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.