The Great Gatsby (2013), directed by Baz Luhrmann, is the sixth film adaptation based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel of the Jazz Era, which was originally published in 1925. So, after all those years, why did the filmmakers decide that this portrait of the Roaring Twenties needed to be retold?
Luhrmann’s film version, which deviates slightly from the original source material, places Nick Carraway (Toby Maguire), the story’s narrator, in a psychiatric hospital in the winter of 1929, where he recalls his life changing experience with Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the summer of 1922. During that unforgettable season, Carraway moves from the midwestern United States to New York to work as a bond salesman on Wall Street. However, he rents a house in a prosperous part of Long Island, which just so happens to be next door to the enigmatic and ostensibly wealthy Gatsby.
There, Nick learns of Gatsby’s plans to seduce his long lost love, Daisy (Carry Mulligan), who just so happens to be Nick’s cousin, and steal her way from her brutish husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton). Geography plays a significant role in Fitzgerald’s tale. While Nick and Jay live in West Egg, which is home to those who have earned their fortune, Tom and Daisy Buchanan live in East Egg, which is home to those who have inherited their wealth. Eventually, Nick finds out the less than legal ways that Gatsby acquired his money and becomes entwined in a fatal case of hit and run. This entire ordeal also helps to show the narrator a new and somewhat disturbing version of the long-fabled American dream.
The American dream finds roots in the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims, “all men are created equal” with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In a way, all of The Great Gatsby‘s characters are on a quest to carve out their own version of the American dream. However, all of their attempts are left unfulfilled. Although Tom and Daisy’s marriage is still intact, their relationship is one filled with resentment, and Jay’s dream to woo the love of his life not only ends in failure, but his death as well. This forces us, the audience, to confront the idea that while we are entitled to the pursuit of happiness, we aren’t necessarily guaranteed to find it. But nobody is more aware of this than Nick at the film’s conclusion.
Being that the film was released only several years after the Financial Crisis of 2007-08, (aka “The Great Recession”), it was certainly a timely release, and a commentary on an era, which like Fitzgerald’s, was a time of excess for a few, but a time of despair for many others, particularly those who live in the Valley of Ashes. Nick finally comes to the realization that the green light which Gatsby always associated with Daisy’s affection must resemble the untouched land that the first settles saw on their way over from the “old world.” But, like the American dream, the green light, which “year by year recedes before us,” is only artificial.