1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald 1974 film by Jack Clayton 2013 film by Baz Luhrmann
There have been four theatrical film adaptations of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” the earliest of which was made in 1926, only a year after the manuscript was completed (and which is now lost). Other than the latest version by Baz Luhrmann, the only version easily found for comparison purposes is Jack Clayton’s 1974 film, with a screenplay adapted by Francis Ford Coppola.
In anticipation of the press screening of Luhrmann’s film, I downloaded and re-read the novel in the break between last Sunday’s East Coast feed of “Game of Thrones” and the West Coast feed of “Mad Men.” That timing is significant, because Clayton’s film is 144 minutes long, Luhrmann’s is 143 minutes long, and the book can be read in the same amount of time – so watching a film version may make some lazy students of English happy, but it won’t save them much time. I also re-watched the 1974 film.
It’s a short novel to begin with, with only approximately 200 pages organized into 9 chapters, which would make for a fairly simple screenplay adaptation if length was the only issue. However, the story in the novel is being told to the reader by Nick Carraway, who is essentially Fitzgerald’s proxy, who describes in great detail the lives of material excess enjoyed by wealthy residents of Long Island, NY in 1922.
Carraway is a young man from the Midwest who has decided to try his luck as a bond trader in New York. He rents a small cottage in the up and coming “new money” town of West Egg (Fitzgerald’s substitute for Great Neck, NY) and he has a cousin, Daisy, who married into “old money” and who lives with her inattentive husband Tom Buchanan in tonier East Egg (Manhasset, NY) across the bay. As luck would have it, his cottage sits next to the vast mansion and estate of the mysterious Jay Gatsby, a man with a murky past and a strong interest in Daisy.
In a sense, it’s a somewhat delayed coming of age novel but it’s one that would result in a significant amount of voice-over narration (by Carraway) if it was filmed directly from the novel – and that becomes one of the primary difficulties in adapting it for the screen.
In the 1974 Coppola adaptation, this is addressed by taking many of the scenes that Carraway describes in the novel, some of which have previously been described to him by other characters, and simply lets the viewer watch them unfold directly. But it goes further than that by expanding on others, such as a series of romantic encounters shot with enough backlighting and four-point starburst effects for a dozen contemporary Harmony Hairspray commercials (“Is she, or isn’t she…?”). These aren’t just stylistic issues, as these are events and developments that Carraway, our witness and storyteller, couldn’t have seen.
In Lurhmann’s 2013 film, he and co-screenwriter Craig Pearce create a completely fabricated device that attempts to make the Carraway narration work without simply having it be disembodied voice-over. They do this by having Carraway write the story under the supervision of a doctor, during a later stay in an institution. The problem now being that, while it somehow justifies the idea of Carraway telling us the story after the fact, it also inherently changes that character and attributes health issues to him that aren’t in the novel.
The other most obvious difference between the two films is their general style and tone. Clayton’s film is slow and deliberate, with a soundtrack that occasionally borders on what one might expect in the horror genre, but it attempts to accurately capture the period in terms of popular music and wardrobe choices. Luhrmann’s film is an eye-candy montage of excess, with everything shown bigger and better and faster, and with a blend of music that’s packaged for independent sale and somewhat more suited to a rave than a party with a ‘Roaring 20’s’ theme. For example, in the new film, any scene that involves driving a car is like a live action version of “Speed Racer” – and it drops accurate depictions of details from the novel (types of cars and dogs, for example) whenever something cuter or glitzier is possible.
I’m not opposed to what Luhrmann was trying to accomplish here – it’s fun and loud and bold. But it’s also an over the top depiction of a time and place that was already over the top. Indeed, much of Fitzgerald’s descriptions are intended to convey the excesses he himself witnessed in that time and place. And while it’s calmer and more staid, the 1974 film gives a clear impression of wealth and the yawning gulf of socio-economic distances. From a narrative perspective, we’re told that the outrageous parties Gatsby throws are largely an attempt to lure Daisy – and Daisy seems more likely to find her way to one of the 1974 parties than one of the 2013 parties. Luhrmann’s film is like “Downton Abbey” as if shot to be a spring break special for MTV.
