this article, and I think you touch on some key differences between the past version of the movie and the present version that I've seen mentioned before. If you need any indication that society now is very different from society back then, you need know nothing other than the fact that certain members of America's upper crust took to throwing "Gatsby Parties" in response to the release of the film: lavish, wild, and wasteful. Anyone who manages even a rudimentary understanding of the story's message knows that such activity flies in the face of Fitzgerald's intentions.

    The truth is that being rich and being selfish do not directly correlate with being unhappy. Hell, I'd say that truth is even represented in the novel itself; Daisy isn't happy, Gatsby surely isn't happy, but it doesn't seem like Tom could be happier! He's rich, he had a long-term affair with zero repercussions to himself, and in the end, he flies off to vacation in some foreign nation with the beautiful wife Gatsby wanted. He got everything. He won. I believe that's part of the message.

  7. ariannaavena

    I personally loved the original Robert Redford / Mia Farrow film. It to me felt more genuine and true to the book then the Leonardo DiCaprio film or recent. But I suppose it’s not always the films goal to be exactly what the book is. Taking artistic liberties is important as well. And I think the new movie made the film very relevant to the masses of our generation and therefore provided more access to the great work of literature than the previous film could have done.

  8. The idea of making the Great Gatsby into movie was thrilling to hear about because so many had read the book. I think though that people were expecting to see what they saw when reading the book. They wanted those emotions that the characters had to be expressed on the big screen and many of those weren’t there because of the director’s idea for glitz and glamor took over. Like the idea of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg eyes were not expanded upon like in the book, if one had not read the book the eyes were just a billboard that the characters passed. There was no concept to grab hold of and take flight with in the movie like the book does with morality.

  9. Iva Gay

    I thought this movie was brilliant, although I can understand how people’s perception of it was split. Its very much a movie that you really have to get into to enjoy. Luckily this wasn’t too hard to do since the script flows beautifully, having the advantage of being adapted from a piece of iconic literature. If you go into the movie expecting a suspensful plot, gripping emotional performances, and exciting action scenes, you will be dissapointed. However, if you want to be dazzled by amazing visual effects, be immersed in a brilliantly recreated setpiece of 1920’s America, and take a break from real life for the duration of its running time, you will enjoy it.

    • I agree I couldn’t take my eyes away. It is one of my favorite novels and I thought this film version did it great justice. I can see some people being put off by the jump cuts used to show pace of life as well as just how little people thought, and how little the things they were doing and saying mattered. Also I see some people getting blatantly arrogant and annoyed simply because they tried to fuse old with new on the soundtrack and give the movie some slight modern feel. How dare they try to show that some people in the present are just as fake and shallow.

    • I understand that this film was trying to celebrate the grandiose New York jazz age of glamour and excess, but it just didn’t work for me. Let’s face it, this flick’s target audience is kids. It has style (garish, at that), but no substance. The wall-to-wall music (all contemporary, Jay-Z, electro-swing, etc.) didn’t help either. This was a period piece that reeked of modernity. I was ready to walk out of the theatre during the first 30 minutes; the extended party sequences were ludicrously modern. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the novel much more.

  10. Mary Awad

    I thought the movie was good until the end…the end was awesome. The end struck all the right chords for me, it made me feel the exact same way the end of the book did. I’m not the book’s biggest fan given, I couldn’t even read it all the way through on my first time. But if the whole movie made the viewer feel the way they did at the end, then it would have been an incredible film.

  11. RobinYourgrave

    While I feel that your assessments about ‘The Great Gatsby’ and its modern film adaptation are accurate, I think that you miss the mark in that your main gripes with the film seem to be what all modern cinema is pandering to. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the movie–far from it, in fact. Take the horror genre, for example. How long has it been since we have seen a slasher film with the poignancy of say–‘A Nightmare on Elm Street.’ Remakes abound, audiences just want the spectacle. They care little about plot or the implications that surround that plot, just about body counts and gallons of gore. This is the reason that indie gems (Ti West’s ‘The Innkeepers’ comes to mind) live and die as sleeper hits. I’m getting off on a tangent here, but I do agree with your assessments. I just think it is true of most films that make it to the multiplexes, not just those based on the literature of old.

  12. I think that part of the problem is in the way that both the novel and the film are marketed. I can recall teachers saying to me that Gatsby is all about lavish parties, unrequited love – stuff that is supposed to resonate with folks who are 16-19 years old. The film – right down to the anachronistic soundtrack – seemed to be marketed in the same way. Look at all the partying, the drinking, the fun that these characters are having (consequences be damned). As such, the “point”, at least to the extent that film/literature can make a point, is overshadowed by the louder and more flashy moments. It’s tough. On the one hand, those points are necessary, but on the other, how can those points of extravagance NOT be the most memorable. It’s the same reason why I remember films like “Saving Private Ryan” for the beginning scene (as opposed to the end) or why “Wolf of Wall Street” was so complicated (should I be laughing or shuddering?)

  13. Jane Harkness

    Great Gatsby is one of my favorite books, and although many disliked the recent movie version, I personally really enjoyed it. There were definitely a lot of flashy visuals, bright colors, etc., but I was captivated by that. The extravagance was such a huge part of high society in this decade that I can see why the filmmakers really brought that aspect to the forefront.

    • Robyn McComb
      Robyn McComb

      Nice to hear from someone who likes both movie and book. Glad you were able to get enjoyment from both and not let the movie’s drifting from the book ruin the movie for you! That’s hard for a lot of people.

  14. n3v3rgirl

    If I’m understanding your point of view, this movie like so many others focused more on romanticising the era, trying to make the audience long for a better time, as you said to make it look exotic?

