The American Dream is the nation’s overall aspiration for America, and at America’s conception, the birth of the aspiration “rags to riches” was cultivated. America was founded by Puritans fleeing from the Western world desiring religious and governmental freedom, and wealth. This pattern that the Puritans set continued throughout America through Westward Expansion, a search for economic benefits and assets, which was exemplified by historical occurrences like The Gold Rush of 1848. The Great Gatsby takes place in 1922, just seven years before the detrimental economic recession of the Great Depression. The Great Gatsby portrays main themes like the American Dream, roles of femininity, masculinity, vice, materialism, class, and sub-themes like old money versus new money. However, The Great Gatsby provides symbolism about the American Dream: It shows the greed of the corrupt. When comparing the novel The Great Gatsby by Scott F. Fitzgerald to that of the 2013 film directed by Baz Luhrmann, the movie is no longer about the literary eloquence that a book may focus on, but about the entertainment aspect, about drawing the eyes of the viewers into the production. Although both interpretations of The Great Gatsby present similar ideals, the portrayal of the American Dream in the movie in comparison to the film has become overdramatized as demonstrated by its treatment of status, wealth, and romance.
Historically, New York, let alone the United States, is highly segregated by socioeconomic status. However, in The Great Gatsby, one of the things that all the classes share is the American Dream to achieve wealth. Though, this achievement was still divided by class because within the wealthy, there was still a social divide between those who were born into it and those of the “rags to riches” prototype. However, Luhrmann’s portrayal of status in the movie has been overdramatized to display the divisions between class and status further. For example, in the movie, during the argument between Tom and Gatsby, Tom taunts Gatsby’s new money status by saying, “Oh no, no, we’re different. I am, they are, she is, we’re all different from you. We were born different, it’s in our blood, and nothing you do, or say, or steal or dream up, can ever change that.” (Luhrmann, 2013.) This statement displays the grudge and superiority complex that Tom has for those of East Egg status which includes Gatsby, making Gatsby feel inferior, and retaliates into a rageful fit. While East and West Egg continues their rivalries, they stay blissfully unaware that their life in luxury is creating a disproportionate wealth gap for those of the lowest status, those in the Valley of Ashes. The Valley of Ashes in the book is described as, “[a] desolate area of land.” (Fitzgerald, pg. 23.) The movie and Luhrmann’s work stay true to the visualization that the Valley of Ashes was area where “ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.” (Fitzgerald, pg. 23.) Though unlike the book, the movie puts less emphasis on the Valley of Ashes being a desolate, barren wasteland with scattered businesses but over-dramatizes it as an area with an abundance of urbanization filled with excessive amounts of ash, grime and poverty, but still yet a city that has become torn apart and become a hellscape those who inhabit it.
As explained in the movie by Nick Carraway, in the time of 1922 “stocks hit record peaks, and Wall Street boomed, in a steady golden roar. The parties were bigger, the shows were broader, the buildings were higher, the morals were looser, and the ban on alcohol had backfired making the liquor cheaper.” (Luhrmann, 2013.) With the stock market skyrocketing, it made the American Dream of wealth more accessible to those who could obtain it more effortless than ever. In the book, the theme of wealth is shown consistently through its portrayal and vast differences in status. However, what differs from the book to the film is that the film’s sensationalized focal points seem to revolve around the grand and extravagant parties. Although Luhrmann’s interpretation still encapsulates the ideas of Fitzgerald’s visions, it also adds flairs of modernism, by including music scores of rap from artists like Kanye West and Jay-Z, instead of the expected 1920s themed jazz. The flashy party lacks the scenes that in the book provide a sense of calamity even from within the party, and provide depth on the characters such as the twin girls in the yellow dresses, or the elaborate description of the crying woman, or the car accident. These scenes are now quick jump-cuts, making the activities at the party overstimulating, overwhelming, and generates a head-spinning, alcohol-induced effect to the viewer, as alcohol is a well-known theme to the Roaring Twenties. As the film progresses towards the end, it shows Gatsby’s shocking death was bombarded with the publication, but amongst that publication, there were only a small number of people in both the book and the movie who went to his funeral or even cared. In the book, Wolfsheim sent his regards, and Gatsby’s father, Henry, sent a telegram to postpone the funeral until he arrived in New York, and when he arrived, marveled at his son’s legacy and was proud of him. While in the movie, the only one who came to the funeral aside from paparazzi was Nick Carraway himself. The overdramatization in the lack of people who came to Gatsby’s funeral shows how the journey of the American Dream of wealth is isolating, which Gatsby even admits in the movie, saying “you know, I thought for a while I had a lot of things. But the truth is I’m empty.” (Luhrmann, 2013) Gatsby was always surrounded by people who either despised or idolized his status but were never indeed his friends, aside from Nick Carraway. Daisy does not show up to his funeral or send her regards, because she has once again chosen the security of wealth with Tom over true love. The American Dream was full of greed because nothing was ever sustainable or fulfilling.
