Ever since Baz Luhrmann announced that he was adapting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—and especially after he revealed that he’d be doing it in 3-D—much digital ink has been spilled about the hideous sacrilege that was sure to follow. Nevermind that Luhrmann’s previous adaptation, William Shakespeare’sRomeo + Juliet, was quite true to both the language and the spirit of that legendary play; Gatsby, as David Denby puts it in The New Yorker this week, is “too intricate, too subtle, too tender for the movies,” and especially for such an unsubtle filmmaker as Luhrmann.
David Haglund is the literary editor of NewYorker.com.
So the argument goes, anyway. In fact, Fitzgerald’s novel, while great, is not, for the most part, terribly subtle. And though it has moments of real tenderness, it also has melodrama, murder, adultery, and, of course, wild parties. In any case, we can put aside, for the moment, the larger question of whether Luhrmann captured the spirit of Gatsby, which is very much open for debate. There’s a simpler question to address first: How faithful was the filmmaker to the letter of Fitzgerald’s book?
Below is a breakdown of the ways in which the new film departs from the classic novel.
The Frame Story
Luhrmann’s chief departure from the novel arrives right at the beginning, with a frame story in which the narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), some time after that summer spent with Gatsby & co., has checked into a sanitarium, diagnosed by a doctor of some sort as “morbidly alcoholic.” Fitzgerald’s Nick does refer to Gatsby as “the man who gives his name to this book” (emphasis mine), so the idea that The Great Gatsby is a text written by Nick is not entirely original with Luhrmann—though the filmmaker takes this much further than Fitzgerald, showing Nick writing by hand, then typing, and finally compiling his finished manuscript. He even titles it, first just Gatsby, then adding, by hand, “The Great,” in a concluding flourish. (Fitzgerald himself went through many more potential titles.) As for that morbid alcoholism, Nick claims in the novel that he’s “been drunk just twice in my life,” but the movie slyly implies that he’s in denial, by showing him cross out “once” for “twice,” and then, in the frame story, suggesting that it was far more than that, really.
Jordan and Nick
The plot of the film is pretty much entirely faithful to the novel, but Luhrmann and his co-screenwriter Craig Pearce do cut out one of the side stories: the affair between Nick and Jordan Baker, the friend of Daisy’s from Louisville who is a well-known golfer. Daisy promises to set them up, to push them “accidentally in linen closets and … out to sea in a boat,” a line the screenplay keeps—but then, in the film, the matter is dropped. Luhrmann’s Nick says he found Jordan “frightening” at first, a word Carraway doesn’t apply to her in the novel—and later at Gatsby’s we see Jordan whisked away from Nick by a male companion, which doesn’t happen in the book. In the novel, they become a couple and break up near the end of the summer.
The Apartment Party
The film, like the novel, is a series of set pieces, including an impromptu party that Tom throws in a Manhattan apartment he keeps for his mistress, Myrtle Wilson, wife of a Queens mechanic. Nick accompanies them, and the film shows Nick sitting quietly in the apartment’s living room while the adulterous couple have loud sex in the bedroom. Fitzgerald doesn’t spell out anything so explicit—but something like that is implied: Tom and Myrtle disappear and reappear before the other guests arrive; Nick reads a book and waits. Luhrmann also shows Myrtle’s sister Catherine giving Nick a pill that she says she got from a doctor in Queens; that’s not in the novel at all. Luhrmann’s Nick wakes up at home, half-dressed, unsure how he got there, while Fitzgerald’s narrator comes to in an apartment downstairs from Tom and Myrtle’s place, owned by one of their friends (and party-guests); he then goes to Penn Station to take the 4 o’clock train home.
Lunch With Wolfsheim
In the book, Gatsby takes Nick to lunch at a “well-fanned 42nd Street cellar,” where he introduces his new friend to Meyer Wolfsheim, a Jewish gangster. In the movie, Gatsby and Nick go to a barber shop with a hidden entrance to a speakeasy, and once inside they see not only Wolfsheim but also the police commissioner—who, in the book as in the film, Gatsby was “able to do … a favor once.” They also see there (if I understood things correctly) Nick’s boss, whom I believe Luhrmann has turned into Tom’s friend Walter Chase. (In the novel, those are two different people, neither of whom we ever actually meet.) The speakeasy features entertainment from a bevy of Josephine Baker-like dancers, who are not mentioned in the book.
