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Lights, Camera, Gatsby: Analyzing Cinematic Influence in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Greatest Work

About the Author: Anne Marie Hawley

Anne Marie Hawley is a senior at Georgetown University. She is majoring in English with a minor in film and media studies.

By Anne Marie Hawley | General Essays

While it was not until later in his career that F. Scott Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood, his 1925 magnum opus, The Great Gatsby, bears the distinct influence of the silver screen. At the time when he penned the novel, celebrity culture was rapidly emerging, and film actors and actresses ascended to American royalty. This was accompanied by an explosion in advertising which marketed every product imaginable to help viewers emulate their favorite idols. The era was obsessed with appearance and display—and both were fundamental ingredients in selling the escapism offered by the movies. But as time progressed, the film industry contributed to a growing disparity between external representation and internal reality, a theme which pervades The Great Gatsby. Through his allusions to film, Fitzgerald warns readers against the hollowness of Hollywood’s glittering promises and shiny facades, and he raises questions about spectatorship, cautioning against holding so tightly to our dreams that we forget to live.

The most explicit references to Hollywood cinema in Gatsby come through Myrtle Wilson, whose extramarital affair with the posh Tom Buchanan leads her to pose as the debutante she is not. When she and Tom go into the city, she stops at a news-stand to buy “a copy of Town Tattle and a moving-picture magazine” (27). These gossip “glossies” give Myrtle a source of inspiration, imbuing her with romantic archetypes that she strives—and fails—to emulate. Like almost everyone in Gatsby, Myrtle is preoccupied with outer appearance and playing a character. With her stage partner Tom, she masquerades as her alter ego. To complete the transformation, she relies upon a classic theatrical technique: the costume change. Myrtle trusts that all she needs are fancy clothes to transcend her middle-class status and fashion her into a proper New York socialite. The narrator Nick Carraway describes:

Mrs. Wilson had changed her costume some time before, and now was attired in an elaborate dress of cream-colored chiffon, which gave out a continual rustle as she swept about the room. With the influence of the dress her personality had also undergone a change. The intense vitality that had been so remarkable in the garage was converted into impressive hauteur. Her laughter, her gestures, her assertions became more violently affected moment by moment, as she expanded the room grew smaller around her, until she seemed to be revolving on a noisy, creaking pivot through the smoky air (30).

Fitzgerald’s language comments on the exhibitionism of Myrtle’s act, accentuating her “to-be-looked-at-ness [1].” But we see through her pageantry. Lying through her teeth, Myrtle brushes off Mrs. McKee’s compliment, “This crazy old thing? I just slip it on when I don’t care what I look like” (31). Myrtle tries to feign Daisy’s and Jordan’s East Egg mystique by imitating the carelessness that has won them both a cult following, but there is no mistaking Myrtle for the real thing. Fitzgerald seems to invite us to laugh at Myrtle, recognizing her for what she is: a bored, working-class housewife playing dress-up.

Unfortunately for Myrtle, the costume fails to change her interior reality, and the same pernicious truth seems to lie at fault for the Wilsons’ crumbling marriage. Myrtle mistook George’s costume for his true self; she moans to Nick, “I married him because I thought he was a gentleman” (34). Only after the wedding does she realize she has been fooled: “He borrowed somebody’s best suit to get married in, and never even told me about it, and the man came after it one day when he was out” (35). George played the part of suitor like a Hollywood actor, and Myrtle’s discovery of his charade signals a slippage between reality and performance. The ambiguity between truth and disguise—a fundamental ingredient in any silver screen spectacle—destabilizes our understanding of the characters and even their understanding of one another. But the distinction between show and actuality is difficult to make, and distorted vision and misperception underlie the thematic elements of the novel. With advancements in photography—and later, cinema—people gained the ability to both record and manipulate reality. Mr. McKee alludes to this power when he appraises Myrtle. “I should change the light,” he decides. “I’d like to bring out the modeling of the features. And I’d try to get a hold of all the back hair” (31). In a novel obsessed with light and shadow, McKee draws our attention to how lighting influences our perception. Here, he is likely referring to the classic 3-point lighting system in which a bright key light and dimmer fill light are angled towards a subject while a diffused backlight stands behind the subject. “What Mr. McKee is saying,” scholar Paul Douglas McCormick infers, “is that by increasing the backlighting, he can create a softened and slightly blurry image of Myrtle Wilson to make her look glamorous…and match her affected movie-star hauteur” (24). With his lens, Mr. McKee can create an artful representation of a drab truth. Sustaining style and appeal thus becomes more than a one-person job; Myrtle uses clothing to create an aura of elegance, but to further the illusion, she submits to the manipulating effects of Mr. McKee’s photographic equipment. When the film develops, Myrtle’s image will look as vague and hazy as the glamorous illusions to which she subscribes.

