The Great Gatsby: The Challenge of Adapting a Classic Novel to Film

The Great Gatsby

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.

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Rosanne spends her free time hanging out with her husband, constantly searching for films that are exciting, evocative, enriching, or emotional. She also likes alliteration.

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  1. Behringer

    I believe in Luhrmann and can not see him making a mess out of this like some of those other versions. Romeo + Juliet is very good!

  2. I’m not an American, so I didn’t have to read Gatsby – I wanted to. And I loved it.

    I’m not one to complain about novel adaptations – I don’t care if the actors (both Leo and Tobey) do not match my view of the characters, but this will definitely not be able to capture the same presence as Fitzgerald’s novel.

    • Rosanne

      I think that’s probably the best attitude to have for film adaptations – judging the film & performances on their own merits, without expecting to exactly relive the reading experience.

    • Tigey

      I’m an American who didn’t have to read Gatsby and I loved it, too. The universal is that the rich can get away with murder.

  3. The cast: my God. The 1974 film adaptation wasn’t exactly the best movie made for the classic, but at least the actors possessed some qualities attributed to the characters. Robert Redford was handsome, charming, graceful, and subdued, and easily the face that comes to mind when reading the book. I just can’t picture DiCaprio for the part, he’s too rugged to be a convincing Gatsby. And Cary Mulligan…

    • From the trailer only I think Leo will be a better Gatsby. He also has wider range of emotion than Redford (at least Redford in the Gatsby movie).

  4. Was just made aware of this film and I’m all hyped up! Lovely post.

  5. juvenile

    It makes no sense to me that this movie is going to be in 3D. Why! Really, no point.

    • Rosanne

      While the story doesn’t jump out as an obvious choice for 3D, I can see the reasoning behind trying it on a Luhrmann film as his style has always been grabbing. In all honesty, though, I rarely see the point to 3D at all – outside of family films or Avatar. Even though the option’s there, I generally opt for the normal format, and expect I’ll do that with Gatsby.

  6. Taylor Ramsey

    As much as I love this cast, I’m afraid to watch this film. I am not a Luhrmann fan. I dont place him in the Joel Schumacher level of film butchery, but my experiences with his films as been marginal at best.

    • Rosanne

      I’ve always been a big fan of his films (besides Australia which was okay), but I know quite a few that don’t share that sentiment. From what I’ve seen this looks right in line with his typical form.

    • Tigey

      Oliver Stone vs. Schumaker. Who wins?

  7. Scribner, publisher of Fitzgerald tweeted about this article and brought me here:

    And I’m very pleased that they did because this was a very interesting read. I’m intrigued to see the outcome of this adaptation.

  8. Mattias Loránd

    While I did thoroughly enjoy to read this article BUT I do not have any positive hopes for this production. I will however keep an open mind and not go ballistic until it is out.

  9. Nick Bailey

    Well, now looking back on it, it seems like Baz failed to do what you suggest.

  10. Jordan David

    People talk about it all the time, but how exactly does a movie adaptation “surpass” or be “better than” a book? They are two different mediums which have their respective rules of writing. Movies are a more restricted art of story telling in that it’s only one person’s vision. Books are so open to interpretation that no two people will have the same vision, so of course it is going to disappoint. Looking back, I was pleasantly surprised with how much I took away, in terms of this story’s morals. Hopefully one day people will be more open to other people’s interpretations.

    • Rosanne

      Very well thought out point. I do believe it’s possible for movies to surpass their source material, though it’s very rare. While your right in the different limitations of perspective, some films, in my opinion, manage to have a greater resonance with viewers than the original books can achieve with readers. Wizard of Oz is perfect example.

  11. Payal Marathe

    You managed to put all of the thoughts I have about The Great Gatsby and its film renditions, which I was never able to successfully articulate, into a clear, cohesive post. I totally agree with needing to embellish what’s in the book in order to truly convey the splendor and corruption of the time period, and I thought the latest movie version was a successful adaptation of the themes present in the original novel.
    I was particularly impressed by the casting – I think every actor and actresses fit their role perfectly, especially Carey Mulligan as Daisy and Tobey Maguire as Nick.

  12. I’ve recently watched The Great Gatsby however I have not read the novel and thus I had no prior awareness of the storyline. I found the film very engaging in terms of the visual detail and tones used throughout. I came away from the film feeling saddened but also slightly mesmerised by what I thought was a visually beautiful film. I now intend to read the novel The Great Gatsby and loose myself again.

  13. I recently taught Gatsby to a group of 15 year olds, and after reading, they were actually taken aback by how good the casting was for the film. Dicaprio is a no brainer, but casting Maguire as Nick was a great choice. He is a perfect narrator, a cross between a nostalgic memoir and a film noir voiceover that never seems out of place.

    A problem with a lot of adaptations of Gatsby, in my view, is Daisy. She is a polarising character; if Luhrmann made her too likeable it wouldn’t be close to the source material, but if he made her too vapid, viewers won’t understand why Gatsby has his obsession.

  14. Joe C

    Having very recently studied The Great Gatsby, watching this adaptation was a conflicted experience. On the one hand, it works adequately as a film in its own right; stunning visuals, great actors (all perfect in their respective roles), and an engaging story.

