Thursday, October 9, 2014

Debauchery Then and Now: Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby on Film, Starring Leonardo DiCaprio Who Also Starred in the The Wolf of Wall Street

The more things change the more they stay the same. (French Proverb)

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill brought to life on film the world painted by Jordan Belfort in his book, The Wolf of Wall Street. Purported to be a true account of Belfort’s rise and fall on Wall Street, the book recounts Belfort’s devotion to sensual pleasures and the mind-numbing, conscience-crushing Siren Song of drugs.

Belfort’s ability to drink so much Christal and snort so much cocaine relied upon a stock scheme that made fools of buyers while enriching the con men who pitched the stocks. Belfort simply used, manipulated, and abused others, then applauded his own games of deceit with wine, drugs, and philandering.

Jay Gatsby, first envisioned by F. Scott Fitzgerald in a novel published in 1925, is similarly derelict in his duty. He too fulfills his American Dream by breaking laws. He has acquired great wealth in the service of criminal benefactors.

What redeems Gatsby, to some degree, at least in Fitzgerald’s book, is his detachment from debauchery and his motive. Gatsby doesn’t participate in hedonistic parties; he just pays for and stages them in order to establish himself as a wealthy man so that he can compete for the hand of Daisy Buchanan whom he adores from afar, first from his low station by birth and later, as a nouveau riche resident on the wrong side of the Long Island Eggs.

Economic inequality may be as perennial as flowers
and its allure just as fleeting.
Photo by Al Griffin
Gatsby’s selfless love for Daisy makes him less guilty even though his pursuit of Daisy, now a married woman, is adulterous. In his imagination, she has settled for Tom Buchanan because she thought Gatsby was lost to her. He believes they can reclaim their lost love and find immeasurable happiness together at last.

Gatsby’s tragedy is his belief in wealth as the ticket into society and Daisy’s arms. He has, as we readers know, chosen the wrong god to worship and emulate. His fate must end badly because he is wrong. Money is an addictive god, one not easily forsaken; Daisy, at least, will not, cannot forsake her god, and we pity poor Jay for being so naïve, so foolhardy, and so mistaken.

Belfort, on the other hand, makes wealth a god, then becomes that god because of his wealth. He wields power that impoverishes those who answer his call to fast money and greater wealth. He hurts all who come into contact with him and his minions.

Written 82 years apart, the books could have been published in the same year, a year when inequality shaped the nation and made people desperate for the Golden Ticket to prosperity and happiness. Both books have ties to Wall Street’s industry, and both reveal the baser instincts within us all. Most important, the books reveal the same lesson: money stains us; it alters our better natures, making us vulnerable to our own undoing, our depravity. The only character who doesn’t know this is Gatsby himself. He’d be shocked to learn that Daisy gives him up to a tragic end because the power and wealth that Tom Buchanan wields is relentless and seductive. For Gatsby, wealth is a means; for Daisy, wealth is a necessity. 

Surely it’s not coincidental that DiCaprio chose both characters as men he’d like to portray, and surely, the film versions of these books in a post-2008 world is intentional.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” The Great Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street as brought to life on film--although I warn you that Wolf is graphic and among the most R-rated films I’ve seen. I found it difficult to endure.

Writing Challenge:

Using a film or book you’ve enjoyed, explain how that film or book reveals the predatory instincts brought to life by greed. There are so many from which to choose. The first challenge will be to choose one. From the Bible to Chaucer to Aesop, warnings about the harms of money and greed are old and universal.