The Great Gatsby: The Challenge of Adapting a Classic Novel to Film
Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby marks the fifth film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary classic to date. The Great Gatsby can be found fairly high on just about every legitimate “Greatest Novels of All Time” list, and is probably best known nowadays as a staple of high school syllabi far-and-wide. As many high school students forced into required reading, I didn’t appreciate it near as much at the time as I probably should have. Though the closer we come to the new film’s release, the more I find myself reminiscing and appreciating the story of intrigue, romance, and tragedy. The tale earned it’s title as a Great American Novel by so perfectly encapsulating the hopes and dreams of the beautiful people of Jazz Age, while simultaneously pointing out the true emptiness and decay of those same folk who supposedly had captured what was essentially the American Dream.
I have seen two of the aforementioned adaptations so far and what I find most fascinating is how, despite being a definitive era piece of the 20’s, both films have managed to let their respective generational thinking restrict them from fully demonstrating that quality that makes the story so significant. The earliest surviving version of Gatsby is the 1949 Alan Ladd film. I’ll wager to say it’s probably the best version so far, but ’49 Gatsby is somewhat hindered by the times’ more delicate sensibilities. The actors are well-suited to the roles, but the affair is treated in a very genteel sort of way and the party scenes don’t play nearly as intoxicatingly as they ought to. Basically, the story unfolds a bit too straight-laced to fully tap into the passion of such a dramatic story, at least for a modern day audience. Many of the characters are played up a good deal more sympathetically than deserved, thereby failing to drive home the point of how society was spoiled in so many ways during the 20’s.
The 1974 Gatsby is the best known version, yet, starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Francis Ford Coppola, as the screenwriter, worked to create a very true to the source adaptation. Consequently, however, the film managed to feel slow and lacking; becoming too consumed with the details. The greatest flaw of ’74 Gatsby, though, is in the way it relied heavily upon the popular film presences of the period, with actors and creators who, while still being significant to film, were more a popular blend of the times than perhaps the best people to fill the roles that they did. The first film version made in 1926 is now a lost film, but it would certainly be interesting to see how it was handled in the time of the story’s creation. And I haven’t sat down to watch the 2000 made-for-tv version, but I can’t say I’m really tempted to try either.
It’s a fine line that must be walked when adapting a film. Fans and readers generally expect the integrity of a story to be maintained, usually above all else. It’s understandable; if a story is so widely loved, then why mess with the formula? Adhere too closely, though, and a film loses the ability to breathe or exist as its own entity. I could go through examples of movies that fell into this trapping, but it’s something we’re all familiar with. I mean, when’s the last time you walked out of the theater and said to your companions (or yourself- if you’re the solitary movie going sort), “Wow, that was so much better than the book!”? It doesn’t really happen. There are exceptions, of course, but it’s a tall order to expect a film to convey in only 2-3 hours all the nuanced details and deep character insights that we can patiently relish in reading. Ultimately, it comes down to the director’s willingness and ability to create a world that isn’t just accurate, but greater than what we ourselves could have imagined.
Luhrmann is one of those directors who, love him or hate him, his films are easily recognizable. With snappy editing, vibrant color schemes, and a penchant for quirky camera swoops and closeups, his style’s hard to miss. The current feature trailer for Gatsby indicates that the filmmaker’s signature lavish direction will certainly be on full display, and it’s an appealing trailer to be sure. The party scenes alone are guaranteed to be pure eye candy. How can we expect his unique vision to play out, though, in reference to a story that has yet to be given an adaption that has fully captured its intended spirit? Luhrmann currently has four feature length films under his belt to go by: Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge! – collectively dubbed The Red Curtain Trilogy, and Australia. Within the trilogy a very specific synchronicity can be ascertained of the director’s tell-tale traits. He cites his influences largely to be Bollywood and the Bard; and as such, his films’ narrative structures, which simultaneously adhere with both rigor and flippancy, begin with absurd humor – borderline idiocy – and evolve into sincere sentiment, whether joy or tragedy depends on the film. The man understands how to engage an audience through the full range of emotions. I’m curious to see if this structure will be employed again. I imagine some absurd humor will fit well early on in the story with the adulterous Myrtle Wilson, played by Isla Fisher. Perhaps also with Nick Carraway’s (Tobey Maguire) initial introduction to Jay Gatsby’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) excessive world of parties and luxury.
So what will it take to create the best possible adaptation of The Great Gatsby? With a classic narrative that’s so ingrained in our collective subconscious I think it is highly unlikely that any film could ever truly surpass the book. The previous Gatsbys have proven that the straight-forward paper to screen adaptation doesn’t quite cut it, and even if it did, the method’s been done. The best possible Gatsby has to really transport the viewers back to that optimistic, yet spoiled, sentiment of the 20’s, it has to bridge the gap to today’s audience more than 90 years down the line. Take artistic liberties, as long as they work toward the goal of bridging those decades or towards rekindling the passion that exists within this story. This is really were I have faith in Luhrmann; he took Romeo + Juliet, which has been acted, filmed, and reimagined innumerable times, left the dialogue and events perfectly in tact, and still made it feel completely original and surprising. The gap between the time period is flawlessly bridged; well almost, calling the guns “swords” is always going to make me snicker. All in all, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is sure to stand out from the previous adaptations, and hopefully, it will be the one to bring the hopes and enigma of Jay Gatsby to life like we’ve yet to see. And that, old sport, is something to look forward to.
What do you think? Leave a comment.