Scott and Annie, Baz and Jay

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I love going to the movies. Despite all that Netflix and Amazon have to offer, there is something so simply great about going to the cinema and sitting there in the dark, releasing yourself to the larger-than-life narrative unfolding on the screen.

I love it.

One of the best classes I took in college was called “The Art of Film,” or something like that. As you might imagine, the class was wildly popular– not only because it filled a requirement for the many with communication arts minors, but because it was about the movies. Who doesn’t want to spend a semester studying film? It was a departure– as going to the movies always ought to be– from the everyday.

People took the class, I think, because they thought it would be an easy “A.”

It wasn’t. Our professor (my all-time favorite at Grove City College, a Dr. Bill Donnelly) took the art of film seriously, and by the time the semester ended, we had been introduced to more than we had bargained for in the form of mis en scene and camera movement, continuity errors and film scores. In short, we covered the gamut of what makes a movie work– including the role of the best boy, a fact I have let drop from my mind.

Our final exam showed us what Dr. Donnelly had told us all along: that he meant business. We watched a six-minute clip of Jaws and then had to give it a full-scale analysis, covering every aspect of filmmaking that we had learned in the class. It was the kind of exam that made your hand ache from all the writing (no, we didn’t have laptops back then), and I Loved It.

I clearly remember one lesson he taught us that has shaped my reception of many films since: the good professor spoke out strongly against the use of voice-over.

Voice-over. You know what I (he) mean(t), right? It’s that bit of recorded narration that plays over some shots of a film, the disembodied voice that doesn’t come from the scene itself but somehow speaks to it. It’s what ruined (for me) the end of Saving Private Ryan and (sorry, but it’s true) Shawshank Redemption. Call me a purist, but I agree with Bill Donnelly: a film is a film. It’s a visual art. If you can’t say it with the images themselves, then use a little dialogue. But a voice out of nowhere that tells you what to think? that tidily summarizes the emotional weight that should otherwise be expressed in cinematic brilliance? That’s plain lazy.

And also a little bit sad. If you love an art form enough to make art in that form, then marry yourself to its constraints. Appreciate the beauties of its subtleties. Make it work.

End of soap box, part the first.

Long Before I loved the movies, I loved books. I was read to before I knew how to turn pages; Narnia and Laura Ingalls’ prairie were well-traveled territory in my child mind. For me, a good book was a world unto itself, a place to enter and re-enter unfettered. I must have read “The Borrowers” series five or six times by middle school. In the eighth grade, Anne (of those Green Gables) was my unrivaled best friend.

This quiet passion served me well in honors English classes in high school. I fell in love with Knowles’ A Separate Peace and Golding’s Lord of the Flies. In senior English it was Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights that undid me. And when, in college, I discovered that I could read books for a Major?! Well. Mind On Fire.

And now I am a writer. I am at work, in fact, on second edits, making my painstaking way from paragraph to paragraph in a novel draft I know like my childhood home. And I am doing my very best to marry myself to the constraints of this literary form, trying (so hard) to bring to life the beauty of its subtleties.  

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Not an easy task.

But Annie Dillard encourages me. She speaks truths I need to hear: “Writing is writing, literature is mere,” she says. “It appeals only to the subtlest senses– the imagination’s vision, and the imagination’s hearing– and the moral sense, and the intellect.” It is, in short, a quiet thing; it is not for everyone. Not everyone has to love it.

What, then, of books made into movies? Written with the big screen in mind? I think here of The Help— a novel highly acclaimed but nothing like literature. It read, to me, like a chronicle of scenes in a movie. It was practically a story-board. Had I known better, I would have by-passed the book altogether and waited for the movie to come out. Which (surprise, surprise) it did. And Annie might have said, “Novels written with film contracts in mind have a faint but unmistakable, and ruinous, odor…. Such books seem uneasy being books; they seem eager to fling off their disguises and jump onto screens.”

If one is going to write a book, one should write a book. If one is going to write a screenplay, one should write a screenplay. Again with the whole “make art in the form one is making it” thing.

End of soap box, part the second.

That said, sometimes it works. I was not one, for example, who was dismayed by the cinematic version of The Lord of the Rings. And when, back in the 80’s, Megan Follows was cast as the winsome Anne, I embraced her wholeheartedly– in both cases recognizing the genres of novel and film as distinct and not minding in the least their “marriage” in these (and other) instances.

