Yesterday, the world of literature lost one of its giants, as Harper Lee passed away quietly in her small town of Monroeville, Alabama.
Lee is most famous for her seminal novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, one of the most read books on the planet, and a seeming right of passage for teenagers to read at some point in high school. The novel became more than a book for so many people, and the adventures of Scout and Atticus, growing up in the small, racist town of Maycomb, has become an integral part of the American fabric. It is a novel that exposed us to injustice, and justice, and fairness, and compassion, something that too few books have been able to do for us over the course of our lives. It is impossibly memorable to the millions who have turned its pages again and again.
While Harper Lee truly only wrote the one novel (despite the recent publication of Go Set A Watchman), she managed to change the way we look not only at books, but at ourselves. To Kill A Mockingbird is a timeless classic, and it will endure for the ages.
Being semi-reclusive over her life, and never writing again made Lee more of a legend, and had us respecting her for knowing that she would not be able to top her original work, and not chase dollar signs just by slapping her name on just about anything.
For me, Mockingbird changed the way I looked at books. No longer were they just means of escape; I knew that they could be so much more. They could make me think, and push me, and make me love characters, even decades after reading it for the first time.
It always seemed like it would be impossible to adapt Jack Kerouac’s sprawling, seminal, stream-of-consciousness novel about the freedom of the road and the adventures of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty without losing some of the basis of the novel. Some of the feel; some of the freedom.
Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to make On the Road, perhaps the most important work from the Beat Generation, into a movie. There were a bunch of different casting choices, some of them seeming pretty good and interesting, and a whole bunch of different directors who were poised to stand behind the camera to bring this important work of American literature to the silver screen. But it never panned out, for differing reasons. One being that it was always too hard to get a story on the screen that could encompass what Kerouac penned in the early 1950’s, finally getting published in 1957.
On the Road is a book about escape and freedom. About getting away from what the world expects, and getting out there into America, or all the things that America can be, and looking for something else. Something better, perhaps, but something different. It is the desire for adventure.
Newly added to the Netflix lineup, the film adaptation of On the Road is worth a watch. The reviews for it are not surprisingly mixed, but the writers, director, and actors manage to do their best to bring life to the words in the book.
For those who don’t know, the story is basically about the struggling writer Sal Paradise (a thinly veiled version of Kerouac himself), and his travel adventures with his friends across America. Namely, with the crazy, adventurous, love-to-hate him and hate-to-love him Dean Moriarty. Throughout the story, they travel the country, getting themselves in a number of wild situations, always fueled by cigarettes, booze, and benzedrine. Our characters were willing to push the limits of what their bodies were able to handle, the amount of fun and craziness they could endure, but at the same time, their goals were often simpler. To see what their country really was.
The main characters are played by relative unknowns, Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund, but the supporting cast is filled with bigger name actors, who play minimal roles in the film. Kristen Stewart has a larger role as one of Dean’s girls, Marylou, and there are appearances by Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, Elizabeth Moss, Viggo Mortensen, and Steve Buschemi. A pretty good cast, but some of them are painfully underused. Our main actors do a good job, however. Riley, with his deep raspy, accented voice, brings a strong look to Paradise, allowing us to see him as an observer, a follower of Dean, never quite able to step into the foreground of his own life. Hedlund, as Moriarty, is able to bring the wild coolness that we could only expect of his character. He is charming and vicious, all at the same time, and it is difficult to watch him make poor choices that lead to his sad downfall towards the end of the film. He lives on the edge of his own crazed ideas, and he hooks those around him into his lifestyle. He is memorable to the point that all of those who know him will drop their lives, just because Dean is in town. He has created a legend for himself, and this comes across well with the casting of Hedlund.
Kristen Stewart, usually the sullen, mopey, teenager, excels in her role in this film. I would like to have seen more of Marylou, even though she was just a secondary character. A free spirit with simple values, Stewart bring life to her role, and it was nice to see her letting lose a little bit, away from her single expression used in the majority of her other films. To see Stewart laughing, smiling, and dancing during a great New Year’s Eve scene was something to behold, like we were truly seeing someone else on the screen instead of the famous Twilight actress we have become used to. She was good, and with the little screen time and dialogue she was offered, she was able to complete the character of Marylou. She seemed to embrace the character, the ex-wife of Dean, still drawn to him despite knowing that he would never stay with her. Stewart went all in for the role, doing her first nude scenes on film, which does help out who Marylou is.
