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The Great Gatsby – A Near-perfect Adaptation

To begin with, I love Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I taught the novel for many years but I never grew tired of reading it. So, as I sat down to watch Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, I expected to like the movie – his Romeo + Juliet is one of my favorite movies – but I wasn’t sure how anyone could capture the novel on film. It’s too poetic, too tragic, and too challenging (Is Jay Gatsby really a hero? Is the American Dream really an illusion, a carrot to make us good little worker bees?). I was happily mistaken. I think Luhrmann has created what might be the most faithful adaptation that could ever be made. I’m not sure how it could be closer.

In retrospect, I should not have been surprised as Luhrmann is known for his stylized movies and Gatsby is a very stylized novel. It’s full of long descriptive passages that perch on the line between prose and poetry. For example, here’s the description of one of Gatsby’s parties:

The bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside, until the air is alive with chatter and laughter, and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names.

The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath

Let me geek-out for a moment. This description is in the present tense while the novel is generally in the past tense. The party is happening right now (even though it is long since over). It is fresh and vibrant in the narrator’s mind unlike other memories which are fading. It is like a painting. The events captured on the canvas are always happening for the first time whenever someone looks at it. Let’s just pause a minute and marvel at Fitzgerald’s genius…

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Besides the use of figurative language, Fitzgerald wrote Gatsby in the first person and thus the novel is a record of the jumbled, dream-like memories of the narrator Nick Carroway. The events of chapter two actually take place after the events described in chapter three, and the novel continues to jump back and forth in time chapter by chapter. Even within chapters time can be an unstable thing. Here Nick describes leaving a drunken party:

Then Mr. McKee turned and continued on out the door. Taking my hat from the chandelier, I followed.

“Come to lunch some day,” he suggested, as we groaned down in the elevator.

“Where?”

“Anywhere.”

“Keep your hands off the lever,” snapped the elevator boy.

“I beg your pardon,” said Mr. McKee with dignity, “I didn’t know I was touching it.”

“All right,” I agreed, “I’ll be glad to.”

. . . I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.

“Beauty and the Beast . . . Loneliness . . . Old Grocery Horse . . . Brook’n Bridge . . . .”

Then I was lying half asleep in the cold lower level of the Pennsylvania Station, staring at the morning Tribune, and waiting for the four o’clock train.

Just to be clear, those ellipses are not mine. They’re Fitzgerald’s. Then what just happened? How did Nick get from the party to Mr. McKee’s bedroom, and then to the station? Fitzgerald simple used the literary version of the jump cut or montage to represent what it’s like to be very, very drunk.

Ok, Fitzgerald’s novel is lyrical and dreamy. What does that have to do with the movie? Simply this: Many reviews have criticized the film for being all flash, over-whelming visuals, and little substance. Well, yes that might be true, but that’s actually how it should be. Indeed, that’s one of the points of the novel. Underneath its flash and spectacle, the Jazz Age was hollow. And thus Luhrmann’s jumpy, music-video style actually mirrors the prose and theme of the novel.

I will admit, Luhrmann’s Gatsby won’t be to everyone’s taste. It does not have a clear narrative, there are many showy set pieces that don’t seem to move the movie forward in any way, the characters are at best shallow or flawed, and it lacks a Hollywood ending. While I might criticize other movies for having these qualities, for Gatsby they are perfect. Luhrmann has given us a beautiful and faithful cinematic version of the novel.

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Aint’ No Party Like a Detroit Party…

…Cause a Detroit Party don’t stop!

The Detroit Drunken Historical Society hosts a book club and its current read is The Civil War of 1812 by Alan Taylor. Tasty beverages? History? Of course I started reading Taylor’s book as soon as I could get my hands on it. And in chapter one I came across this passage describing my home town around 1800:

The moral and pious Protestant sorts who kept travel journals also disliked the loose morals and abundant festivities of Detroit, especially in winter. A missionary concluded that Detroit habitants were “a thoughtless and wicked, a cheerful and good-natured people.” That good nature appears in their persistent hospitality to such censorious visitors.

It seems our love of festivities has deep roots!

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Future Classic Movies: Jane Eyre (2011)

Paula’s Cinema Club asked the excellent question, if Turner Classic Movies is still around in 30 years, what movies will they be showing, and who will be the host? Here’s my answer…

The year is 2042. The scene is the TCM set. The host is Drew Barrymore, actor, director, producer, and member of the one of the greatest acting families in American history…

Barrymore: Hello everyone, and welcome to another installment of The Essentials. Tonight we’ve got an amazing picture for you Jane Eyre – the 2011 version that is. And here to talked about it is this month’s guest host, bestselling author William Chandler. Welcome.

Chandler: Thank you for having me.

Barrymore: I’m sure some people are asking what’s a novelist doing guest-hosting TCM’s The Essentials?

Chandler: [Laughs] That’s a good question.

Barrymore: Your novels have been described as cinematic.

Chandler: Yes, that’s true. And I take that as a compliment. I love movies and the language of film almost as much as the I love the written word. When I was growing up, TCM was always on. I think that’s all my parents ever watched.

Barrymore: Not coincidentally, all your picks this month are film adaptations of classic novels.

Chandler: True.

Barrymore: It’s a cliche that the book is always better than the movie. So that begs the question, why is Jane Eyre an essential film?

Chandler: I admit it. I just love a good Gothic story.

Barrymore: And you are known for your Gothic novels.

Chandler: True, and the novel Jane Eyre has been influential on my writing. Charlotte Bronte took a genre that was pretty tired and worn out, some might say dead, and used its DNA to write  – what was at the time – a contemporary story. Which is what I try and do.