That said, there are also some remarkable similarities, with the new film at times feeling more like an adaptation of the earlier film than as an independent adaptation of the book. Chief amongst these similarities is the depiction of the area between the ritzy Long Island communities and Manhattan – the area around Wilson’s Garage, where the road and the train tracks come together in an almost post-apocalyptic environment, born by the consumption around it.
Despite being a short novel, as described earlier, the films both jettison material in pursuit of other goals. The romance in the 1974 film and the partying in the 2013 film both result in other storylines and characters being lost. The earlier film limits a separate romance between Carraway and Daisy’s professional golfer friend Jordan Baker and the newer film essentially ignores that story altogether, with both outcomes shifting the story away from Carraway (who spends much of that summer in the book away from the other characters) and more towards Gatsby. The 1974 film loses much of Gatsby’s backstory, including a mentor that shaped his future life and persona, and the 2013 film drops most of the last chapter of the book, including the appearance of Gatsby’s father, truncating much of the end of the story.
If I could wave a magic film wand, I’d probably attempt a mashup of some kind between the two projects – perhaps the period style and visual elements of the earlier film, with the cast and exuberance of the new film. There are some odd comparisons between the two films that are, at times, counter-intuitive. For example, the 1974 film has a more mature tone to it, and Robert Redford as Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy seem older than the characters in the book – Coppola even moved the story forward slightly by saying that eight years had passed since earlier events in the story, rather than five. The new film has a much younger air to it, with Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby and Carey Mulligan as Daisy – but DiCaprio is actually older than Redford was in 1974, which is coincidentally the year that DiCaprio was born. Mulligan seems a closer fit, agewise, to Daisy than the slightly older Farrow and Sam Waterstone as 1974’s Nick Carraway has a fresher feel to him than an older Tobey Maguire in the same role in the 2013 film. Bruce Dern played an appropriately mean-spirited Tom Buchanan in 1974, but Joel Edgerton has more of the novel’s description of Tom’s physicality in the new film. And, in perhaps the oddest piece of cast trivia, Daisy’s (Mia Farrow) young daughter is played (briefly) by Patsy Kensit in the 1974 film, and Kensit later played Mia Farrow in a television movie about Farrow’s own ill-fated love life.
There’s a stability and pacing in the earlier film that borders on the ponderous (if you watch it, go and make a sandwich as the opening title sequence plays itself out ad nauseum) – compared to a frenetic energy and visual abundance in the new film that’s made even more profound by the availability of 3D screenings. The new film is like an uneven patchwork of heavy-handedness and deft accuracy. On the one hand, we’re given a short Tom Buchanan speech on white supremacy while he’s closely surrounded by black servants (the servants are white in the 1974 film), on the other we’re given a Gatsby mansion styled closely on photographs of the houses thought to have been visited by Fitzgerald that inspired the descriptions in the novel. The new film also appears to change the ethnicity of another key character, shows a pivotal scene in great detail despite it not being witnessed by Carraway, and has a secondary character seemingly mispronounce Kaiser Wilhelm’s name (despite it being DiCaprio’s own middle name). And, on the topic of pronunciation, DiCaprio’s delivers Gatsby signature phrase “old sport” to rhyme with “Colbert Report” in a manner that simply grows tedious over time.
All of which leads me to say that I’m glad I watched the new film, and I even enjoyed watching it on the level of eye candy and as a visual exercise, but I don’t especially like it as an adaptation. It transforms the Nick Carraway character and drops too much of the original story to be considered an accurate telling of the story. The 1974 film also drops some of the details, but to a lesser extent, but it’s also a flatter version of the story. Watching both films and re-reading the book, all within a week, primarily caused me to appreciate the book more – it’s a short story told in a manner that simply works better on the page, where narration works perfectly, than on the screen. Perhaps re-reading the book is a mistake if one simply wants to enjoy either film.
That’s not to say it can’t be adapted well, and there at least two adaptations that are either lost or hard to find and another television movie that I haven’t seen, but these two adaptations each lose something in the translation. It’s material I’d still like to see others have a go at – I could imagine, for example, Sofia Coppola creating a film that might exist somewhere in the middle of what we’ve seen so far, with perhaps a better balance of elements. I’d certainly enjoy watching her, or others, try.