At least one reviewer—David Denby again—has protested Luhmann’s decision to cast an Indian actor, Amitabh Bachchan, as Wolfsheim, a character based on notorious Jewish gangster Arnold Rothstein. But faithfulness in this case probably would have meant anti-Semitism, since it is very hard to defend Fitzgerald’s characterization of the “small, flat-nosed Jew” with a “large head” and “two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril.” Casting Bachchan preserves the character’s otherness while complicating the rather gruesome stereotype Fitzgerald employed. Luhrmann appears to have given some thought to this, given that he faithfully keeps key passages from the novel about race: Tom’s trumpeting of a racist book called Rise of the Colored Empires (which had a real-world inspiration), Nick’s glimpse of apparently wealthy black men and women being driven into Manhattan by a white chauffeur, and Tom’s later diatribe about “intermarriage between black and white.”
The Finnish Woman and Ella Kaye
Did you know that Nick Carraway had a maid? This is easy to forget, since Nick seems generally financially a bit strapped, certainly in comparison to his rich neighbors. But in the novel he employs “a Finnish woman who made my bed and cooked breakfast and muttered Finnish wisdom to herself over the electric stove.” She makes a few appearances in the book but is understandably cut from the movie. So is Ella Kaye, the seemingly conniving woman who manages to snag the inheritance of Dan Cody, the rich, drunken yachtsman who first prompts Gatsby on his road to wealth and artifice. In the movie, Cody’s wealth goes to his family.
Gatsby’s Death and Funeral
Near the end of the book, Gatsby is murdered by George Wilson, the mechanic husband of Tom’s mistress, who has gotten it into his head that Gatsby killed her—and that, what’s more, he might have been the one she was sleeping with on the side. Fitzgerald doesn’t depict the murder: The book says that Gatsby grabbed a “pneumatic mattress” (i.e., a floater) and headed to his pool, then Gatsby’s chauffeur hears gun shots. Luhrmann ditches the pneumatic mattress and adds his own dramatic flourish. In both book and movie, Gatsby is waiting for a phone call from Daisy, but in the film, Nick calls, and Gatsby gets out of the pool when he hears the phone ring. He’s then shot, and he dies believing that Daisy was going to ditch Tom and go way with him. None of that happens in the book.
Gatsby is, in both versions, lonely in death, but the film is even crueler to him in this regard, dropping the last-minute appearance of his father and the unexpected arrival at the funeral of a man who Nick previously met in Gatsby’s study. This is the same man who famously points out that Gatsby has real books, but hasn’t cut the pages. We meet him in the movie in that study, but he makes no mention of the books, and his subsequent appearance is dropped entirely.
Reading, said the great English essayist Matthew Arnold, “is culture.” Given the condition of reading test scores among school children nationwide, it isn’t surprising to find both our nation and our culture in trouble. Further, the rush to internetize all schools, particularly K–12, adds to our downward spiral. If it were not for the Harry Potter books one might lose all hope who languishes here. Then, suddenly, you realize libraries really are in trouble, grave danger, when important higher-education officials opine, “Don’t you know the internet has made libraries obsolete?” Gadzooks! as Harry himself might say.
In an effort to save our culture, strike a blow for reading, and, above all, correct the well-intentioned but horribly misguided notions about what is fast becoming intertopia among many nonlibrarian bean counters, here are 10 reasons why the Internet is no substitute for a library.
1. Not Everything Is on the Internet
With billions of web pages you couldn’t tell it by looking. Nevertheless, a sizeable amount of substantive materials is not on the Internet for free. For example, only about 8% of all journals are on the web, and an even smaller fraction of books are there. Both are costly! If you want the Journal of Biochemistry, Physics Today, Journal of American History, you’ll pay, and to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
2. The Needle (Your Search) in the Haystack (the Web)
The internet is like a vast uncataloged library. Whether you’re using Google or any one of a dozen other search or metasearch engines, you’re not searching the entire web. Sites often promise to search everything but they can’t deliver. Moreover, what they do search is not updated daily, weekly, or even monthly, regardless of what’s advertised. If a librarian told you, “Here are 10 articles on Native Americans. We have 40 others but we’re not going to let you see them, not now, not yet, not until you’ve tried another search in another library,” you’d throw a fit. The internet does this routinely and no one seems to mind.
3. Quality Control Doesn’t Exist
Yes, we need the internet, but in addition to all the scientific, medical, and historical information (when accurate), there is also a cesspool of waste. When young people aren’t getting their sex education off XXX-rated sites, they’re learning politics from the Freeman Web page, or race relations from Klan sites. There is no quality control on the web, and there isn’t likely to be any. Unlike libraries where vanity press publications are rarely, if ever, collected, vanity is often what drives the internet. Any fool can put up anything on the web, and, to my accounting, all have.
