Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Cashing in on a "voice full of money": The promise of Luhrmann's "Gatsby"

On Friday the world gets to see Baz Luhrmann's vision of "The Great Gatsby" on the big screen -- famously in 3D  and with Jay-Z having produced a 21st-century soundtrack embedded in the world of wealthy Long Islanders in the mid-1920s.

The dramatic adaptation of a major novel, especially one with such an indelibly individual narrative voice as Nick Carraway's, involves point-by-point decisions about the conversion of words to action. Some of the words remain, naturally—a wise course in adapting this ceaselessly resonant book. But the action (including the tone and pace of the dialogue) is bound to speak volumes about the adapter's insight and command of his material.

Any given representation is liable to either reinforce or unravel the novelist's tightly woven web of words. The cliche that the book is usually "better" than the movie based on it often dodges the question of what a film or stage version can accomplish on its own terms, especially when the characters are incarnated in a particular cast guided by a particular director.

In the new "Gatsby," what I'll be interested to see, among much else, is how Carey Mulligan plays Daisy Buchanan, one of F. Scott Fitzgerald's most enchantingly flawed female characters. The reader is meant to share just enough of Jay Gatsby's fascination with her to partially disarm judgment. So  when Gatsby finishes Nick's thought that Daisy "has an indiscreet voice," and begins to say "it's full of...", the completion is a revelation: "Her voice is full of money."

It's one of several famous lines in the book,  notable for being among the most memorable utterances of the protagonist. Of course, it's immediately subjected to a self-conscious gloss from Nick: "That was it. I'd never understood before.  It was full of money -- that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals' song of it....High in a white palace the king's daughter, the golden girl..."

The imagery takes us to the nursery rhyme of "the king was in his counting-house, counting all his money."  When I was a little boy, I used to think rich people kept their money in a locked room, largely in billowing mounds of coins, with shovels stuck into them, as in Scrooge McDuck's money bin in the comic books. Literalism follows many false paths in childhood, yoked to the suggestibility of a child's imagination. Though a canny observer, Nick is part child throughout the story: In the very first paragraph, he solemnly reflects on his father's advice on dealing with people. Fading nineteenth-century class certainties shadow the oh-so-modern inhabitants of  "The Great Gatsby."

The authoritative assessment Gatsby offers of Daisy is typical of the compression characteristic of this novel.  Even Nick's fanciful interpretation is crisply suggestive and focused. A near-contemporary of Fitzgerald's totally lacked such restraint. If a Thomas Wolfe character had been  said to have a voice full of money, the narrator would be off to the races: He would harry the image, run it down, wring its neck and rush  to the taxidermist's to have it stuffed and mounted. It would be worth a couple of pages, at least.

By the same token, the contrast between naturalism in literature and Fitzgerald's romantic realism can be summed up by comparing the jingle and cymbals' song Nick imagines with the grotesque scene in Frank Norris' "McTeague" when the title character's wife, Trina, lolls in bed showering herself with the gold coins the couple has become obsessed with. It's the stuff of opera, and in fact William Bolcom's setting of this scene in his opera "McTeague" shows what a voice full of money might sound like in music.

It's fortunately impossible to take all the mystery out of "Her voice is full of money." You can flatten it out to mean something like the voice carries notes of entitlement, pampering, luxury, self-indulgence and the satisfaction of knowing that wealth can shift most of life's unpleasantness onto other people's shoulders.

Perhaps some of these meanings will be evident in Carey Mulligan's performance. With luck, though, her performance will leave us accepting the difficulty of recasting Gatsby's description in more expansive terms. And "The Great Gatsby" will endure, post-Luhrmann and through Luhrmann,  as the most deft examination in American arts of the moral cost of tying our deepest yearnings to riches.