West Virginia Book Festival

What makes “The Great Gatsby” great?

I’m of two minds about the film adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” coming out this weekend. On the one hand, I can’t imagine that one of the most notoriously difficult novels of the past century to film is going to be solved by the bombastic Baz Luhrmann. But any excuse to bring one of the few books with a legitimate claim on the title of The Great American Novel is an opportunity worth taking.

What makes “The Great Gatsby” so great? Part of it is how Fitzgerald evokes the setting: the glamorous Jazz Age, in the midst of the post-World War I boom. Even though there aren’t a lot of parties in the book — really, there’s just one completely successful blowout, which Gatsby throws in the middle of the novel — that’s what a lot of readers remember (and that certainly seems to be what Luhrmann is concentrating on, if the previews are any indication).

Which is somewhat strange, because Fitzgerald is no wide-eyed innocent about the era. True, he and his wife Zelda enjoyed the 1920s as much as anybody — but he knew there were plenty of people, like Myrtle and George Wilson in the book, who weren’t having those good times. And even for the fortunate ones, he knew, the good times couldn’t last. At the same time he’s writing about what a great time everyone is having, he’s showing how pointless, if not downright destructive, the whole thing is. Self-made millionaire and bon vivant Jay Gatsby, in many ways, is the living embodiment of the American dream. In the end, it’s not enough.

(And of course, Fitzgerald was right. Four years after “The Great Gatsby” was published, the United States and much of the rest of the world would spiral into the Great Depression.)

Leonardo DiCaprio (Jay Gatsby), Carey Mulligan (Daisy Buchanan) and Tobey Maguire (Nick Carraway).

None of Fitzgerald’s perception and scene-setting would matter, though, if he couldn’t write. And that’s where “The Great Gatsby” stakes its claim to greatness. I’ve not read many books that are more beautifully written.

In Francine Prose’s book “Reading Like A Writer,” Gatsby is one of the first books she cites for its language — specifically, the “word-by-word gorgeousness” in the scene where Nick Carraway first sees Daisy Buchanan and her friend Jordan Baker in Daisy’s West Egg home:

The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling — and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.

The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.

There’s so much description packed in the story that it’s startling to realize how short the book really is (that copy that I remember, with the deep blue cover with the disembodied eyes and lips, is only 192 pages long). Every word is so precise, and it’s hard to imagine how too much of that could be conveyed by any filmmaker. (Although I’m sure the novel’s famous last line, which is engraved on the Fitzgeralds’ tombstone in Rockville, Md., will make an appearance: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.)

So maybe that’s the way to approach this latest attempt to film “The Great Gatsby.” Enjoy it for what it is (say what you want about Luhrmann, his films usually aren’t boring). Then read the novel, or read about it; there’s been enough written about it over the past couple of weeks to fill Gatsby’s swimming pool, but I enjoyed this piece in The Guardian by Sarah Churchwell, who has a book about Fitzgerald’s writing of the novel coming out next month.