The supporting cast is all strong, again, despite their miniature roles.
Some of the strengths of this film include the musical soundtrack, which is incredible at bringing to life the music of the Beat Generation, the thumping bass and angst-riddled saxaphone of the jazz bands, the pulsating tunes that helped guide Paradise on his adventures in sex and drugs. This would definitely be a soundtrack worth owning, it is that good. A highlight is the New Year’s party. A sweaty, drunken gathering, with blaring music, dancing, and singing along to songs. It defined the film, and put a stamp on the idea that for the people of the time, this was a defining moment in their lives.
As a defining moment in the film, however, one feels that it should have been as the title suggests: On the Road. While there was plenty of great, and well-shot scenes of the group being actually out hitchhiking, or driving, it seems that too much of this film was based in the confines that our characters were trying to escape. Perhaps they could have elaborated more on Sal’s days out picking cotton, instead of having him in houses, or apartments. This type of freedom is the very defining theme of the book, after all. Eventually, there is a fair amount of time spent in the car, literally on the road, but it feels like it could have been more about their discovery of America. For me, it seemed that the characters were always on their way somewhere, when reading the novel, I always felt that they had no agenda, and would get home whenever they ended up getting home. Perhaps this is only my interpretation of it, but on the ultimate road trip and journey of self-discovery, they didn’t really discover much about themselves. This is the point of an epic road trip, is it not?
There is little doubt that this novel would be difficult to turn into a film. But here, we have what I would call a pretty good version of it. Paradise struggles to write the book that he so dearly wants to create, Carlos Marx struggles to find his voice in his poetry, Dean leads a life of wildness that leaves him broken and alone, and Marylou is seeking a simple life of love and family among the craziness of the people she knows best, and loves the most. On the Road is probably only a film for those who have read the book. It would seem almost nonsensical for those who haven’t, especially as minor characters are thrown at us, and we are pretty much expected to know who they are, as we had met them first in the novel.
Watching this, you are not going to get the feeling and the passion of Kerouac on the screen. But there is something there, a feeling of the era, that is able to take us away. Not a perfect film, not a perfect film adaptation, but something worth watching.
It feels like I have been waiting a long time to write this post. Maybe even one of the reasons I started this blog was to write this post. And I know that when I am done, I will feel like it is woefully incomplete.
I love The Great Gatsby. It is my all-time favorite novel. Since the first time I read it in my first year of college, I have felt an attachment to the story. Someone so haunted by their past, so faithful to the idea of the green light, so hopeful that things can be the same as they were. It is beautifully written, perfectly romantic, and wonderfully simple. It really is the greatest example of American literature that we have. I have read and re-read it, studied it and taught it in the classroom. It is the first book I will recommend to anyone looking for something good to read, regardless of the person. Millions have poured over Fitzgerald’s words already, and I hope that millions more will. The Great Gatsby is one of those novels that should never die, and never fade away. There is no more perfect explanation of the American Dream, and no more perfect commentary on its failures than in this book.
So, naturally, I was excitedly terrified when the new film came out. Maybe one of the reasons I waited so long to try and write a review or comment about it, is because I wanted to digest it. I have now seen the DiCaprio film version three times, and I only now have some concrete thoughts on the movie. I could go into details about plot changes, but I just want to highlight some of my pros and cons of the film. For people who know Gatsby, they already know the manipulations undertaken to take this work of art to the big screen (again).
+ This film version is essentially two films. The first half illustrates Baz Luhrmann’s reckless direction and love of in-your-face, over-the-top, visuals. But is works. Sort of. Aside from the cartoonish scenes with the cars, the garish and decadence behavior of the 1920’s lends itself perfectly to his style. He seems to demand nearly hammy performances from his actors, and he gets it from them. For the second half, he reins himself in and manages to tell a tender love story, where the eyes of the viewer are drawn to the character, and not the impressively high confetti budget.