Barrymore: DNA? Bringing something back to life? Sounds like your pick for next week, Frankenstein.

Chandler: Indeed.

Barrymore. But you haven’t answered my other question. Why is Jane Eyre, and this particular version of Jane Eyre an Essential. Are you telling me it’s better than the book?

Chandler: [Laughs] Um, actually, this might be one of the rare examples where the film version is better than the book. And by that I mean a better, or more compellingly told story. Frankly, I think the 2011 version of Jane Eyre is a mini-film school.

Barrymore: That’s a bold statement.

Chandler: Let’s start with the sheer visual beauty of it. It’s one of those movies everyone should see on the big screen.

Barrymore: I totally agree, and I think it’s crazy that the cinematographer Adriano Goldman didn’t at least get an nomination for an Oscar.

Chandler: Absolutely. And it’s not just beautiful static shots. The film incorporates many different techniques: Subjective camera angles, wide shots, close ups. The camera use conveys alienation, imprisonment, a metaphorical sense of lurking danger, and perhaps most importantly, they all contribute to this dream-like quality – and that dream-like quality is present in many of the best Gothic novels.

Barrymore: Even the screenplay adds to the dream-like quality by chopping up the narrative of the novel. Most of the film literally takes place in Jane’s head.

Chandler: Yes, it’s a brilliant use of flashbacks. A brilliant tutorial if you will. And the whole dream motif is capped–

Barrymore: Wait! I know what you’re going to say, and there might be some watching tonight who’ve never seen the movie. We’ll let them discover that part for themselves. But you’re right it is amazing. Now let’s talk about the actors. I thought there was an amazing chemistry between Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska.

Chandler: Absolutely. And going along with the film-school theme, the two really put on quite a clinic. What I mean is– It makes me think of this time when I was teaching English. I had this bright student, a gifted writer, who loved horror stories and movies. The bloodier the better. After the umpteenth zombie and dismembered body, I challenged him to write a horror story without one drop of blood. I wanted to show him that less is often more. This film is a beautiful example of this. The passion these characters have for each other is palpable, and one scene in particular I find highly charged.

Barrymore: The scene after Jane saves Rochester from the fire.

Chandler: Exactly. You don’t see a lot of skin, but the way Fassbender and Wasikowska look at each other, the way they hold each other’s hands, how they move closer together ever so slightly, it creates this beautiful and potent intimacy.

Barrymore: Those two did so much with a glance or a raised eyebrow.

Chandler: I know. Fassbender’s one of my favorite actors. He can convey such passion in such a naturalistic way. Unlike say – ah I know this might cause an angry mob to form outside the studio – unlike say Lawrence Olivier’s acting which I find a little stiff, or affected.

Barrymore: You’re thinking of his Heathcliff in the 1939 version of Wuthering Heights?

Chandler: Um yes, but I guess I feel that way about his acting generally.

Barrymore: [Laughs] Well ok then. I think I hear the mob forming already. So let’s start the film. From 2011, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, with cinematography by Adriano Goldman, and staring Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska…Jane Eyre.

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Writing that Pops: Neil Gaiman

The more I think about it, the more I think that what separates a good writer from a great writer is how they put together a sentence. That is, it’s not the story, but how they tell it. Many have argued that there are only so many story structures or patterns. Robert Heinlein wrote that there were three: 1) boy-meets-girl, 2) The Little Tailor (that is, the man who succeeds against great odds, or its converse, the great man brought low), and 3) the-man-who-learns-better. The blog Murderati has a different list – and a nice discussion on the structures of stories here. If there are only a limited number of story structures, then how the story is told is what makes each version of the story unique.

With this in mind, I’m going to do something new. I’m going to pick out a specific passage by one of my favorite writers and talk about why it’s an exceptional piece of writing. For me, these passages are inspirational. Hopefully they will be for you as well…

To begin, if humanity is still around 100 years from now, the general consensus will be that Neil Gaiman was one of the greatest writers of the late 2oth/early 21st century, regardless of genre. The passage of time will let prejudices against comic book writers and genre fiction* fade, and Gaiman’s beautiful prose will remain.

To illustrate Gaiman’s talent, I will first rewrite one of my favorite passages from Neverwhere. I’ll strip it down to its essential content and  summarize what Gaiman wrote in the plainest way I can. Then I’ll show the original passage…

When it rains it pours. Or, everything always seems to happen at once.

And now Gaiman:

Richard had noticed that events were cowards: they didn’t occur singly, but instead they would run in packs and leap out at him all at once.

This is just brilliant. First, it uses a very nice personification. Who hasn’t felt that “events” are sentient — that they get together at the corner bar and decide how they can really mess up your life in one fell swoop? I know I have.

Second is its style. I find that Gaiman’s stories, even the most modern, have a fairy-tale feel. Not simply because of the supernatural or fantastical elements they contain, but also because they give a sense that the reader is sitting by a fire, with a time-worn elder telling the tale. The sentence is a perfect example. Gaiman sets out a truism, and then proceeds in the following pages to provide a superlative example of that truism. Now, one could edit out the sentence and the following pages would make perfect sense. The plot would still be sound and the characters would still be themselves, but it would take out that “something” that makes the story special. Gaiman has a unique voice; it would be hard to mistake one of his stories for some other author’s. And that is why his writing pops.

*In my not so humble opinion, literary fiction is a genre, just like mystery, romance, or science fiction; it has its own rules and conventions that must be followed. I won’t mention any names, but seriously how many times in literary fiction do we meet middle-aged white men who have lost their passion for their wives, feel their jobs are soul-crushing, and that They. Must. Do. Something…Someday, I’ll have to write a full post on this topic.

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