Winning losers

Article published on May 16, 2013.

Luhrmann’s enlisted his old pal Leo DiCaprio to play Gatsby and Carey Mulligan to play Daisy, the object of Gatsby’s desire; with Tobey McGuire swapping his Spidey suit for sharp threads as Nick Carraway, the book’s observer and narrator.

Baz Luhrmann stole my calm. I blame him for taking my peace of mind, shoving it through a mincer and feeding the resultant hash to wolves. He’s filmed The Great Gatsby.

This should be a sublime orgy of 1920’s high society: fabulously bored people; decadent sets; hedonistic parties; snobbery, seduction and adultery; ice-cool beauties in the heat of a Long Island summer – a dissection of the American Dream. Not, you’d think, something to rob me of my peace of mind. But Gatsby is a man frustrated – one in a long line of stymied anti-heroes and this is where things started to go wrong for me. I wondered what attracted directors to wrenching such iconic losers off the page and hurling them on to the big screen. It’s a huge gamble – get it wrong and you have the likes of Jack Black making a giant fart gag of Gulliver’s Travels.

I wanted to see how other directors had gone about it and so re-read and re-watched some of literature’s most frustrated characters: Alex (A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess/Stanley Kubrick), Tyler Durden (Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk/David Fincher), Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson/Terry Gilliam), Rent Boy (Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh/Danny Boyle), and of course, Gatsby. Take my advice: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME – a head full of sociopaths does not a happy bunny make. It’s not just the characters who are unsettling in such intense doses, it’s the underlying themes – the authors have slit society’s underbelly and paddled about in its entrails for our entertainment. See what these stories have done to me?

The experience left me with the following questions: Is choice an illusion? Are we constrained by a society that doesn’t recognise or care how unique we individuals are?

“You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile.” Well, that’s your view, Tyler Durden, but you’re not exactly a well-balanced individual are you? At least I haven’t started talking to imaginary people.

According to these books and their films we are given false choices, we are like children who are asked whether we would like broccoli or peas with our tea – the offer precludes the rest of of the larder. But is it the author or the director who can best portray the frustration that comes with being trapped in a society that promises much but delivers little?

Tyler Durden, Fight Club’s protagonist simultaneously conforms and rages against his world, taking part in a violent revolution to try to redress the balance. In one scene he blows his home, an Ikea-filled “filing cabinet for widows and young professionals” into oblivion before launching an underground fight club for men emasculated by society. He then creates Project Mayhem – an anarchic and violent terrorist group.

Director David Fincher, not known for squeamishness, chose to leave out some of the more outlandish elements of the novel and gave the cinema audiences a happy ending. In the book ‘Joe’ is consigned to a psychiatric institution, still taunted by Tyler Durden, but the film sees ‘Joe’ rid himself of Tyler and get the girl. In all other aspects the film is faithful and as good as the book. Brad Pitt and Ed Norton’s portrayal of a man driven over the edge by a disinterested society is every bit as good as the twisted first person prose offered up by the author. Book: 1, Film: 1.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is an example of a film which has not successfully measured up to the book. Hunter S. Thompson’s savage shredding of the American Dream is plotless and not always coherent, but it’s a piece of gonzo journalism and stands up as such. You allow Thompson his drug-fuelled rants because they’re punctuated with moments of clarity and grief at the loss of the Woodstock ideal, “We were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave … So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kid of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back”.

Hunter fights the change by remaining steadfastly true to a world consigned to the past. The finer points are lost in Terry Gilliam’s film, which is fun for half an hour, but there’s only so much of Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro’s gurning and twitching a person can take. Hunter’s chemical binges, his rejection of social mores and any kind of authority is remarkable on the page but comes across as a bit silly on-screen. Book: 1, Film: 0

To read A Clockwork Orange is to enter into another world. Anthony Burgess (who was also a linguist) devised nadsat, a Russian-influenced slang used by Alex and his droogs. It’s a spectacular vernacular which is vividly descriptive and it’s very hard to imagine the story without it. Stanley Kubrick used nadsat in the film which is as shocking, unflinching and utterly compelling as the book. Malcolm McDowell is glorious in his portrayal of Alex who is an electric mix of vicious bully and a helpless pawn – not unlike Tyler or Hunter.

A Clockwork Orange asks: is it better to be free to choose evil than to have no choice at all? As the Prison Chaplain says, “when a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man”. The original version of the book contained a final chapter in which Alex recognises his wrongdoings and determines to change his ways. However, Burgess’s US publishers convinced him to drop the last chapter and Kubrick also chose to ignore it, thus radically altering the message of the book. Burgess believed in man’s ability to change and improve, whereas Kubrick’s omission of the redemptive ending made the film bleaker in outlook than Burgess intended. Book: 1, Film: 1

Trainspotting is probably now marginally better known for Danny Boyle’s film than for Irvine Welsh’s novel. The book is written phonetically in an intense Leith accent and it’s a bit like getting your head around Burgess’ nadsat. When you become accustomed to the language the novel grips you by the throat and fair lobs you to its climax. The film dispenses with some of the characters and multiple viewpoints out of expediency, I imagine, but is no less thrilling for it.

Boyle’s film, while undoubtedly grim and grimy, does lose some of the grit of the novel, as the whole gig looks like a lot of fun – despite the death and diarrhea – and Ewan McGregor and Johnny Lee Miller make some of the prettiest junkies I’ve ever seen. The film is a great ride but doesn’t give as much space to the condemnation of “society’s materialism and commodity fetishism” as the book. Rent Boy’s “Choose Life” speech which acts as both a preface and an afterword to the film is a powerful device but I’m not sure it makes up for what was lost in translation. Book: 1, Film: 1

Gatsby is the ultimate frustrated hero. He tries to take control of the future and crush the past, to make good the American Dream. But the past won’t stay in the past.

Overall, these books and films co-exist nicely, each with their own strengths. But if pushed, I’d have to go with the book as a more elegant and powerful entity, but perhaps Baz – who set me on the path to my new deranged state of mind – can show me otherwise with The Great Gatsby. And like a craven junky, I can’t wait.

In the meantime, Picador have published the official film edition of the book, which includes an exclusive interview with Luhrmann. That should keep me going until the film’s released.


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