4. What You Don’t Know Really Does Hurt You
The great boon to libraries has been the digitization of journals. But full-text sites, while grand, aren’t always full. What you don’t know can hurt you:
- articles on these sites are often missing, among other things, footnotes;
- tables, graphs, and formulae do not often show up in a readable fashion (especially when printed); and
- journal titles in a digitized package change regularly, often without warning.
A library may begin with X number of journals in September and end with Y number in May. Trouble is, those titles aren’t the same from September to May. Although the library may have paid $100,000 for the access, it’s rarely notified of any changes. I would not trade access to digitized journals for anything in the world, but their use must be a judicious, planned, and measured one, not full, total, and exclusive reliance.
5. States Can Now Buy One Book and Distribute to Every Library on the Web—NOT!
Yes, and we could have one national high school, a national university, and a small cadre of faculty teaching everybody over streaming video. Let’s take this one step further and have only digitized sports teams for real savings! (Okay, I know, I’ve insulted the national religion.) From 1970 to 2001 about 50,000 academic titles have been published every year. Of these 1.5 million titles, fewer than a couple thousand are available. What is on the internet are about 20,000 titles published before 1925. Why? No copyright restrictions that cause prices to soar to two or three times their printed costs. Finally, vendors delivering e-books allow only one digitized copy per library. If you check out an e-book over the Web, I can’t have it until you return it. Go figure, as they say. And if you’re late getting the book back, there is no dog-ate-my-homework argument. It’s charged to your credit card automatically.
6. Hey, Bud, You Forgot about E-book Readers
Most of us have forgotten what we said about microfilm (“It would shrink libraries to shoebox size”), or when educational television was invented (“We’ll need fewer teachers in the future”). Try reading an e-book reader for more than a half-hour. Headaches and eyestrain are the best results. Moreover, the cost of readers runs from $200 to $2,000, the cheaper ones being harder on the eyes. Will this change? Doubtless, but it won't stop the publication of books.
7. Aren’t There Library-less Universities Now?
Not really. The newest state university in California at Monterey opened without a library building a few years ago. For the last two years, they’ve been buying books by the tens of thousands because—surprise, surprise—they couldn’t find what they needed on the internet. California Polytechnic State University, home of the world’s highest concentration of engineers and computer geeks, explored the possibility of a virtual (fully electronic) library for two years. Their solution was a $42-million traditional library with, of course, a strong electronic component. In other words, a fully virtualized library just can’t be done. Not yet, not now, not in our lifetimes.
8. But a Virtual State Library Would Do It, Right?
Do what, bankrupt the state? Yes, it would. The cost of having everything digitized is incredibly high, costing tens of millions of dollars just in copyright releases. And this buys only one virtual library at one university. Questia Media, the biggest such outfit, spent $125 million digitizing 50,000 books released (but not to libraries!). At this rate, to virtualize a medium-sized library of 400,000 volumes would cost a mere $1,000,000,000! Then you need to make sure students have equitable access everywhere they need it, when they need it. Finally, what do you do with rare and valuable primary sources once they are digitized? Take them to the dump? And you must hope the power never, ever goes out. Sure, students could still read by candlelight, but what would they be reading?
9. The Internet: A Mile Wide, an Inch (or Less) Deep
Looking into the abyss of the internet is like vertigo over a void. But the void has to do not only with what’s there, but also with what isn’t. Not much on the internet is more than 15 years old. Vendors offering magazine access routinely add a new year while dropping an earlier one. Access to older material is very expensive. It’ll be useful, in coming years, for students to know (and have access to) more than just the scholarly materials written in the last 10 to15 years.
10. The Internet Is Ubiquitous but Books Are Portable
In a recent survey of those who buy electronic books, more than 80% said they like buying paper books over the internet, not reading them on the web. We have nearly 1,000 years of reading print in our bloodstream and that’s not likely to change in the next 75. Granted, there will be changes in the delivery of electronic materials now, and those changes, most of them anyway, will be hugely beneficial. But humankind, being what it is, will always want to curl up with a good book—not a laptop—at least for the foreseeable future.
The web is great; but it’s a woefully poor substitute for a full-service library. It is mad idolatry to make it more than a tool. Libraries are icons of our cultural intellect, totems to the totality of knowledge. If we make them obsolete, we’ve signed the death warrant to our collective national conscience, not to mention sentencing what’s left of our culture to the waste bin of history. No one knows better than librarians just how much it costs to run a library. We’re always looking for ways to trim expenses while not contracting service. The internet is marvelous, but to claim, as some now do, that it’s making libraries obsolete is as silly as saying shoes have made feet unnecessary.
This article originally appeared in American Libraries, April 2001, p. 76–78, modified slightly January 2010.