– This movie is a waste of 3D (for those who saw it in the theatre). Yes, the party scenes were cool, but aside from that, I wished I had seen it in good, old fashioned, 2D. Wearing the stupid glasses on top of my glasses was not worth the couple of scenes where it was visually interesting.
+ The casting for this film was sound. DiCaprio was the perfect choice as the titular character (can you really think of anyone else who should have played this role?), partially because DiCaprio is very much a real-life Gatsby. Daisy, Tom, Myrtle, George, and Jordan were all physically perfect for the film, and they could act as well, which helps.
-Tobey Maguire was very hit and miss as Nick Carraway. He plays the nerdy third-wheel well, but I wonder if there could have been a more capable actor, that could have brought some guts to Nick, to make him a more loveable character, instead of one who we feel is being used over the course of the entire film. This film adaptation embraces the idea of Nick as a watcher an enabler, when there is more substance to his character, in my opinion.
+ Jordan Baker is my favorite character in the novel, and she was as well in the movie. And not only because she is played by an absolutely beautiful Glamazon of an actress (Elizabeth Debicki). At 6’2 1/2″, she towered over her co-stars, but she also humanized Jordan a little bit more than she is in the novel. She is not an awful, dishonest, person, but one who believes in the love story that Daisy and Gatsby shared. I like Jordan because she is beautiful, selfish and kind of evil. She came across perfectly in this movie. And wow, absolutely stunningly beautiful.
– I hated that Nick was in a sanitarium in the film. He doesn’t need this made up excuse to be telling the story of his former neighbor. I thought that was a weak choice, as it spoonfed the audience too much and also crippled our views of Nick as being a reliable narrator.
– Too much narration crippled some of the performances in the film. When you have strong actors like Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio, let them act. It was unnecessary that so many of their scenes were spoken over by Maguire. I understand that there are so many beautiful lines in the novel that they didn’t want to leave out, but I felt that it was overkill.
+ I have gone back and forth on the soundtrack for this movie. Luhrmann traditionally puts modern music into his movies, regardless of the era of the setting, and I think, in the end, it worked on this movie. Sure, there was a lot of Jay-Z in a movie about the 20’s, but it lent itself well, specifically to the party scenes where 20’s inspired music was amped-up with modern techno-style synthesizers. As a separate entity, the actual OST for the film is excellent, highlighted by Jack White’s fantastic “Love is Blindness.”
– According to IMDB, the phrase “Old Sport” was uttered 55 times in the film. That is a lot. Tone it down, as it lost some of its effect. I know that they use it often in the novel as well, but at times it seemed like every line Gatsby said ended with his catchphrase.
– The funeral was a huge miss on the part of the screen writers and director. One of the saddest parts in American literature is the fact that nobody went to Jay Gatsby’s funeral aside from his own father and Owl Eyes. That he was the most famous person on Long Island, a man surrounded by mystery and excitement, and nobody would come to say their final goodbyes is the most gut-wrenching part of the novel. And they blew it in the movie. Having the media there ruined the sadness of the moment, and we never even saw Owl Eyes there, to utter his disbelief that people used to show up at his house by the hundreds and couldn’t make it out for his final appearance. The narration Nick provides over this moment is lost in the visuals of dozens of reporters and flashbulbs looking over Gatsby’s body. Definitely the biggest missed opportunity of the film.
+ The scene where Nick pays Gatsby his only compliment was perfect. The look on Gatsby’s face was one of pure happiness and understanding, perhaps the last moment of that in his life. Luhrmann kept this simple, and it worked wonderfully.
I could probably go into far too much detail on what I liked and didn’t like about this movie. Overall, I would say that I wanted to love it, and despite the parts that I hated, ended up liking it. This is definitely a valued addition to the Gatsby collection of adaptations. Despite being both helped and hindered by an eccentric filmmaker, the strong cast bring my overall view of this movie into the plus side.
And now that I have pretty much finished writing this post, I realize that there are a million other things I would like to add. But I will leave it here. The Great Gatsby is a million miles from being perfect, but I don’t think that it is possible to adapt a text that is so famous and so beloved into something that everybody will love. This version gave it a shot. And for the most part, succeeded.