But sacrificing clear sight for allure proves disastrous in the end; when Myrtle runs out into the road, it’s because she misrecognizes the driver of Gatsby’s car. Through the dusty gloom, she falsely believes Tom is at the wheel. Irrationally, Myrtle thinks Tom will stop to save her from her loveless marriage to Wilson, and together they will live happily ever after out West. It is a romantic fantasy—exactly the kind which Hollywood perpetuates. Her gruesome death serves as a grim caution: “Myrtle lives and dies for the glamour that Hollywood implicitly promises but never delivers to her, for the serious and consequentialist acts of misperception caused by the Hollywood version of the American dream” (McCormick 30). Myrtle’s body is discovered with her mouth “wide open and ripped at the corners, as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long” (Fitzgerald 137). Fitzgerald warns us of the dire consequences of holding stubbornly to one’s illusions; “breath[e] dreams like air” for too long and soon one suffocates (161).

But Myrtle isn’t the only one whose distorted vision conflates reality and illusion. Advertisements, in their 1920s ubiquity, are perverted into the moral center of the novel. George Wilson, deranged upon learning of his wife’s violent death, gazes into the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, murmuring, “You may fool me, but you can’t fool God” (159). Michaelis seems immune to Wilson’s confusion, and he assures him, “That’s an advertisement” (160). Literary critic Laura Barrett observes that throughout Gatsby, advertisements and photographs serve to distort the relationship between original and representation (Barrett 541). When Jimmy Gatz’s father shows up for his son’s funeral at the novel’s close, he anchors his pride in pictorial evidence of Gatsby’s wealth. Nick observes, “It was a photograph of the house…He had shown it so often that I think it was more real to him now than the house itself…He seemed reluctant to the put away the picture, held it for another minute, lingeringly, before my eyes” (172). In favoring the photo over the physical place, Mr. Gatz exemplifies the same romanticization of the image that leads Myrtle to buy glossy magazines and pose for Mr. McKee.

All three characters – George, Myrtle, and Mr. Gatz – latch their imaginations onto images, producing an idealization that is juxtaposed against photography’s documentary purpose. In the face of this distortion, we must question whether photographs’ truth value has been overstated. When Gatsby explains his backstory, Nick doesn’t believe a word of it and fights “to restrain [his] incredulous laughter” (66). That changes as soon as Gatsby pulls out pictorial evidence: “It was a photograph of half a dozen young men in blazers loafing in an archway through which were visible a host of spires. There was Gatsby looking a little, not much, younger—with a cricket bat in his hand. Then it was all true” (67). The immediacy with which Nick revises his assessment of Gatsby’s credibility raises questions about Nick’s gullibility. Has he, like many before him, been fooled by a manipulated image, a creative representation of the original? Given the novel’s heightened awareness of its own filtered, mediated story, we have grounds to wonder.

Part of the difficulty of identifying what’s “real” lies in the concerted efforts of characters to embody illusion. In another distinctly cinematic reference, Nick recounts seeing a film producer and his star at one of Gatsby’s parties, noting, “Tom and Daisy stared, with that peculiarly unreal feeling that accompanies the recognition a hitherto ghostly celebrity of the movies” (105). The actress seems “scarcely human,” just an outward façade without substance (104). Her hollowness attracts Daisy, who perhaps recognizes the star as a fellow plaything who exists to be projected upon and manipulated by the world around her. Women exist for artifice and others’ use in Daisy’s imagination—after all, Daisy believes that “the best thing a girl can be in this world [is] a beautiful little fool” (17). “The rest offended [Daisy],” Nick writes, “and inarguably, because it wasn’t a gesture but an emotion” (107). Daisy rejects depth and feeling, essentially functioning as Myrtle’s diametric opposite. Where Myrtle is sensual and full of vitality, Daisy is light, dreamy, and airy—almost without corporeality. She and the star boast the same blank artificiality that Daisy also admires in Gatsby. Like moth to flame, Gatsby’s glittering front entices her. “You always look so cool,” Daisy tells him. “You resemble the advertisement of the man” (119). She flattens him to two-dimensions, and Gatsby, for his part, is more than happy to play along.

