The greatest love story ever told?
Nearly 90 years after it was written, The Great Gatsby is as resonant as ever – and is now returning to the silver screen...
It captured the bravado, the boisterousness and ultimately the hubris of the party before the storm; a beautiful, blazing snapshot of the period of excess, corruption and wild abandon leading up to the 1929 Wall Street Crash. But while F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has been called the Great American Novel, it doesn’t simply capture the essence of what it means to be American, or living during the heady days of the Jazz Age.
It is ultimately just a particularly beautiful telling of a tale that has been told over and over again for generations. It is, first and foremost, a love story, a ‘boy meets girl…’, a story the Plantaganets told, the Tudors told, and our children’s children will be telling years from now.
The book, coloured as it is with images of excessive, irresponsible wealth, is certainly as relevant, as resonant today as it was then. Indeed, it is no accident that it is currently both being made into a Hollywood blockbuster, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan, and attracting rave reviews as a West End stage show.
Interestingly, one of the only things that has changed is the role of women. In 1925, Gatsby had to be a man. Today, Fitzgerald could have written about the Great ‘Joy’ Gatsby. Things have moved on in that respect, at least. Women are no longer just the playthings of powerful men. They can be Mistresses of the Universe, too.
I first read the book in my teens, as most people do. I was working in the typing pool of the Yorkshire Evening Post and was rather more innocent than I am now. I remember being mesmerised by this short, but beautifully written novel, but ever-so-slightly shocked by all the boozing, bohemian attitudes and adultery.
Of course, I later realised that, for better or worse, this was really just the way of the world – or at least part of it – and that what made The Great Gatsby so special was that it appeared to capture so perfectly and poetically the human condition: our foibles, follies and, most particularly, fantasies.
Q: Is The Great Gatsby the greatest love story ever told?
Like so many human stories, and particularly those that I write, love is at the very heart of things. This is not a new thing. I suspect it has always been the case and always will be. Love, or at least the fantasy of it, is a constant, a timeless given.
In Fitzgerald’s book, the key love is that of Gatsby for society girl Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby was born a Midwest nobody, but has since become extravagantly wealthy through organised crime. A sensible young man might just ask Daisy out, but Gatsby isn’t so great in that department and, besides, Daisy is married. Consequently, Gatsby uses his riches to fund spectacular parties with the intention of ensnaring her. The results, of course, are tragic.
I re-read the book in 1974, because my friend David Merrick produced one of several (it was originally filmed in 1926) versions of the film, starring Robert Redford as Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy. Given how hard David was working on it, I thought I better revisit the story – especially as he had been good enough to introduce me to my husband, Bob. (In that way, I suppose The Great Gatsby played some small part in my own, real-life love story.)
And I was enchanted by it all over again. I am, after all, a writer, and we are obsessed with character, with relationships, the way people behave around one another. And The Great Gatsby is a masterclass in this respect. Gatsby’s parties, after all, are places where people come together, where characters clash and commune. And it all happens in just 50,000 words.
But The Great Gatsby is also about the past, how it comes back to haunt us and how our efforts to escape who really we are will often fail. This is another theme that authors return to over and over. Indeed, I have just finished a novel called Secrets From The Past.
It also reminds us that we are authors of our own scripts and we play the parts. But also that our scripts don’t always have happy endings. Gatsby’s entire life is really just a stage show, in which he lays the foundations for his own tragic downfall.
And so The Great Gatsby has it all: money, power, passion, revenge – and character. What else does anyone want to read about?
The Great Gatsby is due for UK release on 26 December.
Daily tip from the lady archive
"BEAUTY may fade and riches be lost, but a sense of humour ripens with the years, and cannot be stolen. It remains a very real solace, and a talisman against the ills of life."The Lady. The Invaluable Possession 2nd May, 1912