Why Words Matter

Words matter.

We use them moment to moment to communicate and describe and direct and instruct.

Sometimes, especially here in the South, we run them together into a string of drawls and dropped last letters. Even then, we care about our words.

But never has the use of words mattered more than in the adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby - front cover
The Great Gatsby – front cover

And with great anticipation I waited for Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Gatsby’ with Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan, Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan, and Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson. I heard the reviews – many of which were unfavorable given the unexpected choice of music adaptation by Jay Z.

My husband and I had a rough week, and by rough I mean unexpectedly busy. The torrents of rain with brief breaks that caused us to rush about with our farming duties – yes it is that time of year – left little time for blogging or writing or reading, although I ached to get my hands on my ancient paperback version of Gatsby. As most of you know, in addition to our ‘regular’ jobs, we try to do a little farming and hay mowing for our horses and some specialty customers.

Our reward was to attend the first showing of ‘Gatsby’. It was unusually busy for the early showing and dramatically quiet as we all went on a little trip that began with the fading in of the outline in grey that morphed spectacularly into the 1920’s New York jazz life.

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 the wind does on the sea.”

I didn’t notice that the music was modern when it was modern because the old and new were blended perfectly and the slightly rebellious undertones of sharp horns mixed with rapping voices seemed to fit the mood of that time frame in America.

What I did notice was that Baz Luhrmann respected Fitzgerald’s words.

In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”

With a bit of creative license given to setting Nick Carraway in a sanitarium for alcoholism, where his prescription for cure was to write, he takes us through the novel and the beauty of the words that makes Scott Fitzgerald’s novel so difficult to put on screen. We often see the words scrolling as in a journal as he writes them.

It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced – or seemed to face – the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.

Leonardo DiCaprio wasn’t one of my favorite actors – until last night. He must have studied this line and every one of Fitzgerald’s descriptive sentences about Gatsby because I believe he nailed this character. Fragility, dreaminess, hope, vulnerability, love, disgust, anger, self-consciousness, fear, cockiness – it’s all there in a gesture or an expression.

He came alive to me, delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendor.”

But it’s the words that matter. And in the end, it’s the absence of words that also matters.

We all sat for a moment after the film morphed into credits – a quiet sadness keeping all of us in our seats. Finally one or two began to trickle out and respectfully we all joined the exodus with polite reverence for the realization that we had all been witness to something of great beauty. The music, the art of acting, the crazy party scenes that assaulted the senses, the plot, and most of all – the words.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

There have been five film versions of ‘The Great Gatsby’ – one of which is a silent movie from 1926. Most critics have not given good reviews to these due to the inability to translate Fitzgerald’s beautifully woven words onto the screen. There have also been at least three plays, an opera, and even a computer game based on ‘The Great Gatsby’.

I believe Luhrmann’s version works because of his respect for the writing. The dialogue sticks closely to that of the novel. The excesses and longings are given their share of screen time. The joy in Gatsby’s face as DiCaprio slings the multi-colored shirts across the banister and down to a sparkling Daisy culminates all of his hopes having materialized in a single afternoon. The agony of possible defeat lands on his face as does anger when taunted by Tom. Daisy’s weakness, selfishness, and superficiality paint her face as surely as the eyeshadow gives her a doe-eyed innocence. Isla Fisher’s Myrtle – Tom’s mistress – is the epitomy of a high-spirited girl caught up at a junction between too much and too little.

I could barely wait to get my hands on my paperback version that I probably purchased in the seventies – maybe earlier. I am sure we were required to read this book for American Literature in high school, but I may have actually purchased it before then. I have certainly read it numerous times and have packed it into boxes for each successive move that I have ever made. In spite of encouragement to rid myself of these old books, I have faithfully held on to them over the years.

Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees – he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.”

The Great Gatsby - back cover. Looks like I paid a whole $1.65 for this one.
The Great Gatsby – back cover. Looks like I paid a whole $1.65 for this one.

“You’ll never find that old thing,” my husband said the minute I prepared to search through the three floors of uncategorized shelves sprinkled here and there and in no particular order.

As if by fate, I walked straight to the basement set of shelves and to the older section of books – if there is any order at all it is by the date I have purchased them – and there it waited like an old friend happy to see me. I was certainly happy to see it. And so I re-read this classic and noted many of my favorite quotes. All of the ones I am sharing here are from this book.