Jay Gatsby never stops performing. In his famous opening description of the mysterious tycoon, Nick writes, “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him” (2). Gatsby belongs onscreen, and scholar Joss Lutz Marsh notes how Gatsby’s exaggerated movements typify the “stylized mimetic gestures of silent film” (Marsh 6). Gatsby is a master of nonverbal communication; the first time we glimpse him he is “stretch[ing] out his arms toward the dark water” and “trembling,” a physical expression of his yearning (Fitzgerald 20; 21). The magic (and advantage) of the film medium is its ability to capture movement, and Gatsby makes sure he will stand out on screen. “He was never quite still,” Nick recalls. “There was always a tapping foot somewhere or the impatient opening and closing of a hand” (64). The motion symbolizes how Gatsby is grasping for something more. Despite his great wealth, Gatsby feels insecure in his position and betrays the anxiety that his rags-to-riches story may deliver him to rags once again. He is like the prominent actor who questions whether the Hollywood roles will keep coming.

Everything about Gatsby, from his dynamism to his opulent fashion, suggests his camera-readiness, but his true desire is to direct the onscreen action. He stages everything, attempting to woo Daisy with his lavish mansion. Like a film set, the house is beautiful but not functional; room are unused, and books stand uncut in the library (Marsh 10). Artificiality bleeds through, “as though in [Daisy’s] actual and astounding presence none of it was any longer real” (Fitzgerald 91). Despite the radiance of outward appearances, Gatsby resembles the vacuity of the film Star. At the end of one of Jay’s infamous parties, Nick describes, “A sudden emptiness seemed to flow now from the windows and the great doors, endowing with complete isolation the figure of the host, who stood on the porch, his hand up in a formal gesture of farewell” (55). Fitzgerald aligns Gatsby’s stylized poses with emptiness and isolation; like Myrtle, Gatsby “paid a high price for living too long with a single dream” (161). He fails to actualize his fantasy into something material; in the end, it leaves him a shell of man—all skeleton, no substance. Gatsby focuses on the projection of himself to the exclusion of inhabiting his own corporeality. He participates in his own objectification, content to reduce himself to a glossy image.

Like an actor in a movie, Gatsby belongs to a fantasy world of sound stages and scripted lines—a world where the past can be repeated with a second take or a simple rewind. The actor analogy proves apt since Gatsby plays a role of his own invention, “just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end” (98). He looms mythically large over the novel, inspiring the kind of gossip that would earn him a feature in one of Myrtle’s Town Tattle magazines. Marsh explains, “In Gatsby, Fitzgerald had deliberately constructed not a protagonist or even a character of fiction subject to the conditions of “development,” “roundness,” “individuality” and “interiority,” but a “star”” (Marsh 5). Readers get remarkably little information about the novel’s title character, and he remains shrouded in mystery. For all the romantic speculation Gatsby inspired, Nick writes, “To my disappointment, he had little to say” (Fitzgerald 64). Nevertheless, Gatsby’s pageantry arouses a cult of fascination.

Our imagination easily attaches to Gatsby and his extravagant world of champagne bubbles, sequined dresses, and a mansion full of “people who do interesting things. Celebrated people” (90). In an era that deified advertising and lauded consumption as the highest good, Gatsby represents the perfect star in Marsh’s conception: “[a] figure of leisure, depicted not as producing but as enjoying the fruits of the world” (8). Indeed, we never see Gatsby at work. While the novel features several allusions to Gatsby’s bootlegging business, Gatsby’s screen time portrays him entertaining himself with his many possessions: his hydroplane, Rolls Royce, swimming pool, piano, et cetera. His world is depicted in almost paradisaical terms: “On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors d’oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold” (40). To step into Gatsby’s party is to step into a living daydream—and the idyllically too posed, too perfect world of advertisement. Every element is perfectly curated and calibrated to inspire the envy of all.

