By Margot Soven
On the wall of my office is a poster of Gatsby - not framed by me, but by my son when he was in high school. A fan of the novel, my son even chose a quote from it to accompany his yearbook photo: "Reserving judgment is a matter of infinite hope."
He's not alone. On the last day of my Introduction to Literature class this month, when I said, "Be sure to see the new Great Gatsby," one student yelled out, "Oh, that's my favorite book!"
When I recently went to see the new Gatsby film, I was prepared for a noisy reception, given that the audience was filled with high school students. I assumed that some well-meaning English teacher required them to attend, and perhaps I was right. But my fears were unfounded.
The film began. You could have heard a pin drop.
The magic of The Great Gatsby had begun. What is it about this book, almost 85 years old, that resonates with the young? Is it a return to the stories of their childhood? Is it the fast-paced plot? Is it the language? My son assures me that it's all of the above.
The language is poetry, but it is just as accessible and hypnotic as the poetry of Maurice Sendak in Where the Wild Things Are: "They roared their terrible roars.. . . They gnashed their terrible teeth."
Gatsby exploits the same rhyme, alliteration, and imagery of children's stories - minus the complex language of the belletristic literature that students are subjected to in high school and college.
The beginning of Gatsby reads like a fairy tale. But, instead of "Once upon a time," Fitzgerald starts with the same promise to tell a good story from the past: "In my younger and more vulnerable years . . ."
The story is about Nick Carraway, who, we learn, was thought to be "privy to the secrets of wild, unknown men," and Jay Gatsby, of whom Fitzgerald writes, "there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life." Immediately, the reader is drawn into the magical kingdom inhabited by a prince and his footman.
But, as in all fairy tales, there is a "wicked witch." In this case it is Plutus, the God of Money - the monster who eventually destroys the prince and punishes his devoted servant.
Someone must die and someone must live to tell the story, to "beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
In the new film version, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan - which I was prepared to "love to hate" - Gatsby careens down the road to the abyss. Every scene is a portent of his impossible fantasy. Unlike the 1974 version, which New York Times movie critic Vincent Canby said "lacked drama," the 2013 remake never lets you forget that Gatsby's dream is built on a "house of tinsel," destined to crash into smithereens.
Ironically, it's the smashing of the fairy-tale quality of the novel, so hypnotic to the young reader, that shreds the last remnants of Gatsby's dream. There are the constant, surreptitious phone calls. The clever and calculating Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) - as opposed to the buffoonish Tom (Bruce Dern) in the 1974 version - even seems somewhat touched by the death of Myrtle, his lover. There is Wilson, Myrtle's husband, who is crazed for vengeance, rather than motivated by despair as he was in the '74 film. And there is Toby McGuire's Nick, whose anguish is more palpable than the forever cool Sam Waterston from '74.
Run - don't walk - to see this version of The Great Gatsby.