The Great Gatsby-blanca

Leonardo DiCaprio at the Body of Lies film pre...

Leonardo DiCaprio , the latest movie Jay Gatsby (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Poor Jay Gatsby. If you’re having girl problems I feel bad for you son, I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one. What with everyone talking about the new Leonardo di Caprio film of The Great Gatsby of late, I decided I’d reread the book instead.

And reading about poor old Jay Gatsby and Jordan Baker and all the rest for the first time in 20 years, in occurred to me that Hollywood didn’t really need to spend all that money and razzmatazz on a new movie. Because it already made the best possible film version of The Great Gatsby years ago, and it was called Casablanca.

Think about it. In both you have a mysterious figure who hosts the best party in town but never joins in, just stands watching from the shadows. No one knows his past, but everyone’s heard rumours and theories. In both, he seems to exude an aura of power and capability. Until, that is, in both cases it turns out he’s haunted by a woman from his past.

And when the woman shows up, she’s got another man, a husband. And the mysterious, powerful man — call him Gatsby or Rick — sets about trying to steal her off her husband and get her back. And that’s when learn the truth about his origins.

In both versions there’s a whiff of illegality, with Gatsby’s bootlegging past and possible link to fixing the 1919 World Series, and the gambing den hidden behind Rick’s bar.

But here’s the thing. As I reread The Great Gatsby, it occured to me that Casablanca didn’t just rip it off. It improved it. It’s a much better version of the same story.

Oh, I know it’s sacrilege to say a word against F. Scott Fitzgerald. And it’s true, his prose is glittering, and his descriptions of places and of an era are wonderfully evocative.

But the thing is, Casablanca just has a much better story to tell. Rereading The Great Gatsby in my late thirties, I suddenly realised there’s something, well, forgive me, rather adolescent about it. There are rather a lot of passages about emotions that the characters feel immensely, but can’t quite pin down or describe. Huge feelings just out of reach.

And the characters are all a bit, well, self-indulgent. Gatsby does feel terribly sorry for himself, obssessing over a woman he could have tried to win back years before, but so nervous — those overpowering emotions again! — that he can hardly bear to be in the same room as her.

And his rival Tom Buchanan feels rather sorry for himself as well, when it turns out that the wife he has been callously cheating on has another man in her life. And when the mistress — whose nose he casually broke in a drunken fight — gets killed in a car accident, poor Tom can’t help but play the saint.

Contrast these with the two rival lovers in Casablanca: Victor Laszlo is not some entitled rich man, he’s a resistance leader who has been fighting the Nazis across Europe. And when he realises that Rick is in love with his wife, Ilsa, he doesn’t bully him or shop him to the police, like Tom. No, he asks Rick to use the two passes he knows he has to get her out of Casablanca. He says it knowing it will mean losing her to his rival, because he wants the women he loves to be safe.

And then there’s Rick, whose shadowy past turns out to be his own involvement in the resistance in France. When he starts feeling sorry for himself, Ilsa  immediately calls him on it. And Rick responds by risking his own neck to engineer her escape with Laszlo, even though he knows she would have stayed with him. He’s not deciding for her in some indulgent act of self-sacrifice, either: as he tells Ilsa, she’s part of Victor’s work.

In other words the characters in the movie know they’re part of a bigger world where there is more at stake than their feelings. With Europe in flames and the Nazi advance seemingly unstoppable, they don’t have the time to sit trying to puzzle out their feelings like the characters in The Great Gatsby. They are aware they have responsibilities.

And it’s no use saying that The Great Gatsby comes from a different era. The characters in it have just emerged from the horror of the First World War — and Gatsby claims to have been a war hero. Yet everyone seems oblivious to everything except their own sensibilities. Even the narrator, Nick Carraway, gets so caught up in feeling sorry for Gatsby he rather callously dumps Jordan Baker down the telephone.

Casablanca‘s characters are grown-ups, making adult decisions in an adult world. They make Jay Gatsby, Tom Buchanan and the rest look like feckless children play-acting at being grown-ups.


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