Nick finds himself drawn to Gatsby, at once attracted and repelled by Jay’s polish and to-be-looked-at-ness. For Nick, Gatsby embodies film theory’s conception of “spectacle.” According to the University of Chicago’s “Theories of Media” glossary, “While the affective response to spectacle may vary from spectator to spectator, much of the spectacle's appeal (or repugnance) derives from its visual power and ability to hold the gaze of the viewer” (Kan). Gatsby certainly holds Nick’s gaze. While some scholars have inferred a homoerotic attraction, we can also read their relationship as an imbalance between fan (Nick) and star (Gatsby). “My incredulity was submerged in fascination now,” Nick remembers, “it was like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines” (Fitzgerald 66). Nick buys into Gatsby’s theatrical performance with same blinded enthrallment as pedestrians who avidly discuss the latest celebrity gossip. This solidifies Gatsby’s position as leading actor and relegates Nick to a front row seat in the theater.

In this dynamic, Nick willingly becomes a spectator, and since Gatsby is so laconic, Nick also assumes the role of our primary interpreter. Gatsby, meanwhile, acts as a “passive signifier, whose function is not to do or to act but to be and to “mean” only in the sense of offering a focus for meanings—meanings which we as identifying and assimilating audience read into and map on to him” (Marsh 9). Nick engages in this identification, projecting himself onto Gatsby and letting his romantic imagination run wild. “Since Nick permits himself to interpret events and attitudes,” scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon concludes, “these events and attitudes may be partially his own creation…and his view becomes our own” (28). But this doesn’t happen unknowingly; Fitzgerald consciously draws our attention to how Nick filters the information we receive. He is at once part of the scene and an invisible, camera-like observer. Nick’s cinematic storytelling—with its voice-over commentary, ellipses fades, and jump cuts—consistently reminds us of Nick’s subjective point of view.

When it comes to Gatsby, Nick has a tendency to wax poetic. He will slip into soft-focus by becoming increasingly verbose and romantic, “perceiv[ing] Gatsby the way a camera lens might perceive a romantic movie star” (McCormick 39). Nick’s saturated prose leaves no question that the retelling has been exaggerated by his imagination—unsurprising, given Nick’s self-description as “a guide, a pathfinder” and “rather literary in college” (Fitzgerald 4). In addition, Nick’s “deep insight into the workings of Gatsby’s inner self goes beyond what a character with limited perspective could possibly discern” (Dixon 28). When recounting Gatsby’s past, Nick likely takes liberties and makes up dialogue, quickly getting caught up in imaginative reveries. Just as Michaelis stresses to Wilson that Doctor T. J. Eckleburg is just an advertisement, Jordan must remind an overly-romanticizing Nick that his neighbor is “just a man named Gatsby” (Fitzgerald 48).

Ultimately, Nick’s imagination eclipses his own place in the story; there is something sad, almost pitiful, about Nick’s obsession with Gatsby. He never moves on from the summer of 1922, and he moves back West because “after Gatsby’s death the East was haunted for [him]” (Fitzgerald 176). Through Nick, Fitzgerald subtly reveals the lingering consequences of spectatorship and over-identification. Joss Lutz Marsh writes:

To evoke the movie ethos and star model in his novel was to dramatize a problem Fitzgerald worried at throughout his career - modern man's removal from his direct experience into a half- world of dangerous dreams; the deadening of sensation and perception, and the fracturing of relationships, that is fostered by indulgence in such vicarious emotion as that, pre-eminently, which the movies offer their audiences. (102)

Nick perceptively diagnoses Gatsby with holding too tightly to the “colossal vitality of his illusion,” but Nick fails to cure himself of the same disease (Fitzgerald 95). Just as Gatsby attaches his dreams to Daisy, Nick projects his grand imagination onto Gatsby, “throw[ing] himself into it with a creative passion” (95). Gatsby’s death proves Gatsby was made for a larger-than-life, celluloid world, and Nick similarly struggles to live confined within the mortal one. As Marsh alludes, the traits which lead Nick to fixate on Gatsby also disrupt his ability to enjoy authentic human connection. Throughout the novel, we see Nick isolate himself. His relationship with Jordan seems to have little emotional depth or genuine closeness. While Nick is tight-lipped on his past, we know Nick left Chicago because he refused to be pressured to propose to his girlfriend, and he only mentions in passing his “short affair with a girl who worked in the accounting department” (56). For all his romanticism, actual intimacy evades Nick.

