Why I’m afraid to watch The Great Gatsby

The cover of the first edition of The Great Ga...

The cover of the first edition of The Great Gatsby (1925) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I confess that I had a shotgun reaction to the trailer of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. I hated it. Something felt so intensely wrong about it, although it had all the visual razzmatazz and glamour one associates with the Roaring Twenties, the period in which the story is set.  I ended up having a debate with a few friends on Twitter when I posted my immediate reaction. My first complaint, not particularly well thought out, I admit, was that there was no jazz music in the trailer. Shouldn’t a Jazz Age story have well…jazz? A couple of friends told me that cinema merits creative liberties and if Luhrmann chose to use a Kanye West and Jay-Z creation to set the tone for his movie, that was his right as a creative person. I heard a similar argument from the hubby when I once again tried to articulate why I was so deeply offended by the trailer.

Initially, as I said, I couldn’t quite put my outrage into words. Like Time magazine columnist James Poniewozick, all I could think of saying was, “UGH Baz Luhrmann stop touching things that I like!” But the more I thought about it, the greater the conviction grew on me that what offended me really was the lack of fidelity to the source that I noticed in the trailer. Yes, I know a trailer is not the movie itself, and there is a possibility (laughable though it might seem to some) that The Great Gatsby might actually turn out to be an enjoyable movie.

But then it would only be enjoyable in the sense that Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes was enjoyable. Although I hated the Holmes movie at first, it did grow on me. But – and this is the key here – it grew on me only when I willed myself into forgetting that the characters I was watching on screen were Holmes and Watson. I thought of Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law as playing just any other genius detective and his sidekick in grimy Victorian London and then, finally, I could enjoy the madcap charms of Ritchie’s movies.

Because you see, Ritchie’s movies about Holmes have no particular fidelity to the source either. What I mean is, by stating these movies are about Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson, he’s  just pulling our legs. All he’s really doing is selling his movies on the back of Brand Sherlock Holmes. I don’t mean to cast doubt on Ritchie’s familiarity with the Holmes stories. Quite possibly he read and enjoyed them as a boy, and even as a grown man. But does he truly love and understand them in the deepest sense of the words? I doubt it.

To know what I mean by ‘fidelity to the source’ you would have to watch the BBC series Sherlock. That is a brilliant show and made with true and deep love. Any Holmes junkie can tell you that Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, the creators and writers of the show, really know Holmes. There are little hints of various Holmes stories scattered all over the six episodes we’ve seen so far. And Holmes and Watson feel so supremely authentic. If the great detective and his friend had been born in this age, you know this is exactly how they would be.

So what does this have to do with my reaction to The Great Gatsby? Just that I don’t think Luhrmann has really understood the book – he simply doesn’t get it. He’s blinded  by the Jazz Age trappings of the novel and I don’t blame him. It was about the decadent lives of the rich and glamorous, and Luhrmann is perfectly justified in trying to lure us in with his shiny chandeliers, barely-there flapper dresses and glittering diamonds. But what lies beyond that?

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel was a heartache of a novel. It was the love story of two fundamentally hollow people who’re trying hard to fill the void inside them and failing miserably. If the plot seems very dramatic, let me assure you that in Fitzgerald’s masterly hands the drama never gets out of control. Strange and crazy things happen, but the tone remains poignant, thanks to narrator Nick Carraway.

Luhrmann’s trailer had screaming people, loud anachronistic music and hints of an elaborate sex scene and I’m very afraid that that is all he will reduce that beautiful story too. I’m afraid that he’s only latched on to The Great Gatsby as a great marketing ploy: it’s well-known book and if he casts movie critic darlings like Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan it’s sure to draw people into theatres.  He knows the movie will sell. But does he have that reverence in his heart that a literary masterpiece deserves? I doubt it. If he did, he would not have messed with the jazz.

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Interview with author Sagarika Chakraborty

This is a long-overdue interview with writer Sagarika Chakraborty. I have reviewed her debut book, A Calendar Too Crowded – a collection of short stories – here. Sagarika is not a full-time writer: A student of law from National Law University in Jodhpur, she recently graduated from the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. Sagarika is passionate about socio-economic development issues and her articles on corporate governance have appeared in many of the world’s leading journals on the topic.  Yes, I also find it hard to imagine how she managed to write and get a book published while she has so much else going on!

In this interview, Sagarika talks about her writing life, working on a book and getting a lot of her inspiration from travelling on buses

On her very first story

“I made up my first story when I was four years old, I think. My mom used to find innovative ways to keep me occupied, and one day she gave me a sentence and told me to spin a story out of it”

On discovering her ‘writerly’ gifts

“In college, I found that I was very keen on writing research papers. I was always eager to just write. Then one day, one of my professors called me and asked me if I had ever considered publishing my written work.  I was taken aback initially, but the idea stuck.”

On finding the right publisher

“I wanted to find a publisher whose objectives were similar to mine. It had to be someone who published more ‘serious’ work. I did a bit research, found that Niyogi books was the right fit and sent them a synopsis and sample chapters. Luckily, they too thought we would be a good fit.”

On how she gets writing

“I write a lot in my head, actually, and I don’t force myself to write. I’m a fairly methodical person: I get the chapters into place first, and spend some time on preparing a chapter outline. Then I fill it out.”

On how she balances her writing and her ‘corporate’ life

“I simply cannot do without my corporate life. It makes sure that I interact with lots of people and my writing grows out of these interactions. In fact, I need to be out with people to keep my creative side thriving. That is why I love travelling by bus too; one sees so many different and interesting people. In fact, I’m a stickler for public transport.”

On receiving fan mail…and hate mail

“The appreciation has been gratifying. I’ve actually had a lot of men, who’ve read my books, coming up to me and saying that they can now finally see things from a different perspective.  But I’ve also received hate mail, a lot of it from mothers of little boys who feel that my take on mothers who spoil their sons is all wrong.”

On why she doesn’t want the ‘feminist writer’ tag

“It’s incredibly frustrating when people describe me as ‘feminist writer’. I don’t like the term, principally because I feel that over the years, it has lost much of its original meaning. Male-bashing is not feminism. It’s about appreciating women, just as much as men.”