Since its publication in 1925 The Great Gatsby has enticed and fascinated readers throughout the globe. The tale of the reclusive Jay Gatsby’s affair with the beautiful Daisy Buchanan in 1920’s New York is one of the most endearing books ever written. Coming in at just under 150 pages The Great Gatsby incorporates many characters, emotions and ideas, without it ever feeling chaotic or clumsy. Surely then, Gatsby transition to the moving image should have been easy. Yet, much like the man, Gatsby has had a troubled and imperfect time on our screens.
To date five versions of The Great Gatsby have been filmed. The earliest were in 1926 and 1949 with Warner Baxter and Alan Ladd playing the protagonist. It wasn’t until 1974 that Gatsby actually became a talking point and, dare we say, an icon.
So far, Robert Redford is the one Gatsby that is fondly remembered. He played the role with as much secrecy as he did warmth. It could be argued that Jay Gatsby isn’t that hard a role to play. There isn’t too much dialogue to his character and his myth is built around his luxuries and wealth. Yet in the hands of an actor as capable as Redford, he becomes a multi-layered and complex individual with countless traumas to his name. Such was the strength of Redford’s performance that the other cast members put in equally exquisite roles. Bruce Dern as Tom Buchanan is as stern and as vile as his book counterpart. Sam Waterston, who arguably has the hardest role as the story’s narrator Nick Carraway, is wonderfully intuitive and honest. He almost gives the character a timeless voice that perfectly transcends the age. The films pivotal couple, George and Myrtle Wilson, are given a wild and unhinged edge thanks to Scott Wilson and Karen Black. Perhaps one role that is completely misunderstood is Mia Farrow’s take on Daisy Buchanan. It’s a hysterical performance that seems so out of place and unrealistic. Until you read the book that is. Farrow’s interpretation of Daisy is so in tone with Fitzgerald’s writing that when reading the novel you cant help but hear Farrow’s shrill voice echo through the pages. You could say its pitch perfect.
With this in mind you would think that the 1974 Gatsby would be considered a masterpiece, yet there is something not quite right about it. Yes, the performances are great, the sets are stunning and the wardrobe is quite magnificent. So magnificent in fact, that it actually started a fashion trend which saw the film become a spectacle just for its clothes. It donned the cover of several high-end clothing magazines and even saw pop stars imitate the style. Why then does the film feel ever so empty? Perhaps it was the poetry or the beauty of Fitzgerald’s word but Jack Clayton’s film fails to capture the magic of the book. It’s hard to put a finger on why it doesn’t quite work but perhaps the ambition of the novel is just too hard to transfer to film. To quote the book’s serial gossip Jordan Baker “it’s all a bit too polite”.
Even though it is only a short novel, the book encompasses so many different characters and ideologies, that to give them an adequate amount of screen time and respect would result in the film running to nearly 3 or 4 hours. Clayton’s version came in at two and a half hours and the newest version has clocked in at roughly the same length. Will this new adaptation succeed where others have failed? Well the early signs are good.
Firstly, Baz Luhrmann is the director. If anyone understands the dark side of glitz and glamour it’s Luhrmann. Having made a career of turning trash into art, Luhrmann is the perfect director. Think of all his previous films. Strictly Ballroom had a sleazy, tacky sheen to it but under the surface was a tale of a tortured individual who refused to conform and suffered because of it. The highly successful Moulin Rouge was another case of showing how riches and entertainment weren’t all they were cracked up to be. The bizarre choice of songs by Nirvana and Kiss in a musical, combined with startling effects, created a world only the movies could provide. Nobody has dared to make a musical like it since. Luhrmann is also no stranger to adaptations. His 1996 take on Romeo & Juliet may be one of the most controversial versions of Shakespeare ever. Setting it in modern day Verona, the characters spoke in the same Shakespearian language as the text and instead of swords and horses, the feuding families toted guns from their convertibles. Many different techniques are used throughout the film and it resulted in dividing opinions. Regardless of personal opinion, it was hard to disagree that this was a fresh and inventive way of telling an old story.
Judging from The Great Gatsby’s trailer it looks like Luhrmann may have done the same here. It’s a lavish and colourful set, that’s highly superficial in places. The colours gleam at you like the Blackpool illuminations. Luhrmann seems to have captured the alluring, wild nature of Gatsby’s parties. One of the largest things missing from Clayton’s film was the radiance of the parties that occurred in the book. Fitzgerald makes them sound like the wildest events this side of a Hunter S. Thompson trip to Las Vegas. Apart from a few people jumping in a fountain, the 1974 Gatsby parties looked like terribly dull affairs. Of course, this isn’t the essence of the story but Luhrmann has already made it look like a visual feast that just has to be seen. The added use of 3D will only further immerse the audience in the splendour of these occasions. The cast remains to be seen. Carrey Mulligan is usually better suited to much quieter and reserved roles, so for her to play Daisy could indicate a new take on the character or new direction for Mulligan’s career. Tobey Macguire is a potentially great pick as Nick. Like the character, he has an awkward charm but is also great at narration, as we saw in Spider-Man. The one masterstroke here could be Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby. If you think of the characters DiCaprio has played throughout his career they are almost always eccentric, unique but ultimately lonely individuals. Django Unchained, The Aviator, Inception and even Romeo & Juliet all saw DiCaprio play conflicted men toiling with their inner desires. Gatsby has all those characteristics and more. If there are any doubts about this film, DiCaprio as its lead shouldn’t be one of them.
Whether Lurhmann’s version is a success or not, the one thing that will remain is that The Great Gatsby will always be a mystery. How can such a short novel cause so many problems? Is it capturing the language of the time? The Jazz Age was full of unique dialogues and phrases. Interpreting that to screen has proved problematic in the past (The 1974 version saw the original script completely scrapped after allegations of plagiarism). Another issue could be understanding the context of the setting. Post World War I America was a prosperous and opportunistic place. Industry was ripe and money wasn’t the anomaly it is today. Whilst The Great Gatsby revels in the hedonism of the times, the story is full of darkness and failed pursuits. For a director, it must be a hell of challenge to balance both aspects accordingly without it falling over to one side or the other. And finally, trying to stay true majesty of such a book is always going to be difficult. F Scott Fitzgerald wrote with the elegance and vibrancy that was incredibly ahead of its time. Much like Watchmen or On the Road, the ambition of these stories can never fully be realised on film. It’s possible to acquire small snippets but a film will have to be truly exceptional to blend everything that appears in such literacy works.
If anything the opening lines of the novel is the exact opposite to what’s happened to The Great Gatsby films:
‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had’. Directors have had the advantage of working from one of the greatest books ever written. Such is the greatness of this book though, that nobody has ever really made a great film out of it. Baz Lurhmann, the green light at the end of the bay is beckoning you.