    • Robyn McComb
      Robyn McComb

      Yes that is pretty much what I’m saying. I was also mentioning possible moral interpretations of the book and why the movie may have chosen not to focus on that for social reasons.

  15. I read The Great Gatsby for A Level and fell in love with it, and consequently Fitzgerald has become one of my favourite authors. At first I was angry at how much the film deviated from the book, but on second thoughts, and especially after reading this article, I think perhaps the focus on the extravagant scenery and costumes is an attempt to mimic the subtlety of the original narrative; whilst we focus on the thrilling party scenes and modern soundtrack we get lost in the moment and the characters and their morality is only a second consideration. It is also important to remember that Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby before the Wall Street Crash, so perhaps it is worth considering that modern film adaptations play on hindsight. Despite my reservations for the film, I think it is fantastic if it encourages more people to read the original novel and raise interest in a fascinating period. Brilliant article.

    • ha, I’ve also just realised my username reflects my love for the book

    • Robyn McComb
      Robyn McComb

      Very interesting point about pre- and post-Wall Street Crash. Maybe we focus so much on the glamor and glitz now because we know what happened later?

  16. I wouldn’t describe these characters as having a total lack of morality. Sure, their ability to comprehend what their actions meant to others displays a correlation to their limited capacity to empathize with others. Saying a character has a limited perspective is one thing, saying they have a total lack is another. In a sense, you’re exaggerating who these characters are to make a decent point, but not an accurate one. Your description of them as “sociopaths” is a telling example. Describing Mr. Wilson as “insane” is another instance, but that’s so vague and irresponsible an evaluation as to be incoherent, so I won’t go into it. It’s the equivalent of someone describing themselves as having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder because they like their room a certain way and get angry when it’s disturbed. You would be laughed out of a Psychology classroom if you thought that was an adequate diagnosis. If we want to have a serious conversation about who people are and what their actions mean, we have to be able to define these terms. A “sociopath” is shorthand for Antisocial Personality Disorder, which is diagnosed by meeting the following criteria:

    A) There is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three or more of the following:
    1. failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest;
    2. deception, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure;
    3. impulsivity or failure to plan ahead;
    4. irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults;
    5. reckless disregard for safety of self or others;
    6. consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations;
    7. lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another;
    B) The individual is at least age 18 years.
    C) There is evidence of conduct disorder with onset before age 15 years.
    D) The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or a manic episode.

    If the diagnosis can’t meet these criteria and it doesn’t pass the threshold of clinical significance, then it clearly isn’t a personality disorder. Since we’re talking about fictional characters, it’s pathetic to even bring up technical terms like Antisocial Personality Disorder in reference to literature because there’s no objective way to even start. If you want to speak in metaphors, fine, but be clear about that. Metaphors have no scientific reality; they’re just devices to help people understand things. In the same way that space-time isn’t literally a fabric, it’s just an appropriate metaphor to understand a complicated concept.
    It is very dangerous and even irresponsible to make the casual link to being a sociopath based on scant correlations. Pick up a DSM before you make such judgments on the behavior of characters in literature (which you shouldn’t be doing in the first place), or better yet, stay away from using terms you don’t understand and think you can use to sound intelligible. Even better, take a Psych 101 course and maybe you’d have more than a pseudointellectual’s perspective.

    • Robyn McComb
      Robyn McComb

      I happen to be a social work major, meaning I have taken quite a few psychology classes. Your criticism is correct in that I did exaggerate to make a point and should have made it more clear I was speaking more metaphorically than literally. There is indeed no hard evidence of sociopathic behavior. But I believe you missed the whole point of this article. The point of this article is not the psychological disorders of the characters, but rather the overall moral point of the book and what the misrepresentation of it in the modern movie says about our society. Perhaps “lack of empathy” as you put it would have been a better term to use since these characters are not totally immoral, but there certainly was not much moral behavior going on in the book! It is a common idiom to describe people as sociopaths for ridiculous behavior and has nothing to do with the actual definition in the diagnostic manual. You may want to reconsider calling me a psuedointellectual when you just missed the point of an entire article to correct an idiom! Cheers!

      • Robyn McComb
        Robyn McComb

        Also, reciting Psych 101 definitions would not necessarily be considered intellectual either.

  17. The cartoon-like quality of Luhrmann’s adaptation amplifies the surreal nature of Fitzgerald’s book, allowing the opulent wealth to come across, as in the novel, as meaningless. I would not have thought the billboard was an actual part of New York at the time. Fitzgerald brilliantly uses a surreal part of reality in his book about what truly has meaning and what doesn’t.

  18. Promthanius

    Very well written, but I’d like to add. Luhrmann is known for his excess in his movies. I think that this worked for him in this particular film. I agree with you 100% though about the moral visuals and how it reflects our society today. However, I think that that is what Luhrmann wanted to show. People were lured in to this story by the soundtrack he chose, the flash, and glamor–and then they got hit with a story that made them think. Like a bait and switch.
    Of course, thank you for being brave and tackling a “moral” issue. Not many people would.

  19. Amena Banu

    Interesting read. In general I feel movies don’t live up to their books, from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games to Shakespeare and Austen adaptations. In a book, there’s much more potential to develop ideas and characters; whereas in a film, the makers are more limited. So to translate all the idea development in a book to a film is a difficult task. That said, I agree with the point you made regarding the irony of the film’s focus on the glamour.

  20. Joseph Cernik

    A good essay. Your point about this movie version of the book showing less interest in morals and more about façade is perceptive.

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