Adaptation, Challenges, Fiction

Page to Screen: The Great Gatsby

Cover image for The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald Novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Film directed by Baz Luhrmann

ISBN 978-0-7432-7356-5

Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”

Nick Carraway arrives in booming 1920s New York, looking to make his way selling bonds in the finance sector. His only acquaintance there is his cousin, Daisy, who is married to a rich, philandering polo player named Tom Buchanan. Nick rents a small house in an otherwise wealthy neighbourhood, next door the mysterious Mr. Gatsby, who throws large, opulent parties every weekend at which he is never seen. Rumours abound about Gatsby’s past, and how he made his money, but no one seems to know the truth. Unexpectedly, Gatsby reaches out and befriends Nick, revealing bits of his story as a self-made millionaire who built his fortune in pursuit of a beautiful young woman he loved before the war, but who married another, wealthier man instead. The young woman is, of course, Nick’s cousin, Daisy, and soon he finds himself chaperoning a heated emotional affair that is bound to end in disaster.

booktomovieNick himself is a largely hollow character, the vessel for the story, but not much of an active player in the plot. His role is to convey the events he observed, which would be coloured too much with one perspective or another if Daisy, Tom, or Gatsby were to be cast as the point-of-view character. Nick is connected to, and in some ways, culpable for, the events of the The Great Gatsby, but mostly he is a pawn in Fitzgerald’s game. In his film adaptation, Baz Luhrmann attempts to add some depth to the character in his frame narrative, implying that the fallout from events which he facilitated had a destructive affect on the course of Nick’s life.

The passage of time has given Fitzgerald’s narrative a weight it could not have had when it was first published in 1925. Our knowledge of the coming stock market crash dampens our view of Nick’s hope for a successful future in finance, just as our knowledge of the coming of the Nazi’s eugenic agenda paints Tom with a darker brush than Fitzgerald might have intended. Fitzgerald likely intended merely to make Tom look slightly ridiculous, a pseudoscientific poseur, but his discourses on eugenics take on more sinister aspect post-World War II.  In retrospect, these details add a dark tone to the book—a sense of inevitable doom—that is the product purely of the reader’s knowledge of history.

The Great Gatsby is the rare book that is short enough to be made into a film without sacrificing much of the source material, and Luhrmann does indeed hue to it quite closely. Unfortunately, what feels short as a book can seem to drag endlessly when adapted almost word-for-word, proof positive that a faithful adaptation is no guarantee of a successful film. Well-cast and well-performed as it is (Di Caprio’s endless reiterations of “old sport” notwithstanding), the actors rarely shine brightly enough to relieve the tedium. Luhrmann’s excesses and additions are largely visual and musical in nature; as usual, it is visually sumptuous to the point of exaggeration. Always one for deliberate anachronistic details, in The Great Gatsby, it is Luhrmann’s choice of music that is grossly out of place, swapping the era’s jazz music for modern rap tracks. Yet neither a great cast, nor a visual extravaganza can save this film from itself.

6 thoughts on “Page to Screen: The Great Gatsby”

  1. Wow, what a great analysis of the classic! I like your attention to the historical context of the book a lot 🙂 It’s a shame that staying true to the book wasn’t enough to make for an interesting movie.

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