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Originally published Sunday, May 5, 2013 at 6:03 AM

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Will Baz Luhrmann's noise dampen ‘Great Gatsby’s’ joys?

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wistful novel, “The Great Gatsby,” is headed for another screen adaptation. Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald revisits the book’s melancholy beauty prior to the movie’s release.

Seattle Times movie critic

Coming up

‘The Great Gatsby’

Opens in several Seattle theaters Friday. Rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language.

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Next week, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” comes to the screen, directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. This isn’t the first time it’s been filmed — at least four other versions have been made for film or television, including a now-lost silent film from 1926 and the well-known 1974 movie starring Robert Redford. Now, a new generation of readers who’ve loved the book get to wonder: How will this wistful tale of shattered hopes and damaged lives survive adaptation? Will what we loved about the book be lost, like that long-ago time of flappers and jazz and frantic postwar gaiety?

Reading “The Great Gatsby” — as I did, for the umpteenth time, last weekend — is like listening to a sad but exquisite piece of music, one that’s over far too soon. Told through narrator Nick Carraway’s memory, during what seems like one long party in the spring and summer of 1922, it’s the story of a rich man named Gatsby who’s desperately in love with the married Daisy Buchanan — or, more precisely, in love with the memory of their brief romance five years ago, when he kissed her on a cool autumn night on a sidewalk “white with moonlight.” They reconnect, but tragedy intervenes; as Nick says, “You can’t repeat the past.”

You wonder how Fitzgerald, who by all accounts spent much of the ’20s in a haze of alcohol and hedonism, could have produced something of such shimmering beauty; a book whose every page brings jewel-like phrases, and that glows in your memory like the green light from Daisy’s dock. You ponder why “Gatsby” the novel wasn’t an immediate success, and why Fitzgerald, weary and sodden, died at 44 believing himself to be a failure and his work forgotten. You marvel at how an essentially melancholy book nonetheless is sprinkled with delightful wit; and how the sadness at the heart of “The Great Gatsby” somehow hardens into a small, gleaming pearl.

And you wonder how a brief book whose power comes from its delicate phrasings and now-familiar images can endure a transformation on-screen — how the Gatsby, Nick and Daisy of our imaginations can compare to those played by flesh-and-blood actors. It’s interesting how we develop a relationship with the characters of our favorite books; when I first read “Gatsby” as a teenager, I thought the people in the book were all quite old. Now I’m struck with how very young they are — and how, though they’ve been clear pictures in my head for decades, Fitzgerald tells us little about what they actually look like. Gatsby, in particular, is described only as “an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elegant formality of speech just missed being absurd” — we know more about what his shirts look like than his physical appearance. (Fitzgerald later said it was a flaw of the book that he didn’t describe Gatsby’s appearance — because, he said, he didn’t know what Gatsby looked like.)

At the time of this writing, I haven’t yet seen Luhrmann’s film, and am awaiting it with some excitement and some trepidation. The casting, sight unseen, feels right — “elegant young rough-neck” seems right up DiCaprio’s alley, and I’ve no doubt that the talented Carey Mulligan can deliver Daisy’s voice, so famously full of money. But will all the 3D and color and noise (Luhrmann’s style is famously love-it-or-hate-it flashy, i.e. “Moulin Rouge”), drown out Fitzgerald’s music? Will that magical mood of the novel find its way to the screen, or will it prove as elusive as Gatsby’s dreams?

Regardless, “The Great Gatsby” is immortal; the movie won’t change its grip on nearly a century of readers. Late in his too-brief life, Fitzgerald wrote a touching letter of condolence to his friends Gerald and Sara Murphy, who had suffered the unthinkable tragedy of the deaths of two sons, two years apart. He wrote as a man who knew something about pain, and about what we hold in memory:

“Who was it said that it was astounding how the deepest griefs can change in time to a sort of joy? The golden bowl is broken indeed but it was golden; nothing can ever take those boys away from you now.”

The world represented in “The Great Gatsby” — and Fitzgerald himself — too quickly shattered; but they were golden. Nothing, no matter what happens on screen, can take the book away from us now.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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