Hollywood Has the Questions, PSU Has the Answers

It is not unusual for Penn State faculty to be experts in their fields. It is unusual for their expertise to spawn a Hollywood connection, but that’s what happened when Baz Luhrmann, director of the upcoming blockbuster The Great Gatsby, needed help confirming some of the historical accuracies in the film.

Baz had the questions, and Penn State’s own James L. W. West III had the answers. West — an Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of English — is an expert on all things Fitzgerald. It only made sense that when questions arose, the movie’s producers turned to him. “When they were shooting in Australia last year, I received an email from one of the producers,” he said. “It pleased me a great deal that they had done that kind of research and found the Cambridge Edition of Fitzgerald’s work and were curious enough to get in contact with me,” said West.

That producer put him in touch with Baz Luhrmann and, through email correspondence, West was able to flex his Fitzgerald brain muscles.

“Some of the questions were about history. I mentioned that in the Huffington Post piece. They were curious about what car Gatsby was driving. What is the big yellow car that runs down Myrtle? Well, it’s a Duesenburg! The brand name is not mentioned in the novel, but the description is certainly of a Duesenburg,” said West.

The intricate nature of questions about historical accuracy might seem like a headache to figure out, but West isn’t an expert for nothing. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years. I kind of had it all in my head,” he said.

A more important influence that he has on the film might be the influence of Trimalchio, an early, scrapped version of The Great Gatsby, of which West has edited an edition. “The Great Gatsby is the better book. There is no question, but Trimachio is not bad,” said West.

It didn’t matter what the better book was, Trimalchio helped the cast get a feel for Fitzgerald’s own ideas for his characters and, apparently, the cast embraced the different approach.

“The cast had copies of it and they read it, as did Baz Luhrmann. I’m really pleased at the attention that he has given to Trimalchio. He has told me that Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Gatsby is influenced by his reading of Trimalchio,” said West. This should create an interesting spin on the character. According to West, the Gatsby of Trimalchio is very different: “He is darker, more mysterious, more violent.”

Though this rough persona might not fit with how you had imagined Gatsby in your high school English class, West is hoping that these new interpretations will bring the film to life — something that the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby failed to do.

“Cinema is a different medium. To translate a work of literature successfully into film, it requires a certain amount of daring or willingness to think of the story visually. I am encouraged that these new interpreters are willing to try something different,” said West.

Next on the list for West: actually seeing the movie. He’s doing it in style at the May 1 premiere in Manhattan. “My wife already has her dress, so I have to rent a tux,” he said. Having been to several black tie premieres in the past, he’s prepared for how to act in case he ends up brushing shoulders with the stars. “I think I’ll know how to behave.”

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Mitchell Wilston

I apologize in advance.

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