To judge by some of the reviews of the new film adaptation of "The Great Gatsby," you'd think Australian director Baz Luhrmann would be facing extradition for his crime against an American classic.
But I have a message for all those self-appointed protectors of F. Scott Fitzgerald's indelible novel: The book doesn't need your condemnation of this supposed 3-D travesty to survive. If it can live through the tedium of Jack Clayton's 1974 movie version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, it can live through anything.
Much as I was expecting to loathe Luhrmann's cinematic Tilt-A-Whirl, I wound up (firing squad, prepare to load) enjoying the ride. How could this happen?
As a theater critic who liked "Gatz," Elevator Repair Service's marathon stage rendition of the novel, a no-frills production that was above all a celebration of Fitzgerald's exquisite prose and the imaginative act of reading, I knew that I wasn't the target audience. (The ubiquitous ads, with Leonardo DiCaprio and starry company arrayed against an Art Deco backdrop in postures reminiscent of an Irwin Shaw miniseries, might have come with a skull and crossbones attached, as far as I was concerned.)
My fears seemed fully realized as my eyes tried to adjust to the CGI-enhanced opulence of Luhrmann's relentlessly bouncy film: This was, indeed, the anti-"Gatz."
But something happened along the way that allowed me to accept this "Gatsby" on its own outlandishly Luhrmann terms, to regard the film not as a botched translation but as a diverting pop-cultural riff that has as much to say about Fitzgerald's novel as it does about the connection between two decadent eras, the Jazz Age and our own.
The hip-hop-inflected soundtrack, which has executive producer Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter's fingerprints all over it, freed me from the expectation of highly polished literary realism. If you can't make the conceptual leap of a "Gatsby" movie featuring tracks by Beyoncé, Andre 3000 and Lana Del Rey, then by all means stay away.
But a literal-minded re-creation of "Gatsby" would probably have been as stultifying as one of those Shakespeare revivals in which every effort is made to duplicate our sketchy historical notions of Elizabethan stagecraft.
Theater directors take liberties on a regular basis with canonical texts, understanding that to recapture the energy and impact of a treasured work in a new form, reinvention is a necessity, not an indulgence. Playwrights, of course, are writing expressly for the stage, but their work still must be transposed from the page.
No production I've attended of "Hamlet" — and I've attended enough for several lifetimes — has been as complete as Shakespeare's play. And no portrayal of the melancholy Dane has ever been as psychologically complex as the figure who has soliloquized before my mind's eye.
The great Romantic critic William Hazlitt makes the point in an essay on "Hamlet," in which he argues that the character, consisting of "speeches and sayings" that are but "the idle coinage of the poet's brain" is only "as real as our own thoughts. ... It is we who are Hamlet."
Of course, "we" is not a static entity. As Virginia Woolf once observed, "To write down one's impression of 'Hamlet' as one reads it year after year, would be virtually to record one's own autobiography...."
One of the tests of a classic is whether it presents itself as a mirror for each new generation that encounters it. Masterpieces, in short, are for re-reading. We don't consume them; they consume us. Our relationship to them, individually and collectively, is ongoing, never to be completed.
This doesn't mean that there aren't good and bad responses to "Gatsby" or superior and inferior dramatizations. But it is very unlikely that a "Gatsby" film will ever replace the novel. And those who truly love the book can take comfort in the fact that the full experience is only a paperback away.
This latest cinematic crack at "Gatsby" certainly gives us much to criticize, but the way in which reviewers have impatiently dismissed the film, adopting the tone of aggrieved consumers sold a phony bill of goods, is disappointing. Blinded by the superficial glitz of the movie, they have given short shrift to the depth of engagement with the novel that informs even the bad choices Luhrmann has made with his screenwriting collaborator, Craig Pearce.
The film has been described as a "Gatsby" made by Gatsby, a parvenu work of ostentatious taste and Donald Trump-like sensibility. At the same time, the movie has been chided for making the Jazz Age look spectacularly unalluring, a party in which no expense has been spared and no one appears to be having all that much fun.
It seems to me that this is precisely what Luhrmann was aiming for. This is his solution to the problem of dramatizing a work that tells its story better than it shows it. The ambivalent vision of Fitzgerald's book, it's important to remember, is conveyed through Nick Carraway's first-person narration, something that a film can't wholly accommodate.