No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”

I have always had a fetish for books. I can remember the Scholastic Book Fairs that came to our school library and the way I would save my money for them. I also recall hitting everybody up for extra money for these books, and  that my childhood bed had a bookshelf for a headboard. ‘The Great Gatsby’ resided behind my head for many years, accompanied by whatever else I was reading at the time. Perhaps these words seeped into my little brain while I slept. Maybe I only wished they would.

Because, I’ve always known, words matter.

Renee Johnson is the author of Acquisition, and The Haunting of William Gray.  She is currently working on a Young Adult novel, while editing a suspense novel which has international flair–an homage to her love of travel and foreign food.  She lives on a farm in North Carolina with her husband, Tony Johnson, and one very spoiled German shepherd named Gretel.   



  1. Renee, after reading your words, I have to dig around and find that book again. I’m happy you liked the movie, because I’ve read mostly so-so reviews so far. But just reading the quotes you picked and feeling the obvious love you have for the book, makes me want to go see it.

    1. I’m so glad. I was holding my breath – hoping that it wasn’t ruined. And as you say, I suppose you can see that it wasn’t – for me anyway. Please let me know what you think once you’ve had a chance or see it.

        1. If you’ve always been a fan, then you MUST see this one. He has earned ‘STAR’ status with me from this portrayal. And he looks much taller than I have previously thought of him as being. Perhaps it is the expensive suits, but he looks good! And even my husband was impressed with him in this role.

  2. **“In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”**

    Omygoodness, sentences like this cause my pulse to quicken.

    YES! Words Matter.
    They have saved me in many ways.

    Wonderful Post, Renee. Xxx

  3. I’ve always wondered why directors and screenwriters take a wonderful book and screw it up on screen. They change dialog that sings, that hits just the right notes. They leave in the crap.

    Your description of the movie makes me long to see it.

    1. And sometimes it is the writing itself that makes the book wonderful. Watching the plot isn’t the same as reading it. I hope you will see the movie and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  4. Words most definitely do matter. I tend not to see movies made from books I have read, and almost never if I love the book because they just don’t do justice to the images in my brain.
    This sounds as if it may be the exception.
    Thank you.

    1. It was definitely the challenge for Luhrmann as no movie has stood up to the reputation of this book before. And critics are mixed about it. But I think the movie goers are enjoying it.

  5. I remember the 1974 film anchored by the suave and then young and atrociously handsome Robert Redford and a somewhat tired looking and aging Mia Farrow. Somehow I had not found that one very good, and a far cry from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic rendition of the story.

    So has Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby succeeded in redeeming the plot?


    1. In my opinion DiCaprio is the best Jay Gatsby ever! Of course, I haven’t seen every rendition of this film, but I totally agree with you – the 1974 movie didn’t do it for me. Mia Farrow acted the part. Carey’s Daisy just is Daisy. Loved it.

    1. Sometimes I find that certain sentences send a shiver down my back when I read them. I want to keep them with me and read more from the author. I’m so glad you got that from these quotes. Thanks MJ.

  6. Words definitely matter. Books definitely matter. From a very early age I knew that books and the words written in them would be what made a difference, hiding under the blankets with a flashlight savouring every sentence when it was long past bedtime.
    I hadn’t intended to see the movie but I will now. Perhaps after I read the book again.

    1. It’s been a bit like rekindling an old love affair for me. I think most of us who write, began as avid readers. I love the image of you hiding with a flashlight. Isn’t it great to think about how those books transported us to another space and time!

  7. Now you’ve done it…inspired me to want to see this one! I’m always nervous when a movie version of a great book is made, so often the result is disappointing! But glad to know this was well done! Love the writing!
    Like you, I’m a book lover…I haven’t kept every book I’ve ever bought, but I’ve kept the ones that spoke to me, and I sometimes re-read. And often, even when a favorite has been stored away in a box in my basement, I can put my hands on it right away…as if I’m drawn to that specific book like a magnet…~ Sheila

    1. Isn’t that the oddest thing – going straight to a book even when it’s hidden away? I can’t do that with other things, but with books… You’ll have to let me know what you think when you’ve seen it. I definitely think it is one for the big screen.

    1. Thanks Karen. The respect for the words earned my respect for Luhrmann. And I think that is the most difficult thing to do with a well-written novel – translate it to film without losing the author’s language.

    1. It isn’t a thick book. I re-read it with just a little time on Friday night and Saturday morning. But boy is it beautifully written. I think you would enjoy it, but if you get a chance to see the movie, it works as well reading it afterward too.