And yet, there are moments when Nick breaks free of his fetishizing gaze as spectator. His idealism flickers, undercutting Gatsby’s apparent stardom. Nick’s assessment upon first meeting Gatsby reveals the periodic ambivalence that makes him such an interesting and perceptive narrator.

He smiled understandingly--much more than understandingly. 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 eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you 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. Precisely at that point it vanished—and I was looking at an elegant young roughneck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. (48)

It is in moments like these where we see Nick shrink the fabled Gatsby back down to size. While Nick is the camera through which we enter Gatsby’s world, he seems uncertain what genre he is recording. Part-romance, part-film noir, Nick’s conflicted narrative style deconstructs itself. He builds up illusion then lets it fade away; “My first impression, that [Gatsby] was a person of some undefined consequence, had gradually faded and he had become simply the proprietor of an elaborate road-house next door” (64). Scholar Laura Barret analyzes his duality, writing, “Nick is more interested in representing truth than realism, and his schizophrenic narrative which hovers between and ultimately conflates reality and illusion, is the vexing attempt to record a reality more real than reality. Nick is torn between two types of vision and expression: straightforward reporting of a specific moment and space versus a romanticized account of a universal, timeless image” (546). If we look at the cinematography of Nick’s storytelling, who as narrator decides what we get to see, the “camera” shifts between point-of-view shots from Nick’s perspective and angles which pull back to reveal a more complete picture. He alternates between depicting Gatsby as the knight in shining armor of an overblown fairy tale and painting Gatsby as a tragic hero, trapped in the past and deluded by the “promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing” (Fitzgerald 99).

Through Nick’s vacillation, Fitzgerald points to a broader truth about our relationship to cinema, poignantly highlighting our intense desire to idealize “star” figures and pin our dreams on the silver screen. But glamour, sparkle, and shine all distort our vision, distracting us from the hollowness of unrealizable fantasy. Quietly, subtly, Fitzgerald ushers us off the set and out of the theater, hoping to save us from the miserable fate of Myrtle, Gatsby, and Nick. For Fitzgerald, living through an era saturated with glamorous movie stars and glossy advertisements, his message cuts deep. The plethora of cinematic influences in Gatsby—including celebrity gossip magazines, photography, costumes, gesturing, the cult of the “star,” and spectatorship—reveals the shallowness beneath the glitter, the idealism that romantically disguises the artificiality and emptiness which no amount of dreaming can make real.

[1] Here I borrow Laura Mulvey’s phrase from her highly influential essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” as she describes spectators’ scopophilic instinct, or the pleasure experienced when looking at another person as an erotic object. Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen, vol. 16, no. 3, Oct. 1975, pp. 6-18.

Works Cited

Barrett, Laura. "'Material without Being Real': Photography and the End of Reality in The Great Gatsby." Studies in the Novel, vol. 30, no. 4, Winter 1998, pp. 540-57. ProQuest Central. Accessed 9 Dec. 2017.

Dixon, Wheeler Winston. The Cinematic Vision of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ann Arbor, UMI Research Press, 1986. Studies in Modern Literature 62.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. 1925. Scribner, 2004.

Kan, Leslie. "Spectacle." Theories of Media: Keywords Glossary, U of Chicago, Accessed 10 Dec. 2017.

Marsh, Joss Lutz. "Fitzgerald, Gatsby, and The Last Tycoon: The 'American Dream' and the Hollywood Dream Factory." Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 1, 1992, pp. 3-13. JSTOR. Accessed 9 Dec. 2017.

---. "Fitzgerald, Gatsby, and The Last Tycoon: The 'American Dream' and the Hollywood Dream Factory-Part Two." Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 2, 1992, pp. 102-08. JSTOR. Accessed 9 Dec. 2017. 

McCormick, Paul Douglas. American Cinematic Novels and Their Media Environments, 1925–2000. 2012. The Ohio State University, PhD dissertation. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. Accessed 9 Dec. 2017.