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