Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

17 Apr 2024, 12:00 p.m.

Gatsby Musings

I love The Great Gatsby (if you absolutely loathe it, turn back now!) and recently got to watch a preview performance of a Broadway theatrical adaptation (opens April 25th). I have already inflicted several thoughts about it on friends (including Jacob who listened with attentive curiosity for literally at least 30 minutes even though he does not like the book -- a true friend) and so now you are next.*

Nick's journey of judgment: In the first lines of the book, Nick tells you, "I'm inclined to reserve all judgments" -- and he honestly seems to believe it. And then practically the last thing he says to Jay is:

"They're a rotten crowd," I shouted across the lawn. "You're worth the whole damn bunch put together."

I had not previously noticed this contradiction -- I think the condensing inherent in the play helped bring it out.

Here's my semiformed reading: Nick drifts around during this book, unable to say no to things or to effectively seek out what he wants, specifically because he's so committed to this doctrine of nonjudgment. Abdicating the responsibility of judgment is also forfeiting the power of judgment to lead him, pull him, towards what he needs. It's like trying to navigate without looking at the North Star. And his final statement to Jay is a declaration of love, pretty much his only one in the book. Fitzgerald is saying: if you can't judge, you cannot genuinely love; to love is to say, "I like you more."

Some people (such as Kate Beaton in "Hark! A Vagrant") read Nick as super judgy and thus an unreliable narrator from the start. I think my reading still works with that; Nick is making judgments but feels compelled to ignore them in his actions. Feel free to argue with me on this point in the comments!

The Flu: Fitzgerald's original text (published 1925, story set in 1922) does not mention the 1918 influenza pandemic at all. The musical mentions it a few times. Notably: Early on, Daisy and Nick commiserate about the terrible recent past, mentioning first the war, and then the Spanish Flu, Daisy saying something like "it lasted for four years but felt like hundreds." And of course to the readers of 1925, the subtext is already plain and doesn't need drawing out, but an audience in 2024 grasps: living through a pandemic leaves a lot of people scarred, and one way some of them react is heedless hedonism. (I wore my P100 respirator and ran a quiet handheld air purifier; my hedonism is .... heedful?)

Dazzle vs. tragedy: There's a line, attributed to Truffaut, that it's impossible to make an antiwar film -- the implication is that to depict war is necessarily to glamorize it. And of course a bunch of filmmakers have taken that as a challenge, and maybe proven him wrong.

I remembered this as I watched a Broadway spectacle, replete with dazzling Art Deco sets and choreographed tap numbers and period costumes, that attempted to depict a tragedy. Because, spoiler, the book is a tragedy. Fitzgerald is indicting the Jazz Age, and the American Dream to boot.** It's tough to stick that landing when, instead of ending with "borne back ceaselessly into the past," we end with Carraway saying those lines, and then a reprise of an upbeat earworm of a song in which flappers and cads seek a neverending party. Yeah, we're supposed to think they're fooling themselves, but they look and sound so amazing!*** Maybe they'll adjust the tone of that final moment while in previews.

Medium shift in adaptation: I have this working model when it comes to adaptations: a great work is great partly because of how it uses its medium. And so it's going to be super tough to adapt a great work into a different medium and make another great piece of art. For instance, I don't believe anyone has ever been able to make a Thomas Pynchon film adaptation that lives up to the quality of the original book.

It is more possible to adapt an okay work and make the adaptation great in a different medium. Example: Jurassic Park is a good novel, but not a great one, but reusing the bones of it made a great movie.****

The Great Gatsby is very good at being a novel, and it does several things that are harder or unappealing if directly translated onto the stage. Nick's interior narration is the most obvious part, and paging through the book with adaptation in mind, you'd probably also notice the dozens of locations including ones Nick fuzzily or briefly remembers (as in the drunken montage at the end of Chapter Two). More subtlely: note Fitzgerald's telescoped descriptions (such as the "I wrote down on the empty spaces of a time-table the names of those who came to Gatsby's house that summer" passage), the limited point of view, the physical sensations of weather ("In this heat every extra gesture was an affront to the common store of life."), and the several instances of genuine violence in the story which onstage must only ever be acted, not enacted.

Further, while it's easy to notice the visuals in Fitzgerald's work, translation to a visual medium can overemphasize the easy-to-depict visuals to the detriment of other dimensions.***** In my mind's eye, yeah, when I think about Gatsby, I think about the "beautiful shirts" and the "desolate path of fruit rinds and discarded favors and crushed flowers" and the imaginary ladder into the sky, but I also think about "Her voice is full of money" and Nick's inner turmoil, and the specific effects that particular sights have on Nick. Fitzgerald doesn't just tell you pixels to render, he links the pictures to Nick's judgments and reactions. There's a huge narrative difference between the objective fact of a souped-up car and Nick telling you "I'd seen it. Everybody had seen it. It was a rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length..."

