With the most sincere of apologies to my AP English teacher Brother Aquinas, I never read The Great Gatsby. And owing to old age, any knowledge that I had of the plot from my perusal of the Cliff Notes version has been lost through the years. So I went into today’s viewing of Baz Luhrmann’s take on this classic work of American literature with very little bias. I’ve never even seen Francis Ford Coppola’s 70’s version with Robert Redford. The closest interaction I’ve had with the iconic work is the frequent laundering of my son’s Great Gatsby t-shirt from Urban Outfitters.
This disclaimer being stated, I’ll share with you that I walked out of the theater snared by the story, hook, line and sinker. The novel is now downloading on my Kindle and Robert Redford is now queued in my Netflix account. I’m fascinated and devastated all at the same time.
I didn’t really intend for this post to be a review, but rather a commentary on my own emotional and spiritual reactions to the film. That being said, I must say a few words on the movie experience. Number one, don’t drink a massive diet coke while watching because there’s not a single “I can slip away for a few minutes” moment in this picture (and yes, I speak from experience). I regret not having seen this movie in 3D – if I go back with my husband (who was actually working today while I was playing hooky) I would opt to have confetti and shirts rain upon me, to experience more of the vivid sensationalism of Gatsby. The massive, over-the-top-ness of this production deserves to involve as many of the senses as possible. Which is why I also loved the much-maligned soundtrack. No, it’s not period-appropriate. But I found it intoxicating, like so much of the grandeur of Luhrmann’s approach to this classic.
This backdrop being set, let me simply expound upon my four spiritual “takeaways” from The Great Gatsby:
- Racism is still ugly. Although whitewashed a bit, racism rears its ugly head in this version of The Great Gatsby as it did in the original 1925 novel. We may watch the film and think, “Wow, how blatant” when Tom Buchanan spouts an utterly racist remark. How sad it is to me that nearly 90 years later, each of us can think about the “Toms” in our own lives who still judge so maliciously by skin color or by religion.
- Money can’t buy happiness. You can have endless shelves of designer shirts and armies of serving men. You can be surrounded by the cream of the crop of society and throw the best parties in town. You can possibly even use cash to reinvent yourself on the outside, but it will never able to change the core of who you are within — the person God made, the soul forever destined to yearn for oneness with Him. Money is not the solution to every problem.
- Marriage is a complexly challenging institution. It’s “uncritical view of adultery” is part of what earns The Great Gatsby an A-III rating from Catholic News Service. In a very real sense, CNS reviewer John Mulderig’s summation of the relationships at the heart of Gatsby is spot on:
“Additionally, Luhrmann’s script, penned in collaboration with Craig Pearce, tends to glamorize the sinful relationship at the heart of the story, suggesting that an unpleasant spouse and the inherent superiority of the illicit lovers are reason enough to ignore the Sixth Commandment.”
If you’re like me, you will sit in the theater knowing that the love between Gatsby and Daisy is wrong, contrary to her marital covenant, and yet you may secretly “root for” the two to land in one another’s arms. Their love might feel so “right” in the moment, cast in the light of Daisy’s philandering husband Tom, who seems so abusive. Surely Gatsby and Daisy deserve true love, right? In the end of the film, as I sat wiping away tears, I was reminded of many spouses I know who are carrying heavy burdens in their marriages. I have several of these situations on a prayer list I keep privately and I know the complexities of being true to one’s marital covenant. Marriage is rarely easy. Challenges rear their heads at many twists and turns along life’s highway to heaven. It seems to me that only God’s presence at the core of the relationship is sufficient “glue” to keep these bonds strong enough to survive. Even with Him present, married couples — good, non-cheating, honest men and women — may still struggle in their married vocations. And God seems to me to be altogether missing from the lives of any of the characters in this film.
- Lies devastate lives. I don’t want to give away the ending of the film, in the event you were a neglectful high schooler like me who never read the source material. Suffice it to say the curtain closes on a story whose conclusion is not happy, pretty, tied up in a neat bow. If you have half a heart, perhaps you’ll cry as I did. Yes, for the lives lost, but most especially for the deceit — that rotten core of the apple that spoils the whole thing. Perhaps it’s well-hidden behind the money, the power, and the reputations. But it’s never truly gone and it will eat its host from the inside out. Lives built upon lies are like castles built upon quicksand. The truth, as ugly as it may be, is the only sure foundation for this life.
In the end, watching The Great Gatsby can be either a fun romp, glitzy and fashionable, or a deep pondering of some of life’s most challenging complexities. Whichever path you choose to take, I highly recommend the ride.