  8. I wanted to read Gatsby again after I first heard the movie was coming out. All my digging was to no avail and the waiting list at the library is huge. I’ll get to it eventually and spend the day rolling in words.

  9. Great post. The quotes are mesmerizing and very visual. I wish I had a talent like yours for writing such great reviews. Sounds like a good movie that was enhanced by modern music and times instead of being suffocated by it.
    “…Luhrmann’s version works because of his respect for the writing” I believe this is what probably made the biggest positive impact on your enjoying the movie. I like that and if I ever see the movie it’ll help me to appreciate it all the more too.

    1. Thank you for such a nice comment. The whole book is like that – one mesmerizing sentence after another. And you’re right – Luhrmann’s emphasis on honoring the author did indeed earn him my respect.

  10. You created an excellent review of this film and I’d also like to see it now. I read this book for the first time in high school and then it was an assignment (tests, etc.) I’d like to read it again to enjoy his writing…

    1. I think people of a certain age were likely assigned this book as part of American Lit. And that sort of takes the fun out of reading it. I appreciated it even more this time, reading it by choice for the beauty of the words instead of thinking about outlines and such. I think you would too.

  11. “Gatsby” is my favorite book. I saw the Robert Redford film version of “Gatsby” and liked it, though it was panned. I was afraid to see this version by Luhrmann, but after reading your article, I’m not. Thanks, I was afraid that B.L. was going to muck it up; I don’t like his direction, didn’t like his Moulin Rouge. Besides which I probably know every word by heart because I taught the novel in AP English for years, studied it at length as an undergrad, reading all of Fitzgerald. I was infuriated when the Department Chair usurped it from me (in the year before I retired from teaching) and spent all of a week or so on it without dealing with the core themes of the novel and then showed the Redford “Gatsby” while she tra la laed through her own work. The following year, the AP seniors had no idea what it was about and couldn’t really remember it. That’s what infuriated me the most; it is so lavish and rich in prose as you point out and in the relationships and complexity of economic class warfare, and in Nick’s perceptions, which if you are not careful, you really think the dream died for Gatsby, which it didn’t. It died for Carraway. None of that was taught to them. Elevator Repair Service Theatre Group at the Public Theatre in NYC read the entire novel and acted it out. It was amazing…it was six hours, it was beautiful. Having lived on LI, I know the places that Fitzgerald refers to in East and West Egg and the Valley of Ashes in Corona Queens that used to be the dump with ashes burning there day and night during the time Fitzgerald wrote it. The settings…in the Plaza that historic building with the climactic fight/class warfare between Gatsby and Tom…the LI railroad where Myrtle meets Tom, etc. and driving over the Queensboro bridge. Love it all do it all the time. Interesting that Luhrmann places Nick in a sanitarium to justify the writing of it. It’s OK after all, it is Nick Carraway/F. Scott Fitzgerald (an alcohol who could never dry out) who so clearly understood the elite class and despised them, though he also admired them in a weird sort of hypocrisy, having gone to an elite Ivy League school as he did. But of course, in the novel, Carraway flees west again to safety away from bad drivers and Tom and Daisy “who smash people and things and leave others to pick up the pieces.” (typical 6th generation psychotic rich elites). I can hardly wait to see the film; I do hope Lurhmann includes the last line of the novel about the awe and wonder of the Dutch sailors when they saw the fresh green breast of the New World (LI that has so destroyed Gatsby in Carraway’s eyes), …”it was already behind them”…and relating us as dreamers ….”so we beat on, boats against the current borne back ceaselessly into the past….” looking/searching for that which no longer or perhaps never existed. This is Carraway’s view (and his narration is tricky) it is not Gatsby’s. I do like that Lurhmann has him tell the story from there, emphasizing his unreliability as a recovering alcoholic narrator. He must have read Fitzgerald’s biography and other works and picked apart the novel at length. Yeah!!!!!.

    1. Don’t you just love driving through a novel or walking through a painting. You must think of that every time you drive over the bridge into the city. I can tell by the passion in your comment that you were a fantastic teacher and the perfect one for this novel. The students who failed to end up with you missed out.

      As you likely know, the Fitzgeralds also spent time in Asheville, NC. Friends of Thomas Wolfe – a famous NC writer – they landed there in the thirties. And of course, Zelda died in a mental hospital there. I’ve always had the feeling that Daisy was fashioned a bit after Zelda. What is your opinion about that?

