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The Greatest Gatsby ever sold

Jessica Allen on the orgy of merchandising for a film based on the loneliest book ever written


 
What would Gatsby wear?

Warner Bros. Pictures

Turn on a television, pass a shop window or a bus shelter these days, and you are engulfed by the opulence of the Roaring Twenties, the bold, clean angles of art deco design, and the jauntily attired figures of Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan—the stars of Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third novel. If The Great Gatsby ever went away, it’s unavoidably back. It’s now the fourth-bestselling book on Amazon, 88 years after it was first published. And the film’s partnerships with Tiffany & Co., Brooks Brothers and Moët & Chandon hope to resurrect other Jazz Age gestures: two-toned brogues, bow ties, a 5.25-carat flower-shaped diamond ring (price tag $875,000).

The film, which opens May 10, promises to be an over-the-top hyperactive kaleidoscope of colours, with a hip-hop-infused soundtrack produced by Jay-Z—all in 3D, and none more so than the merchandizing collaborations, which we’re told all make sense. “[Fitzgerald] went to Brooks Brothers and Tiffany, which was of course the jeweller of the Jazz Age, and drank Moët,” fashion editor Marion Hume told the Australian Financial Review. The Plaza Hotel in New York, the setting for a climactic scene in the novel, has also capitalized on Gatsby’s popularity. For about $2,800, guests can book a night in the Fitzgerald Suite, have the “Moët Imperial Gatsby” champagne cocktail in the hotel’s Rose Club, or enjoy “Caudalie Grape Gatsby Treatments” at the Plaza’s spa.

That’s a great deal of hoopla for what many consider to be one of the loneliest books ever written: it may be filled with revellers, but they’re all strangers. The aloneness is best exemplified by its protagonist, Nick Carraway, the Midwesterner who comes east and finds himself a secondary character in the drama of his own life, and of the figure of Jay Gatsby himself, who desires to create a moment of affection from his past while hiding his working-class origins. It’s also a lot of expensive stuff hitched to a story that is in part about what money can’t buy.

Harold Bloom, author of The Western Canon (among many other books) and editor of numerous essays on the novel, agrees. He won’t be seeing The Great Gatsby. (Nor did he see Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, even though its star, Claire Danes, was a student of his at Yale.) “Very rarely is the film an improvement on the book,” the 82-year-old told Maclean’s. He first read Gatsby when he was 12 or 13 and has since returned to it about eight times.

And rarely outside the Disney franchise does a film generate such materialistic infatuation long before it is released: the New York Times recently reported on the steady upswing of 1920s-inspired wedding-dress sales; a Great Gatsby search on the craft shopping site Etsy yields more than 4,250 results; and an eBay representative told the blog Fashionista that, in the past year, there has been more than a 530 per cent increase in sales of Gatsby-related women’s clothing items. That’s a lot of headpieces.

On the other hand, the exposure could help reinvigorate interest. After Anne Margaret Daniel, a professor of literature at the New School in New York, saw a recent preview of Luhrmann’s film, she overheard a group of students discussing, not the movie, but the book—and the location of the closest Barnes & Noble. “I was cheering inside,” she said. “It’s a book that people haven’t come back to in 30 years, and now they’re going to reread it. Hats off to Baz Luhrmann for that.”

It’s a fitting tribute, in a way, to a man who turned to screenplays in his late 30s to make money. Daniel is writing a book on Fitzgerald’s time in Hollywood and she thought Luhrmann’s film was brilliant. “Don’t judge a film by its trailers,” she warned. “It doesn’t just bombard your senses. It exercises them.”

It’s hard to know what the author would have thought of all this. But Daniel came across a letter from 1927 in the Princeton library archives, where she received her Ph.D.—and where Fitzgerald dropped out to join the army—written by Zelda Fitzgerald to the couple’s then six-year-old daughter, Scottie: “We saw The Great Gatsby in the movies,” she wrote of the now-lost silent-film version. “It’s ROTTEN and awful and terrible and we left.”

 


 

The Greatest Gatsby ever sold

  1. “The Great Gatsby” was Fitzgerald’s third novel.

    • Hey Graham,

      You’re right. I regret the error. A lot. In any case, thanks for pointing it out.

  2. While I agree with Harold Bloom that films based on books are rarely, if ever, as good as the books themselves, why judge a film based on the book in the first place — these are completely different types of art, entertainment? I think seeing a director’s version of a story is interesting — why they took out, what they kept in, what they focused on that the book did not (think Gone with the Wind — one of my favourite novels, but also a favourite film: it left out Scarlett having children from all her husbands, it left out a lot of the narrative that to me made it a book about strong women in order to be a love story about a heterosexual relationship — because after all, a film has to make decisions, seeing as how it takes us more time to read a book than it does to watch a film). I look forward to the opulance and grandeur of the film, and I do not expect it to satisfy me in the same way the book does, but I will expect it to satisfy in a completely different way. Unless it’s a bad film — in which case, just enjoy the costumes and scenery and jewellery.

    • I pretty much agree, Patchouli. A little anecdote I wanted to get into this story, but didn’t have room for, was Bloom telling me that the rare occasion where the movie was better than the book, in his opinion, was ‘The Last of the Mohicans’. He wouldn’t re-read the book, but he’d watch the movie again, he said.

  3. I’m looking FW to Elysium, Dumb + Dumber II, and X-Men: Days of Future Past. What do you suppose will be the past turning point? What will the dystopia look like? The problem with romances is, raising children takes time. Dating unnecessarily takes time; a man shouldn’t really have to do all the work and some of us be brilliant too. The Dicaprio character was branded a Nazi by Donald Duck.
    Be nice to see Det-Chi series on the big screen.

    • Why do the most desirable women reward the most distracted men? Do you all learn to be idiots or are you just born that way?

      • I don’t like this realization at all: that men who most make the world a better place don’t exhaust the time that women demand, into relationships. I guess the 1200s soon-Renaissance Italians didn’t consider women wouldn’t be utilitarian in their value judgments. I guess the capitalist 1960s USA didn’t consider market forces would ruin the civilization they were trying to save from the Soviets unless geniuses ignored that unpaid study time doesn’t get themselves laid.
        I’m reinserting the chip.

  4. Agreed that ususally, movies don’t live up to the novels. There are some exceptions though:

    1. A Clockwork Orange – different from the novel, but a brilliant film all by itself.

    2. Barry Lyndon – ditto

    3. 2001: A Space Odyssey – ditto

    4. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – somehow Terry Gilliam just got it, he understood what Hunter S. was getting at.

    5. Blade Runner – Again, different from Philip K. Dick’s novel, but a brilliant film on its own merits.

    Kubrick also did a pretty good job with The Shining, even though he took a lot of liberties and made some big changes.

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