    On the other, I felt as though some aspects of the novel had simply been shoe-horned in; superficial attempts to placate those of us who might otherwise deem it vacuous in comparison to its source material. The dialogue written specifically for the film felt positively awkward at some points, contrasted against the original utterances of Fitzgerald’s measured characters.

    I think the real problem is this: I can’t unread the book. Had I approached this without any prior knowledge I think I would have enjoyed it more, though perhaps understood less. Luhrmann should have concentrated on making the film, not making the film of the book. The story can carry itself, and actually lends itself quite well to this kind of adaptation, and that’s what he should have focused on (in my opinion). By trying to please everyone he has created an very divisive film.

    • Tom Beasley

      Absolutely! The film is fastidiously faithful to the original novel, but tries to also be entertaining to a wide audience. This means we get the story from the book, but NOT the nuance and subtlety.

  15. Tom Beasley

    What should have been this film’s greatest quality was in fact also its worst. Baz Luhrmann’s eye for a vivid, stylish directorial style really makes the 1920s pop and the parties really work. Unfortunately, this ensures that all of the nuance of the book is buried under confetti.

  16. J. Bryan Jones

    Now that it’s come out, what do you think?

    • Rosanne

      I really enjoyed the film experience, and think that it is a great interpretation for our time. Like others have posted, the casting is very easy to appreciate; but there are also some points that hold it back. There’s a lot of dazzlement to sift through! I personally, enjoy Luhrmann’s over-the-top, romantic style.

  17. Michelle Webb

    I watched the Leo as Gatsby last night for the first time, and your article couldn’t have discussed the topic any better.

    A great read, thank you!

  18. Kelsey Clark

    I loved this movie! However I was a rare person who saw this movie before reading the book. This may have affected my opinion, but I thought it was wonderfully done and beautifully shot. Baz Luhrman is a great director and he was a perfect choice for this film.

  19. Jacob Rafferty

    As someone who is Gatsby mad, for me the film was good, but not quite great. I thought that Lurhman did a brilliant job in certain areas – framing the film with a narrative between Nick and his therapist in order to allow for narration, for example – though felt that there was still something missing. The frame narrative of the therapist also allowed Gatsby nerds to notice that the institution that Carraway was going to was called ‘Perkin’s’, a subtle nod to Fitzgerald’s editor, Maxwell Perkins. Details like that made the film throughly enjoyable, though not a touch on the novel (obviously!).

  20. Ivy Decker

    I think in terms of only itself, the movie was cohesive and very exciting to watch. There weren’t many details missing, with enough content to please those who loves Gatsby before the movie. I understood the choice to present some literary interpretations in such an outright manner, for those who haven’t read the novel, but I feel like the film could have carried itself effectively without them.

  21. Samar Ziadat

    I thought the new Gatsby adaptation was great – the soundtrack was even better! – I agree with you, the straight paper to screen approach lends films a very boring ‘not as good as the novel’ atmosphere (how technical of me!) – and the soundtrack to the new film is just one aspect that brings the world of Gatsby into the 21st century, making it an personal adaptation rather than simply a transfer of creative form produced in a cultural vacuum!

  22. Andy Cashmore

    As someone who hasn’t read the book I really enjoyed the film. I couldn’t possibly comment on how well adapted it was but I thought the balance of story and incredible CGI effects was spot on, preventing one or the other from becoming too tedious. Luhrmann got it right for me.

    Well written article, I read that last line in DiCaprio’s voice!

  23. Intriguing article Rosanna. My theory about book to film adaptations is that they should capture the spirit but not the letter of their source material; as long as the spiritual connection between the two works is the same, I think a lot of things from a book can be transformed when making a film. After all, literature and films are separate mediums, and so each should play to their own strengths. I understand ‘The Shining’ differs pretty noticeably with Stephen King’s story, but I think that film works as a film in its own right, it exploits the advantages of the medium of film and I expect it leaves those things out from the book which simply wouldn’t translate well to the screen. If I were to read the book I imagine I would probably get a similar, but not identical, experience, and that’s the way it should be I think. With Gatsby, I thought the film was, on the whole, a disappointment and that they stuck way too close to the book. The story is about human feelings and experiences to me, and the Jazz Age stuff is important to that, but not necessarily compulsory; we still have similar struggles with materialism, greed and wealth today in the free market world we live in. I would have been interested to see a Gatsby set in the modern day; I think it could have worked. DiCaprio definitely delivered as Gatsby in Luhrmann’s version, though.

    Anyway, good article!

  24. It relies on the director’s understanding of the material. The biggest problem with The Great Gatsby (2013) is that Baz Luhrmann places too much emphasis on style and flair. The all-important themes are then lost in a wave of bright colour, and impatient and zany characters.

  25. I very much agree with you: a novel as classic and well-loved as The Great Gatsby will always be nearly impossible to accurately portray on the big screen. Each reader has his or her very clear idea of what each character is like, what each scene looks like, etc. and because it is such a widely read and discussed novel, it wouldn’t translate well to screen. Not to mention, much of Fitzgerald’s appeal (at least for me) is the beautiful way in which he writes. His prose is stunning, and this is something that does not translate to film.

  26. For whatever reason, the Great Gatsby has been difficult to adapt into a film and the lack of historical context seems to be the reason why. Which definitely would explain a major reason for the success of the oldest of the extant films (1949), as the 20s was still fresh in the minds of the creators who made it. Even by 1974, it was but a distant memory.

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