  12. This is one of my favorite novels and I cringed some when I saw they were making another movie. None of them have done the book justice. This one sounds promising.

    1. You are right. When a book is written so beautifully that every line is poetic without seeming to try, it is so much more than plot and characters. Then it suffers when put to film. But this version may surprise you!

  13. Thank you for this stellar review, Renee. I have yet to see the film, but I’ve heard less than pleasant murmurings from some literary snobs. I have been quite impressed by some of DiCaprio’s recent characters. I think he has grown into a serious and immensely talented actor.

    How cool that you could find you copy of the book so easily! Isn’t this why we keep these books, lug them around with us from place to place, stubbornly reshelve them, so that at that perfect moment when we really need them, there they are.

    And I, too, remember those Scholastic Book Fairs__although I had forgotten what they were called. I remember crying because my mother would limit my purchases to…lord knows how many…5? 10? It was reasonable, given the times and our family budget. But it was just so hard to select which ones would come home with me and which ones I had to walk away from.

    Books are miraculous, aren’t they?

    1. Don’t let the so-so reviews keep you away. I heard them too. And the public seems to be responding to it rather well, so let them complain. Our books are like friends to us. I’d never leave mine behind. It’s so good to hear you feel the same way. As they say…great minds!

  14. I can’t wait to see this movie. I just love the book and had to study it intensely at school and it was such a favourite of mine (given the books that were compulsory for us to study it was an easy first – hated The Guns of Navarone!) Anyway…the movie was filmed right here in Sydney, I’m a huge Baz fan, my son auditioned for the role of the young Gatsby for the movie and we had a night out with some celebs and the Leo Di Caprio was in the room. He’d come straight from the set in Manly where Nicole and Keith married. Great review xx

  15. Words makes us feel like we were standing at the very setting of the story. It brings to life stories. It makes stories into great legends. I will definitely watch this movie after reading your post.

  16. I just read your ‘New Script’ tab but couldn’t comment. Wanted to say, I am at THE point in my life I cannot BEAR to think of continuing in the FKING office. 9 until 5 is torturous, torturous, and oh so much I ache to write, and for a living. I’m pretty despaired at present, but love the upbeat way you spoke of wanting to change your career direction, write for life. Inspiring. I’m enjoying watching this new success for you.

    1. I’ll check on that tab. Regardless, I appreciate your comment. It’s easy to fall into someone else’s script for your life; even your own past script. But it doesn’t mean it is set in stone. I think you’re on the ‘new script’ path as well.

  17. We haven’t seen the movie, and heck … not being a fiction reader, I don’t recall much about the book. Nonetheless, yes, words matter. Interestingly though, the same words don’t affect different people the same way.

    1. But it is the way that Luhrmann respected the author’s words that impressed me most. Sometimes great works end up in tatters at the movies – the reason previous attempts at making this novel into a film has failed in the past. He understood the importance of the author’s words.

  18. I thought the movie captured the heart of the book, that it was perfectly cast and Luhrmann was the perfect director for it. . .I reviewed it too 🙂

    Thanks for stopping bye my place. Nice review. . .much better and much more complete than mine

  19. Great post Renee. Words definitely matter and you’ve proved it here – You’ve inspired almost every person commenting before me to go see the movie. Congratulations.

    I cant think of words to describe how impressed I am that you also work on your farm as well as your mail carrier job as well as blogging. Sheesh when do you sleep?
    Also impressed how you found your copy of the book!

    1. Thank you Rosie. Guess you can understand why I’m looking for the perfect 7 minute physical workout! No time for an hour a day. LOL. Frankly, I was also impressed that I found the book. I say it was divine intervention. I normally can’t find anything when I’m looking for it, but it will show up in a day or two.

  20. I am looking forward to watch this movie; the greatest actor India has ever seen is working in it. So it would be a treat for all of us. 🙂

    1. Which actor is that? Leo? Everyone I know who has watched it has been thrilled. A lady came up to me yesterday with nothing but praise for it. Let me know what you think when you get a chance to see it.

  21. Renee, this post is a wonderful tribute, not only to the book, but to the language — and to writing in general. I feel inspired. Thank you.

  22. Our world of thinking is based on words. Without them we wouldn’t be where we are today. Yes, this post is a great tribute to both the book by Fitzgerald and language in general. Fun that you found that old book at first attempt. I read The Great Gatsby a very long time ago. Maybe I should go back and read it again, too. 🙂

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