In The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby battles an equilibrium: the American Dream of wealth, and the American Dream of true love. Gatsby realizes he must achieve the American Dream of wealth first before he even attempts to achieve the American Dream of true love and to get Daisy back. Romanticism is a prevalent theme in both the movie and the film, but Luhrmann uses romanticism to his advantage, to over-dramatize the innocence and purity of true love. In the movie, when Nick first walks into the Buchanan’s home to visit Daisy, the lens flares as the doors swing open to reveal a white room brightly lit by sunlight, as flowy sheer white curtains float momentarily in the air, while a crystal chandelier hangs overhead, as bubbly laughter fills the room. Soon, Daisy’s dainty and feminine hand rises over the cream sofa, and she calls for Nick. These motifs that Luhrmann strategically uses are no coincidence, as it displays goodness of life, femininity, hope, purity, naiveté, and innocence that Daisy resembles. Daisy resembles these characteristics because her corruption is never her decision, but is always forced upon her, as in example stated before by her forced to choose financial security over true love and happiness by external factors, either her parents or her husband, Tom Buchanan. These attributes of Daisy’s add to the complexity of Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship, which take center stage as much of the plot in both the film and the novel. However, one character plot that the movie lacked is the romantic relationship between Nick Carraway and famous golfer, Jordan Baker. Although Nick allegedly has another girl in waiting for him back home in the Midwest, he continues with this relationship with Jordan. At one point in the book, Nick Carraway notes, “[Jordan’s] grey, sun-strained eyes stared straight ahead, but she had deliberately shifted our relations, and for a moment I thought I loved her.” (Fitzgerald, pg. 58.) Nick insights on the intense and sentimental relationship that was developing between him and Jordan, and despite this character development, Luhrmann decided to cut it entirely from the movie, shifting the focus to the dramatic synopsis of the love triangle between Jay Gatsby, and Daisy and Tom Buchanan, drawing more attention and sensationalizing romantic aspect in the film.
When comparing the literature of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to Luhrmann’s work on the motion picture of The Great Gatsby, we see universal ideals through the commonalities of the American Dream for the Eastern United States during the Roaring Twenties. However, the portrayal of the American Dream in the movie in comparison to the film has become overdramatized by Luhrmann’s treatment of status, wealth, and romance in order to sensationalize the novel. We continue to see tactics like Luhrmann’s used to modernize classic literature into Hollywood produced movies. The ending of The Great Gatsby differs as well. In the novel, Nick goes home to the Midwest, the East now filled with toxicity. In the movie, Nick seeks psychiatric help and is being treated by a psychologist as a, “morbidly alcoholic, insomniac, fits of anger, anxiety, depression” (Luhrmann, 2013.) What stays the same is the lesson learned by Nick, is that time is ever-fleeting. Nick voices this saying, “[Gatsby] had come such a long way, 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. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year, recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter. tomorrow we will run faster, Stretch out our arms farther, and one fine morning, So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly, into the past.” (Luhrmann, 2013.) In the end, Gatsby’s dream was not achieved, and Nick realized the corruption of the American Dream surrounding him, but the only thing that continued to move on was hope and time, so as life does, it beats on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly, into the past.
- Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Penguin Books, 2018.
- Luhrmann, Baz, director. The Great Gatsby. Village Roadshow Pictures, Bazmark Productions, A&E Productions, Red Wagon Entertainment, 2013