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So maybe that was why I was thrilled to hear that Baz Luhrmann was directing The Great Gatsby. Luhrmann’s 1997 Romeo+Juliet is one of my Favorite Films of All Time. I made all my students watch it: its modern-day setting and textual analysis are profoundly brilliant– and this has nothing to do whatsoever with the fact that Leo DiCaprio, prior to his Titanic fame, so compellingly plays the romantic hero.

I couldn’t wait to see it. How would Luhrmann confront Fitzgerald’s green light? and how would he work into it an interpretation of the American dream drowned in money? The Capulet’s bawdy ball presaged perfectly  the overblown decadence of a party at the Jay Gatsby estate. In my mind I could hear the throb of the music, the flashing lights, the inflated pleasure that is misery in disguise.

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What in the world would Luhrmann do with it?

I strapped myself in, ready for anything. And anything would be better than the 1974 adaptation (although I will give you now and always that Robert Redford was the quintessential Jay), in which a final act of thoughtless violence played like something out of a sorry cartoon. Yes, Luhrmann was the man for the job. He could have this work of literary genius and do with it what he would.

He did not disappoint. Well, okay. I would definitely say that his Daisy was a bit more sad that I imagined her to be. I wanted her to be more jaded and sardonic. And Gatsby seemed just a touch more insane. The setting itself was something out of a fairy tale: everything made of candy. But should I have been surprised? This is Baz Lurhmann, director of Moulin Rouge, the guy next to the camera who is winking cock-eyed at you all the time: “We all know this is the movies, right?” NPR’s Bob Mandello described it as “the great American novel as fever dream,” and so it is: the film is a dream of Gatsby; it is Nick Carraway’s newly sober recollection of drunken decadence. The Buchanan’s living room and Daisy and Jordan “ballooning slowly to the floor,” Gatsby’s bedroom and the pile of shirts, Carraway’s living room overburdened with Daisy’s flowers– all of it overdrawn and inflated, serving forever after to faithfully goad Nick’s memory, to make him write the book.

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Ah! Write the book! This was Luhrmann’s narrative device: Nick Carraway awakening to grief, finding solace only through the typewriter’s keys, the pen on the page. From time to time, Luhrmann had Scott Fitzgerald’s text appear on the screen as a character spoke it, lines memorable because of their perfect brilliance. The screen snowed with letters falling from the cloud of words. It wasn’t enough to equip his actors with lines lifted precisely from the text. No. Such is the literary skill of this American genius that merely quoting him isn’t enough. One must needs see the words, must watch them emerge into indellibility because here is a book you can’t get away from any more than Nick can get away from what he has just witnessed, or Daisy and Tom can get away from their “vast carelessness.”

In fact, Luhrmann’s film is rife with voice over– a terrible crime– and need this director commit it? But here, in this instance, one can’t think how he’d avoid it. At the end of the day, Luhrmann proved to me something I have always secretly (and not so) harbored as true: that the book is (or should be) better than the movie. If the book is well written enough– and oh, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsy most certainly is– then the book is, in fact, the only thing you need.

So, if you haven’t seen the movie, by all means see it. DiCaprio plays his part with exquisite modulation, and Tobey Maguire’s incredulity will mirror your own.

But more than that– if nothing else– forego the movie altogether and simply Read The Book. That way, you can take your time, and watch the movie playing in your head, and read again and again lines like these: He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. — F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby




Why would anyone read a book instead of watching big people move on a screen? Because a book can be literature. It is a subtle thing– a poor thing, but our own. In my view, the more literary the book– the more purely verbal, crafted sentence by sentence, the more imaginative, reasoned and deep– the more likely people are to read it. — Annie Dillard, The Writing Life


3 thoughts on “Scott and Annie, Baz and Jay

  1. I think adaptation is an art in itself, as demonstrated by The Lord of the Rings. I have not seen Gatsby yet, but am a fan of Baz Luhrman and look forward to his adaptation. As for the voice over, I am reminded of an epic struggle between Ridley Scott and the studio over the making of Bladerunner. The studio won out (of course) and demanded a voice over. But in the director's cut, that was the first thing to go. And wisely so!

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  2. Yours is an excellent example, Timothy. Happily, my introduction to Bladerunner came through a film buff who knew better and showed me the director's cut. Brilliant movie– and so much better without the voice-over.

    I rest my case. 🙂

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