Anti-racism tradeoffs: In the book, Tom Buchanan is, explicitly, a racist, and is way more racist than the other characters. Fitzgerald highlights this at least twice. Chapter 1: while getting the title and author wrong, he summarizes and agrees with a eugenicist book by contemporaneous author Lothrop Stoddard. I won't quote it here but you can find it where Tom says "Civilization's going to pieces." Chapter 7: giant hypocrite Tom, who is having an affair with a married woman, has found out about his wife's affair and wants to put a stop to it:

"What kind of a row are you trying to cause in my house anyhow?"
They were out in the open at last and Gatsby was content.
"He isn't causing a row." Daisy looked desperately from one to the other. "You're causing a row. Please have a little self control."
"Self control!" repeated Tom incredulously. "I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife. Well, if that's the idea you can count me out...Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions and next they'll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white."
Flushed with his impassioned gibberish he saw himself standing alone on the last barrier of civilization.
"We're all white here," murmured Jordan.******
"I know I'm not very popular. I don't give big parties. I suppose you've got to make your house into a pigsty in order to have any friends—in the modern world."
Angry as I was, as we all were, I was tempted to laugh whenever he opened his mouth. The transition from libertine to prig was so complete.

Writing in the 1920s, Fitzgerald -- more than some of his contemporaries -- is explicitly linking Tom's racism, classism, and hypocrisy together. Tom is a thoroughly intersectional bigot.

The musical that's currently on Broadway does not do this. Tom doesn't cite "Goddard" and doesn't disparage interracial marriage.

And if he did, it would stretch the audience's suspension of disbelief. The actors playing Nick and Daisy aren't white, and a big proportion of the ensemble isn't, either. And Tom and Myrtle's kinda-secret Manhattan apartment is in Harlem, and Mr. McKee is white and Mrs. McKee is Black.

This choice is a victory for representation -- people like me can see ourselves in the story -- and for labor diversity, as people of color get more opportunities for paychecks and high-profile roles.

And it removes a specific interesting anti-racist point that existed in Fitzgerald's original story. Which -- hey, they had to remove some stuff, this isn't the eight-hour full-text enactment Gatz, which I wish I'd seen.

I don't know enough about Broadway careers, audiences, and zeitgeists to have a well-formed assessment of how much we've lost and gained because this adaptation made these choices. Would characterizing Tom as a racist merely have been preaching to the choir? Is this role a career-maker for a lot of its cast? Does other Broadway-level theater tend to explicitly (in the story) or implicitly (in casting) fight racism?

And how is the upcoming competing musical Gatsby: An American Myth going to use or ignore this part of the text? The actor who will play Jay there is of mixed race, so maybe they'll lean into Tom's racism as part of his antagonism toward Jay.

So actually the real takeaway from this post is: I'm probably going to go to Boston sometime in June to catch An American Myth (music by Florence Welch of Florence And The Machine!), so let me know if you want to come too because tickets are selling out.*******

* "more like 45 minutes" -- Jacob, during a cowriting session. He also wanted me to call this blog entry "What's Great About Gatsby?" but that would take an entire lifetime to address, Jacob. A LIFETIME!

** Here I will be merciful and not include my 18-page eleventh-grade American Literature essay in which I compared Jay Gatsby to Karna from the Mahabharata (I wrote a six-page appendix summarizing the Mahabharata, with a particular focus on Karna's story), both tragic figures who suffer because of their disconnections from their roots and alienation from their assigned places in society's class structure.

*** A friend told me about an immersive theater Gatsby adaptation that seemed to mainly serve as a Jazz Age playtime for most of its participants. But to go to this kind of thing and concentrate on enjoying dancing, champagne, and cool clothes, and not attend to the tragedy, is to be like one of the selfish partygoers who goes to Gatsby's house but not his funeral! The rotten crowd!

**** I also believe that, in general, a good novel is too big to adapt well into a film. Short stories are a better bet (like "Story of Your Life" turning into Arrival). Novels are more likely to work as television miniseries (I did enjoy the BBC miniseries adaptation of A Suitable Boy).

***** The FAQ for this musical includes "What does the green light represent?" which is hilarious. My friend Lea suggested it would be amazing if, every time you reloaded the page, that answer changed to a different paragraph drawn from hundreds of high school essays.

****** Yes, I read Nghi Vo's recent Jordan-centric novel The Chosen and the Beautiful, and my biggest quibble is that Vo had to change this one line -- alone among all the dialogue from the original Fitzgerald text, as I recall -- to make room for the fact that her Jordan is Asian-American, not white. I had hoped that she'd find a way to insert her story into the pre-existing dialogue without changing any of it. But it was a vivid and sharp novel that helped me consider Jordan more sympathetically, and probably people who have properly configured expectations will like it better than I did.

******* Jacob, I know this won't be you. I'll tell you about it later. Maybe 20 minutes max. I can set a timer if you want.


Sumana Harihareswara
17 Apr 2024, 12:15 p.m.